Allan Dwan’s 1949 war drama “Sands of Iwo Jima” gave John Wayne his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s about tough-as-nails Sergeant John Stryker (Wayne), and the men under his command, from their training to the battles themselves. It all eventually culminates in the infamous battle of Iwo Jima (and, specifically, the iconic image of the flag being raised as that moment takes place in the waning moments of this film). In addition to this, there is drama that takes place in-between the chaos, including romance for one of the more rebellious men in Stryker’s group. You also get to understand that Stryker, though seemingly tough and heartless, is contending with his own demons and deeply cares about his men.
Wonderful little moments sprinkled amid the battle make “Sans of Iwo Jima” more engaging than it could have been, despite some moments that are very ‘of the genre’ if not downright corny.
Stryker, for instance, is fatally shot while taking out a cigarette and saying ‘I’ve never felt better in my life.’ This death warrant of a quote was laughably ironic. It’s a shame Stryker went out in such a fashion as I really did like him in no small part due to Wayne, whose performance I was pleasantly surprised with.
In many ways, Stryker is not much of a deviation from Wayne’s typical role (at least from what little I’ve seen so far), but Wayne gives the character some glimmering moments of subtle brilliance that make the character stand out. One scene that demonstrates this is when Sgt. Stryker (Wayne) must urge his men to stay put while an injured comrade cries for help from the battlefield. He knows movement would give away their position, as well as go against orders, so he remains in-place though it tears him apart. The usually stoick and hardened sergeant has a human side, and Wayne does an excellent job conveying it here and in other moments throughout the film.
The other actors do well in their respective roles as well, and while it often does seem like some characters are a bit underdeveloped, the screenplay does provide enough to latch onto some of the characters.
One problem I had with the film is the use of documentary war footage along with the film sequences during battles. I am not fond of this mixed style of filmmaking as it makes the film feel disjointed. I am sure it was easier to make war movies this way since CGI and other visual effects technologies weren’t around yet. Even so, the documentary footage has a different look from the rest of the film and it’s a distraction.
I also would have liked to see a bit more creativity from the opening training montage. Dwan gives us a generic montage with Stryker’s transparent, shouting face overlaid. We do get some solid training moments later on, once it is clear the men hate Stryker, but even so the opening felt lazy and uninspired.
Putting all of this aside, “Sands of Iwo Jima” has more good to it than bad. The film is strongest during the more intimate moments with the characters, whether during battle or calm.
Wayne’s performance, however, is strong and elevates the film overall.
Score: 3 out of 5
P.S. If you are looking for a film that isn’t politically correct, this is the one for you.
“Sands of Iwo Jima” imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041841/
“Sands of Iwo Jima” wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sands_of_Iwo_Jima
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