Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ernie Pyle's Story of G.I. Joe

"Ernie Pyle's 'Story of G.I.Joe'" (William A. Wellman, 1945) One of 2009's films designated to be preserved by the Library of Congress—and boy, does it need it, the current DVD displaying scratches, bad splices, and scenes truncated in the middle of dialogue—"The Story of G.I. Joe" was an uncommon war movie, especially for one produced in the middle of the conflict it portrayed, showing a less-varnished portrait of war and the soldiers fighting it. Done with the co-operation of the military and advice from an office-load of war correspondents, the film is an unglamorous, non-propagandistic look at the life of the common infantryman. In it, the grunt's are grimey, muddy, ass-scratching, spitting dog-faces, who get exhausted, make mistakes, leave behind fallen comrades, but keep slogging.

But then, it had to be.
Ernie Pyle, a Scripps-Howard correspondent covering the European theater took the tough route with his reportage, staying out of the clean briefing rooms and jumping into the fox-holes with the entrenched common soldiers. Through the course of his work, he became a beloved go-between for the soldiers and the folks back home aching for something other than the Big Picture and the Campaign—there were plenty of other Corona jockeys to do that—but on the soldiers following orders, following dirt roads, punching through entrenched enemy forces—their kids. Pyle's writing was clear-eyed, unsentimental and just discreet enough for the censors, written usually with the help of a bottle. He won the Pulitzer for his correspondent work in 1944, and had a hand in shaping the film.

And he was the one to get William "Wild Bill" Wellman to direct the film.Wellman was an inspired choice, as he was the one who insisted on the weather-beaten look of the film. But the director was a fighter pilot in World War I, and was subject to the same inter-corps squabbling of most servicemen, and had a low opinion of the infantry, only stregthened by his run-ins with a recalcitrant Army adviser on his film "Wings." And the film has several instances of "mea culpa's" from the director,* extolling the scrappy courage of the guys with boots on the ground, as opposed to the guys with their heads in the clouds.

Burgess Meredith got a deferment to play the part of Ernie Pyle—he was picked over other actors because he wasn't well known and had an odd home-spun quality and a crusty voice that could make the tough joshing resonate with warmth. Every war film has a cuddly troop mascot, but not every film has someone ask (in humor) "Haven't you eaten this dog yet?" As the Captain in charge of the men, Robert Mitchum plays his role in the manner he used to the end of his days, looking authentic and undramatic, like he shipped in with the other ringers—only a lot taller—and hadn't slept in days, born with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but still balanced on his aching feet. Or maybe it was the mud that was holding him up.

It was the only time he was nominated for an Oscar for his acting.

Pyle never saw the movie. Two weeks before the premiere,
he was killed by a sniper on Ie Island off Okinawa in the Pacific. He was still with the troops, reporting their struggles.

* Besides a couple of on-the-nose comparisons between Army and Air Force—that seem to come out of nowhere—one of the various character arcs is for an infantryman dubbed "Wingless" (played by John R. Reilly), who starts the film depressed that he was drummed out of the Air Corps but soon comes around to a respect for the common foot-soldier.

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