Sands of Iwo Jima
Directed by Allan Dwan
Story by Harry Brown; Screenplay by Brown and James Edward Grant
Starring John Wayne, John Agar, and Forrest Tucker
Release Date: November 11, 2014
When it comes to vintage war movies Sands of Iwo Jima is about as old-fashioned as they can get. It was one of the last memorable features made by the late Allan Dwan, a Canadian-born filmmaker who had began working in the motion picture industry during its pre-sound infancy, and it starred silver screen legend John Wayne in one of his most iconic leading roles. In the decades that followed Sands‘ theatrical release, war movies got meaner, bloodier, and introspective about what it means to kill for your country, so Dwan’s film can’t helped but be regarded today as an antique from a different era of cinema history.
However, that hardly means Sands of Iwo Jima doesn’t bring to the table many of its own virtues, the most important being that it’s highly entertaining and features the Duke stepping outside his movie star comfort zone to deliver an actual performance to rank with his turns in the classic westerns Red River and The Searchers. At this point in his career Wayne had been firmly established as a star of big screen westerns and war epics. During World War II he saw celluloid combat in The Fighting Seabees, Flying Tigers, Back to Bataan, and John Ford’s They Were Expendable. Wayne could always be counted on to provide a hearty stew of sensitivity and machismo and marshal the war effort with his effortless performances. Sands wasn’t his last combat film, but it was probably one of his best.
Sands cast Wayne as Sgt. John Stryker, the leader of a platoon full of fresh-faced Marines who have arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, for training and preparations to take the fight to the Japanese. He is well-respected by the men who have served with him the longest, including his friend PFC Charlie Bass (James Brown), but new squad addition Peter Conway (John Agar), and the demoted PFC Al Thomas (Forrest Tucker) despise the sergeant with a vengeance. Conway’s father, a beloved colonel in the Corps who served with Stryker once, never approved of his son’s life choices and the new private has joined the war in order to prove that he is the better man for not wanting to live by the code of the Marine Corps. In the person of Stryker Conway can only see his disappointed father and every word the sergeant says to him sounds just like something the old man would say.
In the end bitter, rivalries and chips on shoulders because Stryker’s (sort of) ethnically-diverse squad will have to become a band of brothers-in-arms as they get into the war first with the 1943 Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands and finally with the climatic invasion of the Japanese Volcano Island of Iwo Jima.
The production of Sands of Iwo Jima didn’t go anywhere near the real island where the American flag was raised in one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. Location filming was done at several scenic vistas close to the studios of Republic Pictures (the film’s financier) in Los Angeles. Director Dwan and his crew did their best to make Sands look as authentic a portrayal of men at war as possible, but only the inclusion of actual combat documentary footage of the battles helps the movie look anywhere close to being the real deal. Some sequences were filmed on sound stages and the effect is noticeable. During one night scene where Stryker and his men are guarding a crucial position, I was reminded of that montage early in Captain America: The First Avenger where Cap is going through the motions of being a living tool of motivating support for the war at home by starring in cheaply-produced action B-movies.
Sands features just about every war movie cliché imaginable, from the soldier with a wife and newborn child waiting for him back at home to the wounded man who shouts, “Go on without me!” In spite of that, it succeeds as an effective and entertaining film that devotes some of its time to developing its cardboard characters with the help of a strong cast. Wayne is at his best giving an performance that ably balances an iron-tough core of battlefield bravado with the longing to be part of a family again. There are moments in Sands when we see Stryker realizing that his reputation as an unforgiving leader is more crucial to seeing his men return home with their lives and honor intact than being their friend and Wayne underplays these beats perfectly. Look into his eyes in those scenes and you can see his mind at work.
That doesn’t mean that the performance is steeped in despair and darkness. Dwan and screenwriters Harry Brown and James Edward Grant (working from a story by Brown) allow Stryker some moments of humor, such as the scene where the sergeant shows one of his troops how to properly handle a bayonet in combat through….the majesty of dance. That sequence has a little silliness to it but since it also serves a logical purpose it never becomes ridiculous and fits in just fine with the episodic structure of the story.
B-movie stalwart John Agar (The Brain from Planet Arous) had co-starred with Wayne in Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for John Ford. Though never regarded much for his skills as an actor Agar is pretty good as the haunted PFC Conway, the rebellious soldier who lives in the shadow of his father and uses the angry that threatens to consume his soul as fuel for his antagonistic relationship with Sgt. Stryker, and Adele Mara (Wake of the Red Witch) does what she can with her limited role as the woman who captures his shattered heart. Film and television character actor Forrest Tucker (F Troop) deserves some credit for finding the damaged pride and sympathy in PFC Thomas, a man whose ill-timed dereliction of duty brings about tragedy for the squad and energizes a confrontation with Stryker that tests the mettle of both men.
The rest of the squad is composed of the usual stock war movie characters. We get a wisecracking Italian (Wally Cassell), two fighting brothers from Philadelphia (Richard Jaeckel, Bill Murphy), the big lunk who can’t use his bayonet right (Hal Baylor), and the kid who enlisted before he even turned 18 (Martin Milner). Central Casting must have been on high alert when this movie was announced. Regardless the supporting cast all do fine if not terribly exceptional work in their parts. The film was shot efficiently by Reggie Lanning, an old hand at working behind the scenes on studio westerns and war pictures who retired towards the end of his life to the prosperity of regular television work, while the great Victor Young (Shane) composes a solid music score that makes good use of the “Marines’ Hymn” heard in countless motion pictures.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray release of Sands of Iwo Jima boasts a fresh high-definition master struck from archival film elements. Framed in the original Academy standard 1.37:1 aspect ratio the transfer is far from perfect given the availability of strong surviving source elements, but with a reduction in grain content and precious little wear to the print left intact this is possibly the best the film will ever look on home video. The war documentary footage still looks pretty rough and is more noticeable than ever in this new transfer, but if they’re willing to overlook these flaws then fans of the film should be pretty pleased. No subtitles have been included.
Since the film was originally mixed and released with mono sound the English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 provided by Olive on this disc is more than up to the task. With loud explosions, audible dialogue, and a lack of distortion this audio track is strong and serves the new transfer better than could be expected.
Sands of Iwo Jima may not be a masterpiece but it does have a strong stature among 1940’s war movies (as well as a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), so the lack of extra features (not even the original theatrical trailer, which I have included below this review) on Olive’s Blu-ray is shocking to say the least. Could the company not afford to bring in a film historian for a commentary track, or produce some new featurettes about the film and the historical events that inspired its making? Republic Pictures Home Video released a DVD over a decade ago that included a documentary about the film hosted by critic Leonard Maltin that was short but highly informative. Dirty pool, Olive Films. This movie deserved better treatment.
While its lack of new or vintage bonus features makes this Blu-ray a marginal recommend, Sands of Iwo Jima is a rousing example of post-war combat filmmaking that started to move away from patriotic propaganda to the darker and more introspective films we see today. With fine performances from a cast headed by a better-than-average John Wayne this is essential viewing for fans of the genre, and Olive Films’ new HD transfer should do much to satisfy.