Even at age 9, I didn’t know quite what to make of G. I. Joe: The Movie.
It seemed at the time like I had been a G. I. Joe fan all my life, but the truth was that I was really only into the Joe toys, show, and comic for about three years: 1985 through 1987. When the movie debuted as a special event on the same stations that ran the series, I (and many of my friends) were . . . well . . . puzzled by the plot.
G. I. Joe: The Movie overhauled the relatively straightforward premise of a special unit of the United States military (“G. I. Joe”) doing battle with a terrorist organization (“Cobra”).
Instead, it turned out that Cobra was a front for a not-exactly-human-but-close civilization called “Cobra-La.” This culture—based on using organic matter and life forms as tools, shelter, transportation, and everything else in its society—had been forced into hiding due to its inability to adapt to the Ice Age. Cobra Commander was formerly a scientist and nobleman in this civilization, and was chosen by its leaders to take over the world and pave the way for Cobra-La’s reinstatement as rulers of the planet.
It was all a bit much for a child to absorb.
G. I. Joe: The Movie has an odd history. In production at the same time as Transformers: The Movie, G. I. Joe was supposed to hit theaters first. G. I. Joe was the premier property in the Sunbow / Hasbro / Marvel stable at the time, even bigger than Transformers. Its planned theatrical release was delayed, however.
So, Transformers: The Movie came out first. And it bombed. It failed to make back its somewhat-modest $6 million budget domestically, falling just short with a $5.8 million box office haul.
The failure of Transformers affected G. I. Joe in two key ways: One, G. I. Joe didn’t get a theatrical release, as mentioned above. Secondly, the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers received so much backlash from parents (on behalf of their legion of crying children) that Hasbro made the decision to change Duke’s death in the Joe movie, creating a couple of awkward and unconvincing sequences in the film. There’s a particularly painful moment near the end of the movie wherein news of Duke’s survival suddenly arrives via a tacked-on, off-screen voice from “headquarters” just before the end credits.
But why am I writing about this 26-year-old movie now? Because I just picked up the blu-ray of same, solely because there’s a commentary track from story consultant Buzz Dixon.
Given the checkered past of G. I. Joe: The Movie, I strongly suspected he would unearth some head-scratching or jaw-dropping facts about the production.
As soon as Dixon began by saying, “I accept the blame for what you’re about to see, but not the responsibility,” I knew my instincts were solid.
I would get my money’s worth.
Here are 15 such facts.
1. The opening sequence (which kicks ass, and is known in some circles as “G.I. Joe: The Musical”) was added at the end of the production, and was not part of the original script. It also features the only appearance of Major Bludd in the entire movie. Dixon questions the logic of not only Cobra’s desire to blow up the Statue of Liberty, but also their execution of this pointless mission, in which Cobra Commander has to fly a bomb to the base of the statue himself. “Why not just put [the explosive] on the end of a rocket?”
2. The original premise of a major storyline on the TV show (and later the movie) was supposed to be something Dixon calls “The Most Dangerous Man in the World,” with the idea being that Cobra was based on an actual ideology that came from a specific person, only to have Cobra Commander get farther and farther from that philosophy in furtherance of his megalomania. Prior to the beginning of what we see in the series, Cobra Commander would have had the philosopher imprisoned to avoid interference with his vision of Cobra. The audience would subsequently discover this backstory when the philosopher escapes from prison, posing a potential threat to both sides. These story plans changed when Hasbro dictated that there would be a “Cobra Emperor,” which eventually became Serpentor. When faced with the prospect of how to create a new leader above the Commander in year two of the show, Dixon presented two options to Hasbro—either a secret civilization that had been backing Cobra, or the DNA cocktail idea. They liked both. The second was used to explain Serpentor’s existence, while the writers dusted off the first idea for the movie a year later.
3. Dixon says they stole the “Pythona infiltrating Cobra HQ” from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but feels no guilt over it because, according to him, George Lucas stole many things right back from G. I. Joe: The Movie. Dixon doesn’t elaborate (at least not on the edited version of the commentary we get), but I would guess that #1 on that list would be the implied “creation” of Anakin Skywalker by Palpatine / Darth Sidious, a major sub-plot of the prequel trilogy.
4. Dixon apologizes for “Cobra-La,” saying it was a placeholder name. He says he figured Hasbro would immediately recognize it was a knock-off of Shangri-La, the famous lost civilization from Lost Horizon. Unfortunately, they loved it. “If I had even suspected that would happen, I would have called it ‘Granny’s Bawdy House,'” Dixon notes. He proceeds to refer to it as such throughout the remainder of his commentary.
5. The writers derived the idea for the Broadcast Energy Transmitter from the work of Nicola Tesla.
6. Duke pulls a grenade pin out with his teeth. As Dixon points out, “If you try that [in real life], you lose your teeth.” “Sometimes, you just go with the cliches,” he says.
7. Dixon wanted the “la-la-la-la-la-la-la” cry to be an Arab-style trill reminiscent of the Arab women in Lawrence of Arabia, but they could never get it quite right. He says that most of the voice actors (especially the actor who voiced Serpentor) had voices that were too deep.
8. The scene with Zarana / Heather was originally supposed to include a topless shot. This I knew, but Dixon provided a lot more detail: The directive was that G. I. Joe and Transformers were intended to be PG-rated. So, as “Heather” prepares to go for a swim, she would be topless (seen from behind). Dixon says that Hasbro eventually put the kibosh on this. My guess would be that, once the decision was made to move away from the theatrical release, there was no way a topless shot was staying in the film.
9. The Dreadnoks were Australian because Larry Hama had some bad dealings with Australian soldiers, evidently. Also, Dixon refers to the Dreadnoks as “Dreadlocks” for some reason.
10. “NOOOO COMMENT . . .” – Dixon’s remark when THIS happens:
11. Sgt. Slaughter’s Renegades were loosely based on 1980s professional wrestlers. Taurus was based on the Iron Sheik (although he looks a lot more like Ivan Koloff to me), Red Dog was inspired by Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, while Mercer is based on Dolph Lundgren (note: not a professional wrestler, but Ivan Drago came close). Dixon loved working with Sgt. Slaughter and refers to him favorably several times.
12. Shipwreck was Dixon’s all-time favorite character. “If Hasbro had told me, ‘You can do anything you want in this movie, anything at all,’ this movie would have been 90 minutes of Shipwreck on shore leave in Tijuana.”
13. The Roadblock / Cobra Commander pairing was an offshoot of an old screenplay idea Dixon had about a blinded white bigot having to carry a crippled black man in order to escape a forest fire.
14. On the subject of Duke’s death, Dixon tells the story referenced above, but adds that the target audience of Transformers was also a contributing factor to the change. Whereas Transformers: The Movie had a target demo of +/- 10 years old, the Joe movie was geared toward a slightly older audience. Dixon blames part of the Optimus Prime backlash on the fact that the kids seeing the movie were too young to handle it. Unfortunately, the fact that the writers penned G. I. Joe: The Movie with an older demographic in mind wasn’t enough to get Hasbro to back off of reversing the decision to kill Duke. Dixon humorously narrates the awkward Duke “coma” scene by quoting the Dead Parrot sketch from Monty Python.
15. Dixon says that the Pythona / Jinx brawl at the end of the movie was an homage to the infamous Falcon Crest cat-fight. But I think he meant Dynasty.
A general point about this movie: Granted, it’s for kids, and the Duke re-write is very clumsy, but G. I. Joe: The Movie holds up surprisingly well. As Dixon says, some of the lines work better than others, but it’s actually still very watchable, even at my now-advanced age. I would absolutely watch the 1987 animated film again before I would watch the horrible Rise of Cobra live-action flick.
Cobra Commander shines in particular. I especially love his completely mis-reading the room at the beginning of the movie, turning a potential coup into “The Roast of Cobra Commander.” I also enjoyed that Destro, as usual, has everything figured out before anyone else does.
Now that I’ve watched the movie with the commentary on, I’ll probably go back and watch it again the traditional way. This was genuinely (and surprisingly) one of the better commentary tracks I’ve ever heard. Dixon provides a ton of insights, but, more importantly, he’s not one for euphemism or sugar-coating. He touches on frustrations with making the movie, limitations on what they were allowed to do while working on the series, the relationship with Hasbro (about which he is largely positive), and little mistakes and flaws he sees as he’s watching the film, while also coming away with a great deal of nostalgia for and satisfaction with his work on the Hasbro properties. It’s an affectionate but entirely fair remembrance.
G. I. Joe: The Movie is better at this age than I would have guessed. In fact, seen through the eyes of an adult, it’s superior to Transformers: The Movie in almost every way—aside from the memorable and over-the-top rock soundtrack that graced the latter. The G. I. Joe: The Movie commentary alone is worthwhile for anyone who grew up with the G. I. Joe cartoon as part of his daily after-school routine.
And now you know.