Sands of Iwo Jima: John Wayne towers over this seminal WWII epic with one of his greatest and most iconic performances

Sands of Iwo Jima(1949), directed by Allan Dwan and starring John Wayne, John Agar and Forrest Tucker in lead roles, is one of the most popular American war films. It features a fictional story of the events leading up to the factual raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi by the U.S. Marines.

Inspired by Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (taken on Friday, Feb. 23, 1945) of six U.S. Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima; and released less than five years after the conclusion of WWII, “Sands of Iwo Jima” is one of the definitive and most popular American War films ever made. Usually, movies are inspired from novels or other literary works, this is one of those rare films that’s inspired by a photograph. Of course, it’s no ordinary photograph: it was the centerpiece of a war-bond poster that helped raise $26 billion in 1945; even before the war had ended, it appeared on a United States postage stamp; and nine years later it became the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. So it was natural that the image has become subject of several literary and film works: Clint Eastwood directed “Flags of our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”- which is actually a more comprehensive take on the battles that were fought on the Iwo Jima Island. but it’s done from the Japanese perspective. “Sands of Iwo Jima” is done purely from an American perspective, but despite the film being an unabashed flag-waiver and a patriotic paean to the Marine Corps, there’s hardly any hint of politics: it’s not jingoistic or even overly propagandistic. The film does not stereotype or demonize the Japanese, we hardly get to see more than five Japanese soldiers at close quarters; and the film doesn’t even get to Iwo Jima till its final thirty minutes. Till then, we get a pretty gritty, grim and realistic take on the life in the Corps: the tough training that the fresh-faced recruits have to undergo; the interpersonal relationships between the soldiers; how the Marine life is taking a heavy toll on their personal lives; and how these Marines gets the nauseating, soul crushing first taste of battle. The film is also one of the most trendsetting movies in American film history: apart from being the first of the WWII films to present a gritty and docudrama like take on the war- inspiring such movies as Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” the film can also be credited with starting the subgenre of ‘Military-training-themed’ picture or the ‘Drill-Instructor’ picture which became a staple of the 1980s Hollywood cinema. Remember those vey popular 80s films like “Officer and a Gentleman,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” “Major Payne” and “Full Metal Jacket”?, we can trace their origin back to “Sands of Iwo Jima,”; and the archetype of the tough ‘drill-instructor’ to the film’s lead character of Marine Sergeant John M. Stryker, played by John ‘Duke’ Wayne- in one of his greatest and most iconic performances.

Sgt. John M. Stryker is one of the most emotionally complex roles that Duke has ever got to play. Stryker’s a hardheaded, battle-hardened combat vet, who’s driven by personal demons. His dedication to the Corps and his country has alienated him from his family- he’s divorced from his wife and estranged from his son. He’s both a toughie and a softie- who drives his men hard, and drowns his sorrows in drink. Despite his great accomplishments in battles, his brawling and boozing had ensured that he has not progressed much in his career. At the height of WWII, Stryker is stationed on a Marine base in New Zealand; and thanks to his experience in the ‘Battle of Guadalcanal’, he’s chosen to train the combat replacements newly arriving in the camp. But he’s disliked by the men of his squad due to his rigorous training methods. One morning early in the training period, Stryker discovers that PFC Peter ‘Pete’ Conway(John Agar), the son of his deceased former commanding officer, Col. Sam Conway, has joined his unit. Although Stryker attempts to bond with Pete over Sam’s memory, Pete reveals that he hated his demanding father and also despises Stryker for his resemblance to the man. Also newly arrived in his unit is PFC Al Thomas (Forrest Tucker), who also holds a grudge against Stryker: he blames Stryker for his demotion. So Stryker has two men in his unit who continuously seethes behind his back, and making it difficult for him to do his job as the drill-instructor. Stryker is also saddened to find out that he’s not receiving any letters from his son; and when he (and his unit) get some leave time, he goes out and gets drunk. He’s taken care by his trainees, who, despite their hatred for him, protects him from the security guards. Meanwhile, Pete meets and falls in love with a lady named Allison Bromley. They would eventually marry.

Only a day after Pete and Allison marry, the unit is sent to the Tarawa atoll, which is occupied by Japanese forces. After Stryker’s unit lands, he orders two of his men to cross a dangerous minefield and place a charge inside a bunker where the Japanese have hidden some explosives. Stryker watches as both men are shot down, then rushes forward to grab the charge and complete the mission single-handedly. Later, PFC Thomas decides to take a coffee break in the mortar men’s foxhole, while leaving his subordinates, Bass and Hellenopolis, alone in theirs. This move inadvertently causes Hellenopolis’ death and Bass’ wounding. The unit is then ordered to entrench, without movement, in an unsafe zone, and despite the pleas of his men to rescue the nearby Bass, Stryker refuses to violate his orders, and they are forced to listen to Bass’s plaintive cries for help until the next morning, when Bass is rescued. Pete considers Stryker brutal and unfeeling when he refuses to disobey orders and go to Bass’s rescue, and even goes as far as committing insubordination when he plans to go out on his own to rescue Bass- Stryker has to threaten to shoot him to stop him from leaving his post. But by now Stryker’s men has come to value his tough methods; they realize that they were able to survive the battle thanks only to the rigorous training that Stryker put them through.

After the battle, the unit arrives in Hawaii, where Bass tells Stryker that Thomas was absent from his post during the attack. An enraged Stryker gets into a fistfight with Thomas. A passing officer spots this serious offense, but Thomas claims that Stryker was merely teaching him judo. Later, a guilt-ridden Thomas abjectly apologizes to Stryker for his dereliction of duty. Stryker forgives him, and they become friends. Having turned around Thomas, Stryker again tries to reach out to Pete, who has just had a son, but Pete reacts coldly towards his friendly overtures; Stryker realizes that Pete hates his father (and in turn hates him) just too much for them to ever have a friendly relationship. But Pete starts thawing towards Stryker, when the latter saves his life: during a training exercise a young replacement accidentally drops a live hand grenade close to Pete; Stryker knocks him down in the nick of time and gets injured in the process. Finally, Stryker and his men proceed to Iwo Jima, and in the bloody battle that follows, the American side suffer heavy casualties. When the unit finally gains the top of the island’s Mount Suribachi, Stryker instructs his men to hoist the American flag, but is killed by a random bullet. Pete drops to his knees to embrace Stryker’s corpse and finds an unfinished letter that he had been writing to explain himself to his son. As the entire unit witnesses the Marines raising the flag, Pete vows to complete his brave mentor\leader’s letter and deliver it to his son.

Indeed, the last ten minutes of the film is the most rousing and unabashedly sentimental; the film lets go off all its restraint and realistic ambitions to move full throttle into melodramatic territory. The heroism and patriotism of Duke’s Sergeant is amplified with his death, then the reading of his unfinished letter by his comrades, finally topped off by the iconic raising of the flag- which takes Stryker (and John Wayne) and the film into mythical territory. This is really the moment when John Wayne became the ultimate symbol of American heroism. He had already conquered the American West through his Westerns, but this was the first time we saw him fighting for his country in uniform; fighting external enemies in the Pacific theater of war, and laying down his life for his country. “Sands of Iwo Jima” was also the biggest popular success Duke had unto that time. “Stagecoach” turned Duke into a star, but it was the bunch of movies he made in the the late 1940s – “Red River,” “Fort Apache,” “She wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and of course “Sands of Iwo Jima” – that made him into the ultimate American film Icon. Other actors may have portrayed military characters before and after him, but it was Duke, who symbolized all the American ideals of duty and service to country. It’s also interesting to note that Duke’s emergence as the biggest American movie star coincided with America’s emergence as the world’s most powerful nation post its victory in WWII; and this film, more than any other, reflected this perfectly. Duke’s death scene in the film also set the template for all future death scenes for Duke; Duke dies in very few films, but in whatever latter films he dies, he’s shot from the back; nobody can take down Duke in a fair fight, face to face.

The character he plays in the film was also the first of a kind for Duke; those who come to “Iwo Jima” after going through a bunch of his late-career films will not find anything new here, but this is the first time Duke was cast as the mentor\leader\father-figure; who’s a tough, no-nonsense teacher imbibing the right values into his followers\sons, and then leading them into some righteous, dangerous mission. Duke created the role of Sergeant Stryker and then ended up merging his own personality with the character (and vice versa). He had already played a full-on patriarch in “Red River,” but that was more of a dark, despotic nature; here we really see the All-American John Wayne persona getting fully formed- a persona that he will play (and also parody) for much of the rest of his career. And since this is the formative period of Duke’s legendary persona, his performance here is more (let’s say) truthful; he’s playing a character here (than projecting a persona) with restraint, maturity and complexity. This is true for all his performance in the films from this period I mentioned above (I particularly love his performance in “She wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and considers that to be an even better one than this). Duke’s got a lot of great moments n the film, but the best is the scene where he has to ignore Bass’ cries for help in obedience to his superiors’ orders to dig in, so as not to reveal their diminished strength to the enemy. Though technically this is a war film, director Dwan concentrates more on the faces of the soldiers, more than visuals of explosions and carnage, to convey the terror of war; and this scene in particular is pretty brilliant. The close-up of Duke’s face when he points his gun at Pete and threatens to shoot him while listening to Bass’ anguished cries is devastating in the myriad of emotions that he expresses: helplessness, authority, determination, agony; it’s perhaps the best moment in the film. Another scene is where a bitterly drunk Duke is picked by a bargirl in Hawaii; the girl was forced into prostitution after her soldier husband disappeared (or was killed). Duke’s subsequent visit to her house (for an intended sexual tryst) and discovery of her hungry infant son might appear clichéd. But it provides a terrific moment for Duke to be brilliantly understated and vulnerable.

The battle scenes in the film were also cutting edge for their time; real newsreel footage of the battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima were spliced into battle scenes shot specifically for the film to enlarge the scale and scope of the battles; but because of the former’s overly grainy nature the contrast between the two footage is pretty obvious; additionally, as it was the norm at the time, a lot of night scenes and dialogue scenes are shot on studio soundstages. But since this is a Black & White film, the mixing of scenes works to a large extend. The final battle is pretty gritty and realistic and very well edited, but it fails to convey the enormity of the 36 day ‘battle of Iwo Jima’: it was the bloodiest battle in the Pacific theater with more than twenty-six thousand casualties; and Americans suffered more causalities than the Japanese. Apart from the iconic flag-raising scene, there’s very little of “Iwo Jima” in the film. I feel the title was specifically used to capitalize on that photograph; the film never becomes a comprehensive depiction of the battle for the Island. The film is mainly about the interpersonal relationships between soldiers, with some detours into soap opera territory with a romance and such. The film has its share of stereotypes and clichéd scenes- like soldiers fighting each others like kids, or adversaries becoming friends after one saves the life of the other. So, it’s isn’t exactly a true or great war film, but nevertheless a very good film. I have to say that Duke’s greatest war film remains John Ford’s “They were Expendables.”

Contrary to popular perception that the film was meant to be a recruitment poster for the Marines, the film was actually intended to save the Corps from being folded into the Army. It was a time of congressional committees looking hard at military appropriations; there was some thought being given to folding the Marines into the Army, and the Marines thought that a big gung ho movie would serve as good propaganda for maintaining a stand-alone Corps. So they gave full support to this Republic Pictures Production; the production was allotted an entire battalion to be featured in the film. The film’s script was approved by the Corps, and the actors appearing in the film also returned the sentiment: by happily working with the Marines, learning to wear the uniform correctly, and learning the Marine Corps lingo, so that they can put the right words in the right place. Also, appearing in the film as themselves are Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith (Ret.), wartime commander of the Fifth Amphibious Corps; Capt. Harold Schrier, who led the platoon of Marines up the slopes of Suribachi; Lt. Col. H. P. Crowe, a battalion commander on Tarawa; and Col. David M. Shoup, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. All this as well as the use of real weapons and real uniform & gear, and being shot mostly on outdoor locales gives the film a rare verisimilitude that cannot found in other 1940s War movies. Surprisingly, Duke was not the original choice for the role of Stryker, neither did Duke wanted to do it. He was thinking that people had had enough of the war, and maybe they weren’t ready for another war film. But this was to be a big, classy production from the usually penny-pinching Republic Pictures honcho, Herbert Yates; it was to be made with full participation from the Corps and it was written by Harry Brown, and Duke’s favorite writer, James Edward Grant. Duke also liked the director, Allan Dwan, whose career stretched back to the beginning of films, and who has made some Four-thousand pictures (mostly one-reelers). Duke also strongly related with Stryker: who neglected his wife and child for the Corps; as he could connect it with his own neglect of his wife and child in favor of his film career. Duke prepared for his role by spending time at Camp Pendleton, talking to marines, especially the sergeants. Undoubtedly, all that contributed immensely to his great performance.

“Sands of Iwo Jima” was a very big film for a poverty row studio like ‘Republic’, costing more than a Million Dollars. When it was released in 1949, the film proved to be a smash hit, earning rentals of $4.2 million. It turned out to be the biggest hit that the studio ever made. Duke’s share of the profits alone was three hundred and eighty thousand dollars; this was big money at the time, and even the biggest stars were paid only half that amount. When the film was premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Duke put his hand & foot print in the cement of the famous pavement outside. The film also earned Duke his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but he lost to Broderick Crawford in “All the King’s Men.” Nevertheless, Duke was thrilled to be recognized at last by his peers, even though he felt that he should have been nominated for John Ford’s “She wore a Yellow Ribbon” that was also released the same year. Following the success of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” Duke appeared for the first time on the poll of the ten most popular stars in the United States. He remained on this popularity poll for an all-time record of 25 years, thus becoming the most popular and long-lasting American movie superstar ever. Republic Pictures had planned a sequel to “Iwo Jima”, called “Devil Birds”, which was to once again star Duke, but that film was never made.


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