The film The Story of G.I. Joe is an American war film starring Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum. The film was directed by William Wellman and is portrayed as a tribute to infantrymen of American military that operated during the Second World War, G.I. Joe being a typical characterization of the class of soldiers. The film draws heavily from factual narratives of the war, most notably from the dispatches of Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. The focus of the film is the 18th Infantry’s C Company is engaged in combat in Italy and Tunisia. Pyle (played convincingly by Burgess Meredith) is the embedded journalist within this Company. But the shared habiting space makes it a personal experience for Pyle and to this extent his journalism takes on a humanitarian hue as opposed to being merely patriotic. This essay will argue that, of the numerous merits attached to the film, it’s showcasing of the bold, humane and forthright journalism of the legendary Ernie Pyle is not only its standout feature but also accounts for its enduring appeal.
True to the journalistic ethic of accuracy and balance, the film makes no attempt to ‘manufacture’ heroism in the war setting. Instead, it fits the narrative to Pyle’s reportage, which includes unsavory and un-heroic aspects of the Second World War. True to this theme, “Pyle was later killed in a foxhole on a remote Pacific island as he pursued his career of covering the troops after victory was won in Europe. Pyle wrote of the common “dogfaces,” not the brass hats. He is a hero who should be known to every journalism student.” (Booker, 1999, p.14)
But a cursory look at the state of embedded journalism today (most visibly in the War on Terror operations) betrays the falling standards of journalism in America. Today the reporter comes across as a biased stakeholder in the side he belongs, which is a far cry from the courage and ethic espoused by Ernie Pyle. More importantly, what The Story of G.I. Joe underscores is that
“motion pictures can provide helpful assistance in journalism history classes through a number of ways: as a reflection of how journalists and journalism are portrayed in the mass culture; as a means to measure the role that journalism plays in significant events; and, perhaps most important, as a device by which to assess the ethical role of journalism as reflected by the decisions and actions of the people portrayed.” (Holsinger & Schofield, 1992, p.44)
The Story of G.I. Joe can also be said to be unique for the level of realism it carries. The product is not just made for commercial purposes, but for artistic and documentary goals. It also served as a vehicle of propaganda to gather support for the war from the American public. The relatively late release of the film (released after the dust settled in the European theatre) is perhaps why it portrays combat in unglamorous terms,
“emphasizing not the heroism of its soldiers but their weariness and daily hardships. Based on Pyle’s reports (collected in his 1943 book, Here Is Your War) the film details the grueling effect of extended combat service on a platoon of American soldiers the Italian campaign. Led by Lieutenant Walker ( Robert Mitchum) and accompanied by Pyle, the platoon slowly advances, experiencing both danger and boredom but very little in the way of glory.” (Booker, 1999, p.14)
Contemporary war movies as well as war journalism can do well by embracing such an attitude.
It is in recognition of the valuable sensibilities displayed through the film that it won four Academy Award nominations, including to Mitchum for best supporting actor and to the three screenwriters (two of whom, Endore and Stevenson, were prominent figures on the American cultural Left) for best screenplay. While some critics took the film’s grim depiction of war as an antiwar statement, James Agee insightfully notes that G.I. Joe is a “tragic and eternal work of art precisely because of its unflinching portrayal of the realities of combat. Pyle never saw the film; moving on to cover the war in the Pacific, he was killed there in the last months of the war.” (Harrison, 2001, p.86)
In conclusion, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the essence of The Story of G.I. Joe is the virtues exhibited by Ernie Pyle during his illustrious career. The most fitting tribute to the greatest American scribe of the last century comes from Stephen Harrison, who notes
“As a war correspondent, he deployed the same skills he’d used at home. But if the stateside columns were lively journalism, the wartime columns were masterpieces. Pyle did what nobody else did as well-capture the voice of the American GI, brave, terrified, noble…Daily journalism has an infinitesimal half-life, but the best of it sometimes endures, and Pyle’s was the best of the best. If you open one of the books compiled from his columns, you will find yourself reading for a long time. You may feel that all in all, this is a good place to honor a talented, restless man.” (Harrison, 2001, p.86)
Booker, M. Keith. 1999. Film and the American Left: A Research Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Harrison, S. L. 2001. Thirteen Hollywood Films Add Variety to Journalism History. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 56, no. 1: 86+.
Holsinger, M. Paul and Mary Anne Schofield, eds. 1992. Visions of War: World War II in Popular Literature and Culture. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.