Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

When it’s on: Friday, 8 June (1.05 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

According to his IMDb entry, Allan Dwan directed more than 400 pictures over the course of a career that spanned the silent era and lasted until 1961. Many of his entries were shorts, churned out during the production line of the 1910s. Whilst Dwan should be credited with some ground-breaking work alongside Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, he’s probably best remembered for Sands of Iwo Jima, his 1949 war film that became box office gold. More than that, the film’s lead role, taken by John Wayne, developed into the template for tough sergeants on the screen for years to come. Indeed, compare this with Heartbreak Ridge and it’s quite possible to see shades of John Stryker in Clint Eastwood’s character, Gunny Highway.

It seems completely impossible to talk about Sands of Iwo Jima without recording the fact that Wayne played no part in the actual fighting of World War Two. What that makes him as a man is entirely at the discretion of the reader, though his ability to act the part is never in doubt. Whether he puts in a superb performance or stands as an example of perfect casting, Marion owns every scene he’s in. Through a combination of personality, physical presence and natural charisma, he simply blows everyone else off the screen. The downside of this is that most of the men in his squad are reduced to one-dimensional characters, with the exception of John Agar’s Peter Conway. That’s inevitable in a 100 minute feature; Dwan didn’t have the space to explore the different people in any kind of detail. But it does force the emphasis to remain on Wayne, and he doesn’t disappoint. Hard on his men, never letting up in his discipline and rigorous training, we see another side to him when the squad get a rare night off and discover Stryker, blind drunk and helpless. The two sides to his character are explained at the end, by which stage the men respect and follow him because his leadership style has turned them into soldiers capable of surviving the Pacific theatre.

Unlike Heartbreak Ridge, the ‘training’ portion of the film isn’t overlong. The marines are soon off to whichever island the Americans are contesting with Japan. The invasion of Tarawa sees mistakes made, particularly by Private Thomas (Forrest Tucker) who stops for coffee when he should be taking ammunition to his comrades. They’re killed. Lesson learned. And then there’s Conway, the son of an officer Stryker once served under. It takes some time for the arrogant Private to find any liking for his Sergeant, even as the latter takes endless time and patience to pass on his advice and wisdom. These feelings are mixed in with a deep resentment at growing up the son of a decorated soldier and going to college instead of following in his footsteps.

The action eventually leads to Iwo Jima Island, with some excellent wedding of stock footage from the actual combat with shots of the actors. The impression of fierce fighting, the Japanese scrapping for every inch of land, is made with some force. Men fall dead in every frame, quite randomly, and whilst it’s the relatively bloodless standards of the time it remains a visceral and desperate sight. The point of the battle is undermined by one man’s description of the poor soil on Iwo Jima. Conway gets to save Stryker’s life, paying him back for the time in training when the sergeant knocked him away from the blast area of a live grenade.

Ironically, Wayne turned down the role when first offered it, feeling he was too old for it and besides, what use was another war film within a saturated market? It’s fortunate that he didn’t. John Stryker turned into one of his most iconic portrayals, regularly making the list of ‘Top Ten’ Wayne characters and cutting through the two blocs of Westerns made by John Ford and Howard Hawks. There’s still the nagging sense that he was essentially playing himself, the tough guy with the rock hard moral code, yet there are moments in Iwo Jima when this is contradicted. Settling into a drinking session in a Hawaii bar, Stryker picks up a girl and heads for her apartment. She nips out for whiskey, which he has to pay for, and then he hears noises from another room. It’s the girl’s baby; suddenly any amorous feelings he might have had are gone. Instead, realising the woman’s penniless he leaves some money for the kid and moves on. Any lingering doubts over the melancholia underpinning his character are dispelled, and the source is confirmed at the film’s close. It’s to Wayne’s credit that he puts this into his performance in a way that’s entirely credible. It led to an Academy Award nomination, not to mention the countless rip-offs of his character in subsequent films.

Sands of Iwo Jima: ***