"Saddle up," if you're in the mood for a good old fashioned U.S. military propaganda film, complete with Marine complicity and steadfast use of the Marine Hymn for the musical score. Pop Sands of Iwo Jima into your video recorder or DVD player. Before the non-sanctioned Vietnam flicks (and before Saving Private Ryan), Hollywood once sanitized its war movies to conform to military standards that showed little realism and promoted American notions of heroism (along with stereotypical plots and wooden acting). Allan Dwan's film only rises above the mundane formula due to John Wayne's excellent performance as the flawed Sergeant John N. Stryker.
Filmed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Sands of Iwo Jima begins with the hard-nosed Stryker training new marines in New Zealand for the island-hopping battles to come. Screenwriters Harry Brown and James Edward Grant script standard formula soldiers for the platoon:
* Pfc. Conway (John Agar) – son of Stryker's buddy, who joins out of a sense of duty to family tradition
The 1943 training proceeds as expected, as the older Stryker works to get the platoon into fighting shape. Most of the training scenes are shown via montages that fade in and out, shot at a medium distance so you don't get a real sense of the rigorousness of the training. Even a brutal twenty-two mile uphill hike is glossed over with a narration to transition to nighttime pup tent scene, where Thomas proclaims the veracity of love at first sight.
* Pfc. Thomas (Forrest Tucker) — antagonist to the sergeant. He once lost a boxing championship to Stryker, so any dunderhead can figure out one required scene to come
* Pfc. Regazzi (Wally Cassell) — the comic relief
* Pfc. Bass (James Brown) — steadfast loyalist to the sergeant
* Pfc. Choynski (Hal Baylor) — platoon doofus (think a less over-the-top Gomer Pyle from Full Metal Jacket)
* Flynn brothers (Richard Jaeckel and William Murphy) — provide unfunny comic relief as the continually bickering and wrestling brothers from Philadelphia (city of brotherly love)
* Assorted other ethnic stereotypes and generic soldiers to serve as cannon fodder
Two training sequences stand out only because the screenwriters develop the scenes more, and because Stryker carries them. In a scene that the Marines wanted left out (as it could never occur without a court martial), Stryker practices "tough love" on the bumbling left-footed Choynski with a stiff rifle butt to the chin. Stryker makes up for the blow later with a silly "Mexican Hat Dance" routine to teach Choynski proper bayonet thrusting techniques.
The battle at Iwo Jima turns anti-climatic because the more interesting scenes take place at Battle of Tarawa, where Styker gains credibility with his platoon for heroically taking out a Japanese stronghold, losing only three men in the process. Notably, the filmmakers deserve some kudos for seamlessly splicing actual Iwo Jima battle footage with the Camp Pendleton beach sets. Special effects are far more technologically advanced today, but considering the state of the art in 1949, it's easy to see why Sands Over Iwo Jima was a crowd pleaser.
The most notable highlights are supplied by The Duke, of course. John Wayne foreshadows his greatest performance to come—the complex Ethan Edwards in The Searchers—with Stryker, taking what could have been a one-dimensional character to deeper levels with remarkable subtlety. Stryker may be one tough-minded Marine with typical family problems—don't most career movie officers join the military to escape family responsibilities and sentimentality?—but he allows touches of humanity to shine through.
One small moment occurs during a night off. Stryker sits alone at a table. His drinking problem has been well established, along with the idea that his family relationships are dysfunctional, but his initial rebuff of a female proposition comes across humorously before his eyes soften a bit. Whoa! The Duke takes her up on her offer? Remember that this is a 1949 film, and certain codes are in place, so don’t expect a wild sex scene, but watching Wayne maneuver through this encounter makes the film worthwhile.
Wayne also navigates some potentially sentimental material with Pfc. Conway, conflicted because he’s not like the man that his father envisioned. He's Harvard-educated and far softer than the macho soldier who formed his father's ideal, so Conway has issues to resolve. The film sets him up as most likely not to succeed in surviving the battle—Conway gets hurriedly married before shipping off to battle, discovers that he's going to be a father, and has a "feeling" that he's not going to make it. Wayne provides a nice balance for the character. No pure tearjerker scenes when The Duke is on the set!
Sands of Iwo Jima represents one of the better U.S. propaganda films of the 40s, filled with American ideals and values—and officially sanctioned by the U.S. Marine Corps. An expected and required moment is the raising of the flag scene above Mount Suribachi that has become a Marine icon, but a really nice touch is provided when several of the famous survivors who made up that famous picture serve cameo roles in the film. Especially poignant is the story of the Pima named Ira Hayes, who returned to the states a war hero after the flag raising, only to die a few years later from hypothermia after passing out from a drunken binge.
The film fares much better than Ira Hayes. It rises above mediocrity on the strength of The Duke's broad shoulders, from its historical value, and from the editing work that splices the actual war footage into the Hollywood production.