John Wayne only picked up two Oscar nominations for acting. Yeah, a lot of his movies weren't going to win an Oscar to begin with. Yeah, many were 1930s serials barely clocking in at an hour. Others were more fan-friendly, not meant to create Oscar buzz. But in one of his best extended spans of pure acting power, the late 1940s, Wayne picked up his first nomination for 1949's Sands of Iwo Jima.
Following the horrific, costly fighting on Guadalcanal, Marine units all over the Pacific are being sent to the rear to rest up, recoup and get replacements as the war moves closer to Japan. One specific rifle squad, with just two surviving members and a wave of inexperienced replacements, is getting a new drill sergeant, Sergeant John Stryker (Wayne), a tough as nails instructor with plenty of combat under his belt. His methods for training are rough and to the point -- some would say brutal -- but he has one goal as the war continues. Stryker doesn't want to be friends with his men. He wants them to respect him if nothing else and mostly take his training to heart. If they hate him for it...so be it, but he intends to get him through the war unscathed if possible. The island-hopping fighting all across the Pacific continues on, the U.S. Marines ready to get back to the action.
Recently released on Blu-Ray courtesy of Olive Films, 'Sands' is an above average if not great World War II film. From director Allan Dwan, it has a reputation as a bit of a flag-waving patriotic movie, but that's a description that's incredibly limiting. Considering it was released just four years since the end of the war, it's pretty spot-on. The actual war segments are rough and violent without being graphic. It can be startling at times as it follows a war movie formula that would become tried and true in the coming years. Filmed in black and white, 'Sands' benefits from a memorable score from composer Victor Young and is at its strongest when focusing on the Marines in combat, specifically the fighting at Tarawa and Iwo Jima.
Now that John Wayne guy. He's halfway decent. This isn't his best performance -- I say that's from a choice of The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Shootist -- but it certainly belongs in the conversation. His tough as nails drill sergeant helped inspire countless movie roles in the years to come, and the Duke dives into the part headfirst. Stryker pushes and pushes his men, knowing that no matter how tough training is, it won't be as tough, as terrifying as combat. The better his men are prepared, maybe the more likely they'll make it through unscathed. It is a man's man type of role (one he deserved a nomination for), but it isn't this cold facade. It isn't one big stereotype. In a couple conversations, a couple quick scenes, we get to learn something about Stryker and his personal life, his background.
That goes a long way with the character. He isn't a heartless, emotionless drill sergeant with ice water in his veins. He pushes his men because he knows what's best for them. It's a varied character. We learn Stryker's wife left him five years before, taking their five-year old son with her. He's left to wonder where they're at, what his son has grown up to. Later on Tarawa, he threatens to shoot one of his own men if they expose the unit's position to go rescue a wounded soldier who's crying out to Stryker for help. In one instant, he's a wall of discipline. In the next, you see the extreme pain in his eyes as one of his men cries out for help from him specifically. The same later as the Marines are called back, Stryker standing on the transport ship looking back at Tarawa with just palpable sorrow in his eyes. As well, there's some humor, including my favorite as Stryker helps a clumsy recruit (Hal Baylor) how to do bayonet drills...by dancing. It's played straight but is a great visual.
Just an excellent performance from the Duke. The rest of the cast relies on the unit picture formula, a bunch of disparate guys thrown together and forced to fight as a cohesive group. John Agar plays Conway, a Marine with the corps in his blood...and he hates it, especially Stryker and all he represents. Forrest Tucker is very good as Thomas, a Marine who's been in Stryker's unit before and holds some serious resentment toward his former sarge. The rest of the squad includes Wally Cassell (the joker), James Brown and Arthur Franz (the vets), Richard Webb (the lovable teddy bear), James Holden (the affable farmer), Peter Coe (the Greek), Richard Jaeckel and William Murphy (the bickering Philadelphia brothers), George Tyne (the married man always ready with a joke), and Martin Milner (the youngster). A solid group of supporting parts from some always reliable character actors.
'Sands' is at its most comfortable and strongest in the training sequences and montages and when Stryker's Marines hit the beaches at Tarawa and Iwo Jima. The hitting the beaches at Tarawa scene is especially effective, the Marines pinned down in a lagoon against a log embankment. Their only way out? Up and over the logs to take out a fortified Japanese pillbox built into a dune. The battle for Iwo Jima is equally effective as Japanese forces absolutely rain down hell on the Marines moving inland. The casualties come fast and furious as the squad is especially hit hard as they approach Mount Suribachi. It all builds to the squad taking part in the patrol that takes Suribachi's summit and ultimately raises the flag. It is a surprising, moving finale as we see the basis for one of the most iconic, instantly recognizable pictures in American history.
It ain't a perfect movie with some parts of the story not working as well. Agar's Conway (a very unlikable character) meets, falls for and gets married to Adele Mara's Allison in scenes that drag the pacing down to a snail-like quality. The Marines getting their leave too is meant to humanize them but the efforts fall short. We learn more in the training and combat sequences. Still, it's an excellent movie courtesy of Wayne's Academy Award-nominated performance and a story of the Marines that doesn't shy away from the nastiness of the fighting in the Pacific. That's not something you can say for a lot of World War II movies released in the late 1940s.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949): ***/****