The Story Behind G.I. Joe

Today, G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra launches onto screens courtesy of Stephen Sommers.

It's had quite the journey from the toy's early days to big screen status, so fall in, stand straight and let's be ready to salute the greatest heroes of them all...

1. The birth of an action (figure) hero

It's all Barbie's fault. Well, not directly.

But back in 1963, toy creator and licensing agent Stan Weston noted that the girls' doll - which had launched in 1959 - had become a worldwide sensation.

Figuring that boys could be tempted with something similar, yet military-based, Weston lucked into the perfect opportunity.

He held the merchandising rights to the US TV show The Lieutenant, and took a couple of episodes to Don Levine, creative director at toy giant Hasbro.

Levine liked the idea, and with the two men figuring that the show's soapy elements could spin off a line of military-themed dolls, Weston set about to make it happen.

A trip to a New York store known as The Soldier Shop brought the inspiration for the eventual toys, with prototypes created for Rocky (army), Skip (navy) and Ace (air force).

But Levine had another bright idea - and named the range G.I. Joe based on the 1945 movie The Story Of G.I. Joe (the name comes from the term "government issue").

They were never referred to as "dolls" - after all, what boy would be seen dead demanding something that girls played with?

So the term "action figure" was coined instead.

A sensation had begun...

Next: Early recruits


2. Early Recruits

The toy line was originally launched on 2nd February 1964, based around a World War Two theme - despite the fact that some of the uniforms actually represented Korean War fatigues.

With 12-inch-tall dolls, the first range featured four types - the three armed services from the prototypes and the US Marine Corps.

And of course, accessories - such as rifles and other gear - were sold separately.

1965 saw the first black soldier introduced, though not nationally, while female Joes would have to wait until 1967, and the poorly-selling Action Nurse.

1967 also saw the first talking action figures, while around the same time a space version and foil-suited astronaut Joe was launched to capitalise on US enthusiasm for the space race.

The early days were successful and profitable for the line, but nothing lasts forever.

In the wake of the Vietnam conflict, Hasbro began to downplay the war theme, fearing that people would be put off by the idea.

So the line switched to the name The Adventures Of G.I. Joe, before the company settled on the title Adventure Team, ditched much of the army trappings and relaunched the toys.

As the 1970s wore on, the Joes were updated with new features including kung fu grip (thanks to Bruce Lee, the martial art was huge at the time).

And in 1976 the troops got one of their most famous selling points - eagle eye vision, where the glassy-globed soldiers could be made to look around.

Oh, and the range got a new look, thanks to "life-like" hair and beard stubble.

Who do the Joes have to thank for that? Try their British cousin...

Next: Over here


3. Over here

1966 saw a UK company spotting a good thing when it saw one and grabbing the rights to make a licensed copy of the G.I range in the UK.

Palitoy, based in Leicestershire, marketed the British versions as Action Man, since the "GI" term wasn't exactly common (even despite the crowds of them who arrived in the country during World War Two).

UK kids got to enjoy Action Soldier, Action Sailor and Action Pilot, who were available with a choice of Blond, auburn, brown and black hair.

As with anything that's popular, a war quickly broke out as competitors scrambled to get their own version on the shelves.

Just like their Barbie take-off Sindy, Pedigree Toys rushed out Tommy Gunn, an entirely British soldier figure, which boasted better quality accessories.

Despite this, it simply couldn't compete with the dominant Action Man and only lasted a couple of years before raising the white flag in 1966, alongside many other, cheaper knock-offs.

Action Man, meanwhile, continued to develop, becoming more and more British as he crept into the 1970s.

While he maintained a military theme, AM also span-off into sportsman and adventurer themes as Palitoy sought to make him different from the G.I. range.

And William AG Pugh, head of the toys' development for Palitoy, drove the innovations further, with the launch of gripping hands, the flocked hair and the eagle eyes, which would make their way across the pond shortly after.

One other aspect where the UK range towered over its US relations was the Ceremonial Range, with the likes of the Horse Guards featured in full regalia. It helped, of course, that we have much more pomp and circumstance over here...

Action Man served until 1984, when Palitoy closed down. He made a brief comeback in the early 1990s (no coincidence that the first Gulf War was happening), but between 1996 and 2006, the name has mostly been used by Hasbro to churn out adventurer figures with plots and vehicles to match.

Stories would take over in the US, too...

Next: Death and rebirth


4. Death and Rebirth

All good things come to an end, and the 12-inch Joes met their maker around 1976.

They were replaced with the likes of the Defenders and the Super Joe Adventure team, which ran from 1977 until 1978.

But in 1982, the Joes came back stronger than ever, even though they were now smaller.

For the relaunched figures, now called G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, 3 3/4-inch size figures were used, taking the basic template from the successful line of Star Wars figures.

And given their now more diminutive size, the refreshed range offered up a whole new world of possibilities for Hasbro, which could pump out many more vehicles and accessories for an eager public to purchase.

This new wave also saw an entire supporting army of merchandising and spin-off opportunities, with T-shirts, posters, video games, board games, and even kites available.

By 1985, G.I. Joe was ranked at the top-selling toy in America. The action figure had captured the flag.

Here in the UK, Palitoy responded to faltering sales of Action Man by launching Action Force based on the refreshed US characters.

The new line worked so well because it expanded the GI Joe universe, adding in characters and giving them a new, fictional enemy to fight: Cobra.

The ruthless terrorist organisation was willing to use any means to rule the world, and it was up to the Joes to stop them.

They'd fight them on the beaches. In the trenches. In comics. And on TV...

Next: A whole new battlefield


5. A whole new battlefield

With G.I. Joe surging in popularity, other companies naturally wanted a piece of the action.

Marvel launched a line of comics which saw the Joes battling Cobra in 1982, though the phrase has been used in comic books since 1942.

Joe proved to be a huge comics smash - it has been produced almost constantly from 1977 until the present day, with three separate publishers holding the rights and four series spawning from the toys.

Marvel's tales of the Joes fighting Cobra introduced a load of characters, including the likes of Duke, Storm Shadow and Scarlett.

Naturally, that lead to a TV spin-off, with Marvel and Sunbow Productions launching the first 'toon miniseries G.I. Joe A Real American Hero in 1983.

It was quickly followed by G.I. Joe: The Revenge Of Cobra in 1984. Both series featured startlingly similar plots, based around the heroes being sent to retrieve objects from around the world to stop Cobra building a weapon.

The exotic locales naturally allowed all the soldiers to show off their various skills and accessories.

The proper, syndicated show began airing in 1985, which featured one of the most iconic (and these days, heavily spoofed) elements of G.I. Joe's history - the PSAs for kids at the end, which always featured a moral lesson with the tag "...And knowing is half the battle" (see above).

So remember kids - always tell the truth!

The show lasted a couple of seasons before it was cancelled, then DIC productions picked up the license for its own two-season run in 1990.

A cinematic 'toon version of G.I. Joe was planned for release, but the movie suffered production delays and ended up being ready after Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony had already launched - and bombed - in cinemas.

Figuring that audiences weren't ready for Joe on the big screen, the movie was dumped to DVD in 1987.

But that wasn't the end of the Joes' campaign in cinemas...

Next: Tactical cinema


6. Tactical cinema

The original cartoon film's trouble on the way to the screen was eerily prescient for the trouble that others have had getting the characters turned into a movie.

Transformers producer Don Murphy was the first to have a crack at the idea, but the start of the Iraq War meant that the time wasn't right for a conflict-based film.

So Hasbro suggested Murphy instead develop its giant robot franchise, and we all know where that led.

Then, in 2003, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, figuring that people would accept a movie boasting heavy military tech, started work developing a war film.

Hasbro's Brian Goldner got in touch and asked whether he'd be interested in getting G.I. Joe off the ground.

Di Bonaventura and Goldner, who had worked together before, hammered out a story, and then hired 300's Michael Gordon to pen the first draft of the script based on their notes.

The producer wanted an origin story, and, in conjunction with Hasbro, introduced a character named Rex who could be use to explore the main Duke role.

"What the Joes stand for, and what Duke stands for specifically in the movie, is something that I'd like to think a worldwide audience might connect with," he said at the time.

Script drafts began to arrive and di Bonaventura had Four Brothers writers Paul Lovett and David Elliott begin a re-write in February 2005.

Joe's story now found the Rex character horribly corrupted and changed into the Cobra Commander, a man on a mission to - guess what? - rule the world with super-soldiers under the command of Destro.

By 2007, Skip Woods was assigned to another re-write, and added the character Alex Mann from Action Man, giving the film more of an international feel to help sales overseas.

It was then that the first road bump appeared, with Latino Review getting a hold of a copy of the script and leaking details, such as the fact that Cobra had been dumped and Scarlett would be in a love triangle between Duke and his British counterpart.

The reaction from fans was staunchly negative, with di Bonaventura promising that it would improve and that Cobra would return, despite his worries that they were "the stupidest terrorist force in the world" as seen in the cartoon.

Yes, always a good basis for a theory, that.

But thanks to Transformers' success, the Joe project picked up both speed and a new draft from Stuart Beattie, with assistance from freshly-hired Joe comic creator Larry Hama.

Now all they needed was a director...

Next: Shooting starts


7. Shooting starts

The team didn't have to wait long to get a commander - Stephen Sommers stepped aboard in August 2007, inspired by a visit to Hasbro's facility.

Winning Paramount execs and di Bonaventura over with a pitch, and working with Beattie and Hama to sharpen the script.

But another threat soon loomed on the horizon - the writers' strike.

The script needed help fro John Lee Hancock, Brian Koppelmen and David Levien to get it ready in time to start production early the following year.

Sommers and his cast - including the likes of Dennis Quaid, Channing Tatum, Christopher Eccleston, Sienna Miller and Joseph Gordon Levitt - kicked off shooting in February 2008 at LA's Downey studios.

Early footage included the Joes' hidden base, The Pit, Cobra's lair, Destro's weapons factory and several sub sets.

The majority of filming then took place in Prague and the Czech Republic and even here trouble struck, as a four-wheeled vehicle's brakes failed, sending it crashing into cars and a bus. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries.

True to the spirit of the Joe series, the film has shot in Paris, Egypt, Tokyo, and the Arctic.

Actors, meanwhile, suffered through acting in bulky, troublesome accelerator suits, which, while they look impressive on screen, were so problematic to use that even Sommers has said they'll be cut back in any sequel.

But first G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra actually needed to arrive...

Next: Under fire?


8. Under Fire?

G.I. Joe's troubles did not end when shooting wrapped.

Buzz on the film began to switch back to negative as the first images appeared and complaints about the accelerator suits seeming two cartoony from fans spread across the web.

Then, this past June, the real controversy began to flare as rumours circulated that Sommers had been ditched.

"After a test screening wherein the film tested the lowest score ever from an audience in the history of Paramount, the executive who pushed for the movie, Brad Weston, had Stephen Sommers, the super hack director of the film fired. Removed. Locked out of the editing room," said one poster on Don Murphy's message board.

Lorenzo di Bonaventura quickly worked to dispel the rumours, effectively debunking stories of trouble in the editing room (where word had it that editor Stuart Baird had replaced Sommers at the order of the studio) and test screenings.

"Everybody was happy, the studio was happy, the filmmakers were happy, the audience was happy with the movie," the producer told Latino Review.

"We had three test screenings, three different times and tested it and each time it just got better and better. We started off in a good place and we ended up in even in a better place, which is what you hope on a film from testing it."

And as for Sommers being fired?

"He did a very good job. The movie tested well and it couldn’t be more false that the studio in anyway did anything negatively to Steve.

"Nothing that doesn’t happen on every other movie, which is that you constantly work and work and work and you make it better and better.

"We had a delay on visual effects so we waited a long time to finish the movie but that’s the only thing.

I don’t really know why that would be interpreting it negatively but I guess it was."

The negative buzz swelled until the first screenings began to happen. And then something changed.

Online critics praised the film as fun and action packed, the very definition of a blockbuster.

As the film prepared to invade cinemas, it's looking less like a mockbuster and more like a successful franchise in the making (and yes, Sommers already has sequel ideas).

Now it has to win the battle of the box office...

Next: Attack!


9. Attack!

And so the film has survived both the barrage of bad buzz and the sniper fire of rumours and gossip to shoot on to screens.

Take a look at the trailer above and don't forget to read our review of the movie before seeing it for yourself.

Yo, Joe!

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.