For those of you who are interested, this is the movie that cemented John Wayne’s image as Hollywood’s personification of the All-American war hero (despite his never serving a day in the military). The former Marion Michael Morrison had made a handful of war movies between 1941 and ’45, but it is Sgt. John Stryker that still forms the public’s perception of Wayne’s tough guy persona.
This is as it should be, as it remains one of the finest World War II films of its era. It was made soon enough after the war that it is not afflicted with any of the revisionist tendencies that have appeared in more recent war movies, but it was freed from the need to be explicitly a propaganda film. In short, it’s allowed to be more realistic than a film made just a few years earlier but it is still unabashedly patriotic.
The story follows the events in the life of a Marine rifle squad from training and through the invasions of Tarawa and Iwo Jima. Sgt. Stryker is forced to deal with a pair of malcontents. One is Private Thomas (Forrest Tucker), who has perviously served under Stryker and still harbors a grudge because the sergeant is responsible for him being busted down a rank. The other is Private Conway (John Agar), the college educated son of Stryker’s late commander from Guadalcanal. He hates Stryker mostly because Stryker likes his father and his father liked Stryker.
The sergeant has his own problems on the home front, in the person of an estranged wife and son, although these issues are dealt with tangentially, mostly in Stryker’s tendency to get stinking drunk every time he’s on leave.
The rest of the squad is filled out with the usual collection of colorful immigrants, an Italian, a Greek and two Irish brothers who spend more time fighting each other than they do the Japanese.
This film is at its strongest when it’s dealing with the Marines training and fighting rather than the soap opera of its personal conflicts. Stryker’s conflict with John Agar’s character seems especially forced and contrived.
The battle scenes, a mixture of stock footage and rather elaborate Hollywood recreations, are unusually raw and realistic for their time. Sands of Iwo Jima does not gloss over the brutality of the fighting on Tarawa and Iwo Jima or the severity of the American losses in those campaigns. It may lack the explicit carnage of modern war films, like Clint Eastwood’s recent diptych of Iwo Jima films, but this movie is as honest as it can be about the realities of war.
Modern film audiences may have a preconceived image of John Wayne as a dinosaur of a bygone era of films, but they dismiss the relevance of movies like Sands of Iwo Jima at their peril. Wayne was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this film and a fresh view reveals that it was well deserved.