Q&A with Alan K. Rode


We caught up with writer, historian, actor and producer Alan Rode following his recording of a new audio commentary for The Story of G.I. Joe. Here’s a sneak peek of what fans can expect! 

IGNITE: What were your thoughts when Ignite Films approached you about recording an audio commentary for its new release of The Story of G.I. Joe?

ALAN K. RODE: I jumped at it because this is a film that for some reason has been difficult to see, but it's a picture that made a distinct impression on me. And I think the way that the film shows the dilemma of men in combat, and what they have to deal with, and their situation down to the most humanist granular level; it's unsurpassed, and it holds up really well. As someone who served in the military for a length of time back in my earlier days, it's a film that resonates with me, both as a film historian and also very personally as an American. So, I was delighted that I had the opportunity to provide this commentary.

IGNITE: What are your thoughts on what makes this movie different from other war movies?

ALAN K. RODE: What makes The Story of G.I. Joe different from other war movies is that it was directed by Bill Wellman with an eye towards keeping it focused on the day-to-day dilemma of the ordinary combat soldier. It specifically deglamorized war despite being made in an era, 1945, when Hollywood was cranking out a lot of these friendly propaganda heroic films with John Wayne leading the charge -- which were great entertainment and good for the home front morale, but not particularly realistic about what the troops had to cope with. The Story of G.I. Joe dealt with this. They used over 150 actual soldiers as background actors. Wellman cast Robert Mitchum, who was known as a minor western star at that time and would be nominated for his only Academy Award for G.I. Joe, along with an ensemble of not well known, but skilled actors. This was a deliberate gambit by Wellman in order to create a sense of realism. The movie holds up so well because it was authentic, and it was deliberately made that way.

IGNITE: What are your thoughts on the performances by the two leads, Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum?

ALAN K. RODE: Burgess Meredith, “Buzz” Meredith, as he was called by his friends and peers, was perfect for this. The producer Lester Cowan considered a long list of different actors for the role. Jimmy Gleason, for instance, was too well known. One actor that was considered horrified Ernie Pyle… Jimmy Durante, a beloved comic performer but hard to imagine “the schnozzle” portraying the taciturn Pyle. For the Mitchum and Ernie Pyle roles, Cowan considered just about every actor in Hollywood, but when it came to Burgess Meredith, he seemed perfect, but was a little younger than Ernie Pyle. I believe Ernie Pyle was 43 at the time and Meredith was in his late 30s. But with his unassuming personality, and his slight build, and the make-up that was crafted for him up, Meredith insinuated himself into the character where you actually believed he was Ernie Pyle. As for Mitchum, Wild Bill Wellman bumped into him outside the Brown Derby restaurant on Vine Street and introduced himself: “My name is Wellman. What's yours? “Mitchum”, the laconic actor responded. Wellman: “Are you an actor?” Mitchum: “Well dad, that’s a subject of some debate”. Bill Wellman immediately recognized that in Robert Mitchum he had an actor who was a fellow bad ass similar to his own iconoclastic personality. Mitchum was so good in G.I. Joe because he underplays the part. Businesslike and emotionally tough in order to get the job done, you also see his empathy and the pathos in scenes where he has to write letters home for his troops that have been killed. And his leadership is on display when he chews out Wally Cassell, who snuck off for an assignation with an Italian woman and makes him dig ditches for latrines.  Mitchum’s character in G.I. Joe was based on an authentic soldier, a famous story titled The Death of Captain Waskow that Pyle wrote in January 1944 while on the front line with the troops in Italy. Mitchum’s performance is terrific and it was true to life because it was about an actual leader whose men really idolized him.

IGNITE: Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

ALAN K. RODE: I have two of them. One is the honeymoon scene where Dorothy Wellman and the soldier get married and she's a nurse. They go off to the wedding suite, which is a drop cloth covering the back of a Red Cross truck, and that's their honeymoon suite.  But the husband is so exhausted from days of combat, he can’t fulfill his marriage vows. So, he falls asleep, and his wife just kisses him and holds him. The camera pans around as the couple enters the truck and closes the drape. and you see them looking on with a combination of envy, love, caring and while obviously thinking about their loved ones at home. It's a beautiful scene and I think one of the aspects about Wellman and directors of his generation is that they cut their professional teeth in silent films. So, they're able to create genuine emotion, and get an idea across to the audience without using dialogue which would have cluttered up that particular sequence and made it maudlin. And, in the same manner at the end of the movie, when MItchum’s body is brought down the hill on a mule, and Wally Cassell kneels beside him, holding his dead officer’s hand. If that coda doesn't bring a tear to your eye, your heart is made of stone.

IGNITE: Can you give fans a sneak peek of what they can expect in your commentary?  

ALAN K. RODE: I do a lot of research for my commentaries, and this one was no exception. I reviewed Bill Wellman's shooting script with his annotations in it. I reviewed the Motion Picture Association of America censors file and one of the things I discovered about this movie is that The Story of G.I. Joe initiated an important battle in censorship in loosening some of the Production Code restrictions that had been vigorously enforced up to that point. I discuss that as well as Mitchum and Lester Cowan, who was the producer. Bill Wellman intensely disliked producers, and frankly no film director really likes producers. But Lester Cowan put his all into this, with the number of writers and different people he employed trying to get Ernie Pyle’s story right. He was absolutely determined to bring this movie to fruition and I ended up having a lot of respect for Lester Cowan for his determination to see this project through. I also believe many people have forgotten what a revered figure Ernie Pyle was to millions and millions of Americans during World War II. He was a correspondent, but his stories were about the infantry, the men who had to fight and die. Pyle became the fellow who via his reporting, wrote letters home to the parents of America about their sons who were serving in the front lines. His influence was just absolutely incredible. He actually helped initiate and get a Congressional bill for combat soldiers passed. Ernie Pyle said why are we only giving pilots flight pay? How about we give the infantry men fight pay?  His published stance created a wave of public opinion and Congress subsequently passed a bill authorizing combat pay for men on the front lines. It was dubbed “the Ernie Pyle bill”. This gives you an idea of the amount of public acclaim and influence Pyle had. So, I tried make sure in my commentary to provide the context of how Ernie Pyle’s unassuming but profound influence as a storyteller of the war affected so many Americans.

IGNITE: Is there anything else you want to share with fans about why they should watch The Story of G.I. Joe?

ALAN K. RODE: Well, you know, I'm not trying to be too noble here, after all as Hitchcock would occasionally remind his actors, “it’s only a movie”. But I think in a larger sense one of the deeper considerations’ viewers might glean from watching The Story of G.I. Joe on this beautiful Blu-ray transfer from Ignite is we need to think long and hard before we send our young men and women to go fight and die in a war. One of the terrible aspects of war that hasn’t changed since time began is that it is always older people sending young men and women out to kill or be killed. And I believe what this movie really drives home is when you see what the combat soldier has to endure, one has to hesitate before making a commitment to go to war. Even in our current age of modern technology and “star wars” weapon systems, you still need the ordinary combat soldier to win wars. Our leaders need to be very thoughtful before sending our young men and women to risk their lives in combat even if that’s what the military’s mission is all about. And this movie has kind of a higher mission by making all of us who watch it consider that aspect and I think that's damned important.

About Alan K. Rode

Alan K. Rode is a writer, historian, actor and producer. A cinematic Renaissance man, he has written acclaimed biographies of legendary director Michael Curtiz and tough guy actor Charles McGraw while creating essays and profiles for a variety of cinema based publications.

Alan is a charter director of the Film Noir Foundation and the producer-host of the annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, California. He has programmed and hosted classic cinema events across the country while providing commentary tracks for DVD/Blu-ray vintage film releases.