Directed by Allan Dwan
December 14, 1949
As told from the viewpoint of Cpl. Robert Dunne (Arthur Franz), a group of soldiers at first bristle at the methods of troubled tough Sgt. John M. Stryker (John Wayne) but soon come to appreciate them and him.
Wayne is once again playing the paternal figure here but with flaws. His character of Stryker is no saint having somehow screwed up his marriage and perhaps even estranged himself from his own young son. Ouch! Strangely there is no real love interest for the character, but he does do the right thing by a woman he meets one night with the implication being that she’s selling herself to support her and her son.
The other significant figure is PFC Pete Conway (John Agar) who is the college-educated son of Colonel Sam Conway that Stryker had previously served under. Conway immediately comes into conflict with Stryker because of Stryker’s connection to his father. Conway is the young, idealistic character whose eyes are eventually open by the realities of the war to how good Stryker is.
It is not a bad film but at times it is hampered by story elements common to films of the era. Stock characters with little depth or purpose beyond tugging at the heartstrings were not uncommon. I have never been too keen on them because beyond the moment they tend to be disposable to the narrative. It is no different here.
It is a good enough drama that does manage some fine character moments though. The acting is decent. Where it really fails are the death scenes but the way they did it was pretty standard for the time. The person gets shot and then they look like they stepped on a Lego piece in their bare feet just before flopping forward. I just cannot believe people die like that.
It is important to point out that this is a rare film where John Wayne does not make it out alive. With only minutes left and Stryker reacting as he normally would, he gets shot and that is it for him. Wayne had one of the better death scenes in the movie. He did not overreact. He did not ham it up. He just died. The death itself was abrupt and a little jarring in the context of the story and drove home the senselessness of war.
At times the story waffles between serious drama and a fun adventure. Hollywood had not quite figured out how to consistently portray war as serious business. It made things a little uneven.
This is not my favorite John Wayne film, but it is not a bad film either overall. Aside from the issues that I raise (which are things that have consistently bothered me across multiple films) I cannot really complain. The acting is good. While not groundbreaking, the story is solid and entertaining. Wayne’s usual approach works well and the use of those that were actually there as well as footage of the battle lends authenticity to it all.
In a little bit of trivia this is believed to be the first use of “lock and load” as a metaphor for being ready. An interesting fun fact. The first use was on film and in a Wayne film.
Sands of Iwo Jima is an entertaining film. I have some minor issues but those are more on me than anything. Definitely a fine drama with a good cast. Watch it!