Critics of John Wayne gave him a lot of flak for not serving his country during World War II, especially in the turbulent 1960’s, labeling him a phony patriot and celluloid warrior. The truth is Wayne DID try to get into the war, but was stymied in his attempts on two fronts: Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates, who filed for deferments so he wouldn’t lose his cash cow, and Wayne’s first wife Josie, who failed to forward letters from OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan’s office. Be that as it may, The Duke was no phony, and did what he could on the home front for the war effort.
SANDS OF IWO JIMA was made four years after the war as a tribute to the brave souls of the United States Marine Corps who fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Wayne plays the tough top kick Sgt. John Stryker, charged with molding a batch of new recruits into a fighting Marine Rifle Squad. Among them are Conway (John Agar ), the resentful son of Stryker’s former C.O.; Thomas (Forrest Tucker ), an ex-sergeant with a grudge against Stryker; Regazzi (Wally Cassell ), the obligatory hustler from Brooklyn; and the battling Flynn brothers (Richard Jaeckel , Bill Murphy).
Stryker’s hard-ass attitude causes many to dislike him, but the Marine lifer cares about the men’s safety and wants them all to come back alive. When the men are granted a brief leave, Conway meets and falls in love with Allison (Adele Mara ) at a dance, and marries her. But the honeymoon’s a short one as the squad is shipped to Tarawa, where a fierce battle is being fought. The island is taken, but at a deadly cost, as Stryker’s battlefield heroics saves the lives of many (but not all) of his squad, and Thomas’s slacking off to drink coffee gets one killed and another seriously wounded.
When Stryker finds out about Thomas’s lollygagging, they have it out in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that almost gets the sarge locked up, but Thomas turns out to be a stand-up guy, and his remorse is evident. After a brief stopover in Hawaii, their next mission is Iwo Jima, a raging battle that goes on for days and results in many casualties before they finally take Mt. Suribachi. But Stryker doesn’t live to see the iconic flag raising as he’s cut down by a sniper’s bullet. The men gather around their fallen leader, and Thomas reads an unmailed letter Stryker wrote to his estranged ten year old son (and if your eyes don’t well up with tears during this scene, there’s something wrong with you). The flag is raised, and Conway calls the men back to battle using Stryker’s favorite saying – “Saddle up!”.
Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker is a contradiction in terms. He’s tough and relentless with his men for a reason – he wants to give them the tools to survive the brutal war. He’s a Marine Corps lifer whose dedication to service cost him his wife and child, and that in turn caused him to hit the bottle hard. The scene where, while on leave in Honolulu, he picks up a bar girl (Julie Bishop ) and goes back to her place, only to discover she’s doing what she does to feed her fatherless child, is a tender moment in a tough film, and went a long way to help Wayne receive his first Oscar nomination.
Director Alan Dwan was an old pro who made his first film in 1913. While not a stylist like Wayne directors John Ford or Howard Hawks, Dwan was more than competent in any genre, and his action scenes are second to none. Among his many film credits are the 1922 ROBIN HOOD, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, THE THREE MUSKETEERS (’39 version) , BREWSTER’S MILLIONS, THE WILD BLUE YONDER, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, and THE RESTLESS BREED. Actual newsreel footage of the battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima are cut into the film to match DP Reggie Lenning’s studio-lensed shots, and editor Richard Van Enger’s work earned an Academy Award nomination, as did T.A. Carmen and Howard Wilson for their use of sound. Harry Brown’s original story was also nominated; he cowrote the screenplay with Wayne’s personal writer James Edward Grant. Besides those previously mentioned, the cast includes James Brown, Peter Coe , Hal Feiberling (later Baylor), Arthur Franz , Don Haggerty, Martin Milner , William Self, George Tyner, Richard Webb, and Dick Wessel.
Also in the film are Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley, recreating that famous flag raising moment caught on camera for all eternity by photographer Joe Rosenthal. Real-life Marines 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, Col. David M. Shoup, Lt. Col. Henry P. Crowe, and Lt. Gen. Holland Smith make appearances as themselves. These men are the real heroes of the battle of Iwo Jima, and today we honor their memories, as well as the memories of all who fought and died in the service of our country, men like 94-year-old Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from that grueling battle of Iwo Jima, which resulted in 26,000 American casualties and 6,800 dead…
Wherever you are here in America, take the time to stop and thank a vet for their service. And keep those you love close at heart.