Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle
Making room on a bookshelf next to my old copy of Agee on Film, I re-read James Agee’s 1945 review of “The Story of G.I. Joe,” a piece titled simply “A Great Film.” I went looking to see if YouTube had a clip from the movie, which was based on the work of war correspondent Ernie Pyle. (Update: for a while, YouTube had an unauthorized copy of the entire film.)
Surprise: I didn’t realize until writing the last paragraphs of this note that the anniversary of Pyle’s death was just three days ago.
The stars of the film are Burgess Meredith as Pyle and Robert Mitchum as the lieutenant.
Lieutenant: “Pyle? Say, aren’t you the fellow that writes that column about weekend trips or something?”
Pyle: “Mostly about ‘something’…”
Lieutenant: “Come to think of it, y’know, my old man reads your column. He thinks it’s great.”
Pyle: “Well I’ll be darned.”
Pulitzer-winner Pyle’s name was familiar to radio listeners as well as newspaper readers. For example, “Green Hornet” fans in May 1944 heard a PSA of Pyle’s account of a serviceman calling “V-mail” from home “a five-minute furlough.” Pyle’s stories were told to radio listeners in broadcast adaptations of his writing before his death and testimonials afterward.
Here’s a sample: “Here is Your War,” a 1944 Cavalcade of America episode that featured James Gleason as Pyle, often called America’s best-loved war correspondent because of his attention to the life of that average soldier, “G.I. Joe.”
My UNC grad school classmate Brad Hamm, now dean of the IU School of Journalism, has put it well:
“Anyone who covers tragedy or war needs to see how Pyle personalized the stories he was covering. These were people caught up in larger events and he showed how valiant they were and also of the basic frustrations they had. He was not doing hero worshipping, he was doing a celebration of the average soldiers, some of whom were heroes and others who were just heroic in being there.”
In 1943 the NBC series “Words at War” also did a “Here is Your War” episode, but it was less a dramatization than a dramatic reading from Pyle’s book.
Other sources of information about Pyle, his legacy, and the film he inspired:
- IMDB page on “The Story of G.I. Joe“
- “Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History, by Peter Rollins, John E. O’Connor.
- Wikipedia page on “The Story of GI Joe”
- Turner Movie Classics page on “The Story of GI Joe”
- David Denby New Yorker column on “The Story of GI Joe”
- PBS Series, Reporting America at War: Ernie Pyle
- Indiana University School of Journalism page on the anniversary of Pyle’s death.
- Indiana School of Journalism collection of war columns by Pyle.
- Pyle’s column about “The Story of G.I. Joe”
Pyle died in action on April 18, 1945, just months before the release of “The Story of G.I. Joe.”
In 1958, the radio program “Biographies in Sound” told his story, Ernie Pyle: Typewriter in a Foxhole. About a half hour into the 50-minute broadcast, there’s a fine reading of Pyle’s famous dispatch, “The Death of Capt. Waskow,” which you also can read for yourself at the PBS “Reporting America at War” site.
Update Jan. 26, 2015: Veteran oldtime radio podcaster Bob Camardella’s Boxcars711 recently presented an Ernie Pyle bio-drama that I hadn’t found in other online archives. Featuring Burgess Meredith in (and as) “Mr. Pyle,” it was written in 1945 by one of radio’s top dramatists, Arch Oboler, who clearly appreciated Pyle’s skill as a storyteller.
The podcast version that I had linked to here is no longer at its original address, but I found another copy of the program in 2018 at the Old Time Radio Researchers Library (download).