SANDS OF IWO JIMA hit the beach locked & loaded and took the high ground back when Truman was President. A substantial success, with prescient timing, it manned the firing line in the succeeding Ike/JFK/LBJ/Tricky Dick years when its barrages and flamethrowers—packed with valor and pumped by the Marines’ Hymn—were broadcast to a new generation of naive recruits on TV. It’s social impact/fallout far outweighed any mixed quality as an entertainment. Instantly identifiable, one of the most famous War movies, the frequently cornball script keeps it out of the ‘excellent’ category, but it’s saved by a committed, strong, ultimately iconic performance from a commanding star: John Wayne is ‘Sergeant Stryker’ and Sergeant Stryker is the Marine. “SADDLE UP!” *
Outwardly a demonstrable hard-ass, inside a lonely and bitter alcoholic, Stryker/Duke coaches, berates and clobbers a platoon of boisterous, callow kids into blooded combat vets, leading them onto the Pacific island cauldrons of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. Before and between the infernos come the personality clashes and difference-settling with the hardy supporting cast; some quick liberty romance is thrown in to temper and humanize the bravado. Besides the looming prospect of the Japanese, and his inner turmoil, giving Stryker chief grief are John Agar and Forrest Tucker, hotheads with petty reasons for detesting the guy who will possibly save their lives when the talk stops and the lead starts.
“Now, nobody knows exactly what they’ve got on this island, but they’ve had forty years to put it there.”
His hard work made to appear deceptively offhand, Wayne is excellent, and Stryker’s gruff toughness under-laid with a forgiving affability helped sear into the movie-going public’s noggins a vital part of the Duke mythos, an effortlessly charismatic and perfectly cinematic blend of opposites, at once both taut and relaxed. He channeled a lot of his own family-regret anguish into the part, and the castmates were impressed. John Agar: “Sgt. Stryker was right down Duke’s alley. It showed the tough part about him, the soft part about him, it really was very much like him. His eyes expressed such conviction, and when I spoke my lines it just seemed as if I was talking to him. And he was so encouraging.”
Critics agreed, and industry peers put him up as a Best Actor nominee at the Oscars. He felt he was better in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and the nomination may have partially been because he’d been overlooked the year before for Red River. Good as he is, from my corner of the foxhole I like him better in yet another of his 1949 roles, Three Godfathers. He lost to Broderick Crawford’s politician bully in All The King’s Men, a character and movie Wayne hated. Twenty years on, validation would come with valediction in True Grit. He ought to have been nominated for The Quiet Man and Rio Bravo and should have won for The Searchers. But..“that’ll be the day…”
The writing from Harry Brown and Wayne pal James Edward Grant tends to the cliché and some sappy exposition stuff leaks effect: too many wounded or expiring guys get mini-speeches that instead of making your eyes mist over get them to roll up. Director Allan Dwan would have better served by paring some of the ham (the same year’s Army epic, Battleground, did a much smoother job in the emotion zone, thanks to the piloting skill of William Wellman). That said, along with Wayne’s zeroed-in focus, Dwan gets decent work from most of the supporting players: in a 50-year career, this stands as his most well-known film.
Running 110 minutes, more than a third is taken up with the two action set-pieces. Elaborate mockups of the lagoon/sea wall at Tarawa and the wastes of Iwo Jima, with hundreds of extras, tons of explosions and plenty of suitable noise are mixed with dramatic actual footage from the assaults. Dwan (and uncredited 2nd-unit director Nathan Barraga) don’t employ the outlandish phony heroics staged in earlier mid-war propaganda rousers like Bataan or The Fighting Seabees, but they still soft-peddle the slaughter that marked those terrible battles: simply, there’s just not enough death. It’s more exercise than horror. The Pentagon could only approve so much mayhem, as the idea wasn’t to get people to not enlist. Still, the pyrotechnics are impressive and the real-deal camera record keeps lethal historical fascination.
Even with the eager co-operation from Camp Pendleton in providing locations, equipment and 2,000 Marines as extras, the production over-ran its budget by 40%, costing $1,400,000, a whale for penny-pinching Republic Studios. Good reviews, Oscar talk and box-office scores made them happy, as it came in 8th place for the year, earning rentals over $5,000,000, indicating a gross at least twice that (one site says $13,890,000). Semper Financis.
Aside from Wayne, it pegged Academy nominations for Story, Film Editing and Sound (good job there). With Wally Cassell (the please-shut-up comic relief), James Brown, Adele Mara**, Julie Bishop (when she approaches Stryker at a bar, he tells her “Drift“), Arthur Franz, Richard Jaeckel (of course), Richard Webb, a 17-year old puppy Martin Milner (that poetry paperback a sure sign you’ll get offed, son), Peter Coe, William Murphy, Hal Baylor and George Tyne. The 1950 publicity photos of the ‘acting’ Marines may have worked back when, but seen today are embarrassing. ***
* After WW2 ended, and before our deceitful politicians and greedy industrial mandarins had decided to make the drummed-up Red Menace swipe our economy to go All-Bombs-All-The-Time, budget cuts loomed. The Marines worried they’d be folded into—God forbid—the Army, and were anxious to have a film showcase their blood-soaked but glory-drenched Pacific victories, which had been under-represented in the movies. Sands Of Iwo Jima not only caught their attention, it was launched at the start of a renewed wave of combat flicks that hit the theaters starting in 49′. The nasty surprise of the Korean War began in mid-1950. While Born On The 4th Of July Vietnam casualty Ron Kovic would later insist that “I gave my dead dick for John Wayne”, one wonders if liberal actor Richard Widmark’s 1951 Halls Of Montezuma may have helped feed corpuscles into the Corps every bit as much. In color! I didn’t catch ‘Sands‘ until as a teenager, and never particularly identified it with John Wayne, whereas some of my earliest cine-memories of Marines, war movies and GLORY came from the Widmark picture. Wayne I associated with The Alamo (tying in Widmark as well as Davy Crockett). Like countless boomer boys, I grew up on Wayne, westerns and war movies—in grade school, our class sang the Marines’ Hymn. As a little kid, I assumed that one grew up to become a Marine (followed by college, marriage and a Buick). My parents (who knew WW2 was necessary but not really all that cool) were hoping I’d get old enough to wise up before the next bugle call blew in from Asia. As it turned out—who knew?—one did: I missed Vietnam by the luck of the draw, or I may have ended up like Mr. Kovic. I certainly would have been disillusioned earlier. But I wouldn’t have blamed it on John Wayne. I blame The Green Berets on him, but not the friggin’ Vietnam War itself.
** Beautiful Spanish-American pinup gal Adele Mara was born in Michigan as Adelaida Delgado. Here she is supposed to be from New Zealand: with no attempt to sound like it, she may as well be from New Mexico. Guys in audience could care less.
*** Featured in the finale are the three surviving Leathernecks who raised the flag at Iwo: Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John Bradley. Also in a bit is the tough nut who led the assault wave at Tarawa, David Shoup, later commandant of the Corps and eventually a notable insider critic of the Vietnam fiasco in particular and the military-industrial complex in general. A Hero all round.
Yes, comradski, we know Wayne did not serve, except for his considerable morale value on the home front. Agar, Tucker, Franz and Webb had all been in uniform. Hal Baylor, who is famously taught how to dance-move in bayonet practice by Wayne/Stryker, might have sensed some irony, as he had been a Marine in—real, not reel— action on ghastly Saipan and Tinian.
Some WW2 Marine vets: Tyrone Power, Lee Marvin, Hugh O’Brian, John Russell, George C. Scott, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Louis Hayward, Don Adams, Glenn Ford, Sterling Hayden, Brian Keith, Jock Mahoney, Ed McMahon, Robert Ryan, James Whitmore, James Griffith, Robert Bray, Pat Paulsen, Bob Keeshan, Larry Blyden and…Jonathan Winters. Semper Fi, mac.