Special Veterans Day Edition: John Wayne in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (Republic 1949)

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.

Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph

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…

Semper fi, Marine!

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.

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (United Artists 1945)

William Wellman’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE tells the tale of boots-on-the-ground combat soldiers through the eyes of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard newspapers. The film was one of the most realistic depictions of the brutality of war up to that time, and made a star out of a young actor by the name of Robert Mitchum . In fact, this was the one and only time Mitchum ever received an Oscar nomination – a shocking fact given the caliber of his future screen work.

Burgess Meredith  plays Pyle, who embeds with the 18th Infantry’s ‘C’ Company in order to give his stateside readers the grim realities of war from the soldier’s point of view. The men accept him, affectionately calling him ‘Pop’, as he shares their hardships, heartbreaks, and victories. Meredith’s voice over narrations are taken directly from Pyle’s columns, detailing the cold nights, dusty roads, and slogging across muddy rivers, as they campaign through the rugged Italian terrain. Pyle and Captain (later Lieutenant) Walker (Mitchum) bond, the diminutive writer and the battle-hardened Walker sharing Grappa as they discuss life, love, and the pain of losing comrades in the midst of war.

Mitchum stands tall as Walker, his breakthrough role after toiling for five years in mostly ‘B’ Westerns. Walker, with his scruffy beard and stoic demeanor, is the embodiment of the American fighting man, fiercely loyal to his troops, tough when he has to be, tender during somber moments. The haunting final scene, as the soldiers solemnly pass by Walker’s corpse, will bring tears to the eyes of even the hardest hearted viewers. Mitchum’s restrained performance, under the watchful eye of director Wellman, led to his casting in larger roles and eventual superstardom.

Former Middleweight boxing champion Freddie Steele does outstanding work as Walker’s second in command, Sgt. Warnicki, whose eventual crack-up after trying to hold it together for so long is amazing to behold. The rest of ‘C’ Company’s main players (John R. Reilly, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd, William Murphy) all get their chances to shine, and real-life veterans of the Italian, Sicilian, and African campaigns are featured to add further authenticity.

William Wellman’s insisted on having his actors train with actual soldiers in California to insure that authenticity – they didn’t call him ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing! Wellman, DP Russell Metty, and the rest of the crew worked as a team, much like the soldiers themselves, to create a realistic depiction of the harshness of war. Wellman was a combat veteran himself, having been a fighter pilot during WWI, which helped provide the backdrop for his Oscar-winning film WINGS. Otho Lovering’s editing deserves special credit for putting it all together.

War correspondent Ernie Pyle (1900-1945)

The real Ernie Pyle was killed in action covering the Pacific front in Okinawa on April 18, 1945, two months before THE STORY OF G.I. JOE was released. War correspondents like Pyle were just as brave as the soldiers they covered,  putting themselves in harm’s way in order to bring the battle directly to the public, and sharing the human interest drama of the foot soldier’s struggles and triumphs. As we set aside this day to honor those who served, I leave you with this quote on returning veterans from a man who served in his own small way, the late Ernie Pyle:

“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people. Even if they were away from you under normal circumstances, the mere process of maturing would change them, and they would not come home just as you knew them. Add to that the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights and strange wonderful things they have experienced, and they are bound to be different people from those you sent away.”