Pershing’s Paths of Glory Comes to Life
By Joe Hartnett and Dayle Hartnett, Ph.D.
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
Following careers in marketing and education, we (Joe Hartnett and Dayle Hartnett, Ph.D.) decided to direct and produce documentary films. Initially, Joe produced branded content and marketing documentaries. He was fortunate to have worked with Oscar-winning documentary director, Mark Jonathan Harris on the short documentary, A Delicate Balance, shot in 2005 at the City of Hope (Duarte, California), his marketing client. To raise funding for that effort, the Pacific Film Foundation (PFF), a 501c3 IRS-approved nonprofit was founded.
We then began a prison project, visiting and filming inside two California prisons, San Quentin and the Valley State Prison for Women in 2012. Unfortunately, the project was interrupted and subsequently cancelled by the closure of the women’s prison. However, the property is now in pre-production, entitled Female and Finally Free.
We produced and directed a documentary titled With One Tied Hand in 2013 which explores the fighting and subsequent liberation of Tuscany in WWII by American Buffalo Soldiers. During this process, we learned that Pershing had commanded the Buffalo Soldiers three times during his legendary military career.
After that, in late 2015, Sandra (Sandy) S. Pershing, the granddaughter-in-law of General John J. Pershing, reached out to the Pershing Rifles, a college drill fraternity Pershing had founded, originally called Varsity Rifles in 1894, offering to fund a film to help people understand the achievements of Pershing and his role in the defeat of the Central Powers in WWI. We were introduced to Captain David Poe, a former national commander of the National Society of Pershing Rifles. Poe, representing the organization, then recommended the Pacific Film Foundation (PFF) to make this film honoring Pershing and his diplomatic expertise in asserting the right from our Allied partners to have American commanders lead American troops.
We additionally decided to explore the importance of Pershing’s influence and legacy on contemporary students in the Pershing Rifles, Pershing Angels (female university cadets), and Blackjacks (high school cadets). These groups currently learn and practice leadership, teamwork, and competitive drilling in his name.
The Documentary Film Development Process
We then met in Washington D.C. in late 2015 with the leaders of the United Stated World War I Centennial Commission, who agreed to collaborate with us. While in the capitol, we gained invaluable information researching letters, awards, photos, and ephemera comprising over 90,000 items in The Pershing Papers, at the Library of Congress (LOC).
Operating under strict provisions for holding, reading, and copying original historical documents, we found personal diary entries, family letters, and informative news clippings of the time period. One of the sad facts we learned more about was the devastating loss of Pershing’s beloved wife, Helen Frances Warren Pershing at 35 years of age along with their three young daughters Mary, age 3, Anne, age 7, and Helen, age 8 in the San Francisco Presidio Fire of August 27, 1915. Only his 6-year-old son, Francis Warren, survived. This fire occurred while he was stationed protecting the United States Southern border during the revolution in Mexico.
While in the LOC reading room, we held in our hands the love letters sent back and forth between Pershing and his wife. Those heartbreaking, unexpected Pershing deaths remind us of the deaths of President Joe Biden’s wife and young daughter in an automobile accident, as well as the daily untimely deaths of so many from COVID-19.
Upon returning to our PFF studio, we continued development, which included viewing films, documentaries, and television productions:
- Perspectives, a 1960’s era TV series featuring Mike Wallace, the famed journalist and co-host of 60 Minutes, doing a biography of General Pershing.
- War Generals: John J. Pershing, narrated by the late Walter Matthau.
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), from the book by Erich Maria Remarque, and starring Lew Ayres.
- Paths of Glory (1957), an American anti-war film co-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, and starring Kirk Douglas.
Our substantial reading list included these fascinating and useful biographies:
- Pipe Clay and Drill - John J. Pershing, the Classic American Soldier, by Richard Goldhurst, (1977).
- Pershing, General of the Armies, by Donald Smythe (1970).
- Guerrilla Warrior: The Early Life of John J. Pershing, by Donald Smythe (1973).
- My Experiences in the World War, Volumes 1 & 2, by John J. Pershing (1931), the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir by Pershing himself.
In assembling our crew, we included Mark Jonathan Harris as Story Consultant, Guido Frenzel as Director of Photography, Rod Hassler as Cameraman, Nathan Van Hala as Sound Supervisor, Dan McCoy as Technical Director (France), and David Avallone as Co-director (France). Later we would add Joe Sperandeo, Editor, and Bill Braunstein, Story Producer, who provided the narration and the title, Pershing’s Paths of Glory.
Through our contact, Leo Perez, an American studio executive working in Paris, we were fortunate to hire Location Manager Guillermo Alonso who arranged essential location support on the old Western Front in France, including catering and facilities. Guillermo also retained Aerial Fullmotion, a two-man team of a drone operator and a cameraman. The drone team provided exacting overviews of the French battlefields (now countryside and farmland) and the WWI monuments and cemeteries.
An Essential Decision: Who Would Tell the Story?
We were invited to attend the yearly convention of the National Society of Pershing Rifles, Pershing Angels, and Blackjacks (NATCON) held in Washington, D.C. in March 2016.
The convention was structured around a national drill competition, pitting the very best male and female cadets from across the United States marching, tossing rifles (some with bayonets!), and competing 1-on-1 in elimination drills.
As we boarded our return flight, we saw that the airport departure lounge was filled with young cadets smiling and enjoying their trophies and awards. During the flight, we decided that these students are Pershing’s living legacy, and they should tell his story.
With this mandate, the Pershing’s Paths of Glory casting process began by asking applicants to submit biographies and videos answering questions regarding the life of Pershing and his achievements in WWI. We booked a cast who already knew some facts about Pershing but were curious to learn more.
These included graduate Pershing Riflemen Kevin Collins-Nelson and Roberto Duran, four secondary school Blackjacks, Kevin Philips, John Branch, Jacob Edwards, and Brandon Vancosky, and graduate Pershing Angel, Victoria-Rose Reid, who can be heard in the credits singing “Three Bells,” written and produced by Julia Newman, granddaughter of legendary film composer, Alfred Newman.
What Did the Filmmakers and Cast Learn About WWI and America’s Role?
As one 15-year-old cadet put it, “the lesson that I took away from this experience was the sacrifice.” He was referring to the terrible sacrifice of a generation of young men from all the countries involved in WWI. And, the destruction of towns, homes, and land, from which farmers each year dig up grenades, bullets, and bombs; many are still ‘live’ and in danger of exploding.
Losses suffered by the United States included 116,516 deaths and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded, of the 4.7 million who served. The United States lost more personnel to disease than to combat, largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Some of the dead were brothers; over 500,000 men were immigrants. There were Black, White, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian gravestones found in cemeteries visited by the film crew. Because the deaths of American “Doughboys” weighed so heavily on Pershing, after the war, he led the founding and operations of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Powerful emotions came up for each young person who visited the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, a 130.5-acre WWI I cemetery located east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon in Meuse, France.
The cadets were able to personally experience important events in Pershing’s life, beginning with a pilgrimage to his Boyhood Home and Schoolhouse Museum in Laclede. Overseas, they trekked through the battlefields, forts, and famous towns of WWI, with many historical reminders along the way highlighting how Pershing and the AEF were ultimately successful in bringing the war to an end.
The cadets interacted with reenactors costumed in the military uniforms of France, England, and the United States which enabled them to see and understand what the “Doughboys” and the other soldiers went through.
In Souilly, a small French town where both Pershing and (then) Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton maintained their headquarters, French National Television 3 Reporter Laurent Parisot brought a news crew to cover the French Centenaire Celebration at this legendary site. On scene were over 30 representatives from Connaissance de la Meuse Reenactors, plus an authentically restored WWI Ambulance.
The reenactors were also on set at the trenches at night, where the cadets learned why the war had dragged on for over four years as a “war of position” with few real advances by either side.
Jean-Paul de Vries, the energetic proprietor of the museum, 14-18 Romagne, has a large collection of photographs, weapons, uniforms, diaries, books, and personal soldiers’ kits that he has been collecting for many years around his home. He spoke passionately about the young lives attached to the relics, noting that the leaders and politicians of the countries involved “wanted” war, not considering the devastating loss of life it ultimately caused.
Pershing and the AEF gained tremendous respect from French and English allies for their innovation of “combined arms maneuver” utilizing artillery, aircraft, and infantry to gain ground quickly as the enemy retreated from their trenches and tried to escape across the border to Germany. This “war of movement” enabled the Allied forces to bring the horrific war to a conclusion on November 11, 1918.
General Pershing’s Nickname Black Jack is Based on African American Soldiers
Pershing wore the nickname as a badge of honor. While visiting his boyhood home and the WWI Museum (dedicated to all soldiers who fought in WWI), the cast and crew could see how Pershing’s life is a testament to his acceptance, tolerance, and humane treatment of others. Even though a firm scolding from Pershing, particularly when he was dissatisfied with a soldier’s performance, often left many young men feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed.
Everyone was impressed by the young “Jack” Pershing who stepped up at age 17 to teach Black children, saying to prejudiced, complaining Laclede townspeople, “President Lincoln said these youngsters deserve to be educated. And that’s what I aim to do!”
In addition to embracing his nickname, Pershing tended to act with multi-cultural acceptance of the Muslim Mori in the Philippines, indigenous Native Americans on the American plains, and Mexicans he encountered along the USA/Mexican border.
Importantly, Pershing may have been an important influence on President Harry S. Truman’s decision to abolish segregation in the American Armed Forces in 1948, the year of Pershing’s death.
Our philosophy was always to persist and do the right thing at each stage. We did encounter a major problem with editing, but it was only fully realized after the first version, Black Jack had been screened to theater audiences in September 2017. After viewing it, our story consultant weighed in with a negative review. The verdict was that we needed additional editing and more funding.
Accordingly, we approached Sandy Pershing who had already provided substantial financial support. She agreed to give more, but stipulated that we obtain additional funding from other sources. Fortunately, another funder seeking a creative project to support provided crucial finishing funds.
Sperandeo took over as editor, and it was smooth sailing from that point forward. On November 11, 2018, on the evening of the Centennial Commemoration of the Armistice ending WWI on November 11, 1918, we held the World Premiere of our completed film at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theater (about 10 miles from the United States Capitol) before an enthusiastic audience.
Our progress toward finding distribution was circuitously interrupted for more than a year, but we finally concluded a deal with Dreamscape in May 2020, via Soundview Media.
The film is currently available for sale on Amazon as a DVD. DVDs with the Public Performance Rights (PPR) option are available for educational institutions. Streaming will begin on Amazon and other platforms in early 2021.
Why Should We Care Today about WWI and General Pershing?
As educators, we have seen how young students tend to struggle to find their place in today’s chaotic world. Many can suffer from depression, existential angst, addictions, and other mental health issues. Social media keeps them engaged, but it can also be frightening and demoralizing.
Amid climate crisis and a global pandemic, the rise of nationalism threatens democracies today just as it did in Pershing’s time. Racial prejudice was endemic 100 years ago, and moral leadership is strongly needed to help eliminate the racism apparent today.
Pershing’s life story exemplifies how immigration strengthens us. Over 500,000 of Pershing’s troops in the AEF were recent immigrants. The war could not have been won without them. It is clear that there is an urgent need for honorable leaders to model hope, character, and moral values. So, when the opportunity came for us to make a documentary film about Pershing, we embraced the chance.
His life and accomplishments are critically important now as an example of the kind of visionary leader the world currently needs. As we engaged with the young cadets, we realized that Pershing’s values seem to live on in them today.
Our diverse group of cadets got along well with and supported each other without divisive issues of racial inequality, sexism, or homophobia; they formed a model microcosm. Via experiential learning, each grew greatly in his or her own way.
We are proud to show these young men and woman following the paths of this remarkable man who, despite a debilitating personal tragedy, continued on, all the while exemplifying courage, acceptance, and integrity both on and off the battlefield.