For all the attention the success of Saving Private Ryan has brought to WWII, little of it has been directed at earlier films that cover similar terrain, which tends to make Ryan seem a little more groundbreaking than the facts bear out. While Spielberg's film deserves acclaim for its grim depiction and grunt's-eye view of warfare, these qualities also make it part of a tradition. Vietnam may have been the first televised war, but WWII also reached a sizable audience through movies. Some films glossed over the realities of the conflict, but the widely seen newsreels and combat documentaries that played beside them helped create audiences too savvy to accept a sugarcoated conflict, occasionally leading to movies with a vision of war soldiers themselves might recognize. There's a direct line to be drawn from Ryan back to William A. Wellman's The Story Of G.I. Joe, originally released in the waning days of the war but only now seeing the light of day on video. Based on the work of Scripps-Howard war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Joe focuses on, as one character calls them, "the lugs along for the ride," following the path of a single company from Africa through Italy. In an excellent, quiet performance, Burgess Meredith plays Pyle, whose affection for the troops—including a captain played by Robert Mitchum in one of his first major roles—grows as their ranks thin. Wellman (The Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident) clearly possesses a similar fondness for his characters, but, aside from the inclusion of a scrappy dog mascot, he refuses to sentimentalize them, portraying life in the infantry as exhausting and deadly dull when not outright deadly. A tough vision of war told from ground level, Joe attempts to get the story straight by relying on those who saw it firsthand, resulting in a film nearly as revelatory now as it must have been in 1945.
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