Wednesday, October 19, 2016
SANDS OF IWO JIMA
(December 1949, U.S.)
The book I'm currently reading is called FIVE CAME BACK by Mark Harris and it tells the story of Hollywood and the Second World War, specifically geared toward the films, both documentaries and Hollywood releases, and military services of filmmakers John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra. It's a good read, though not perfect. One of the more valid points of the book by the time it reaches the end of World War II in 1945 is that American movie audiences were already losing their tastes for government propaganda films, as well as war pictures, in general. Like anything else, it was all about timing and with the war coming to an end, America wanted to move on with lighter material. That in mind, I can't help but feel that SANDS OF IWO JIMA, released four years after the war ended and not covered in Harris' book, may very well feel ill-timed and outdated. From the moment the film opens with the U.S. Marines' Hymn "The Halls of Montezuma", you immediately feel the corniness of what you're watching, despite its apparent relevance back in the day. Still, one can't ignore the true relevance of the subject matter of this war film and that's the legendary battle of Iwo Jima which resulted in the planting of our American flag in that iconic black and white photograph I know you've seen before...
It should come as no surprise that the film stars John Wayne as the traditional tough-as-nails Marine Sergeant John Stryker who's tasked with training U.S. Marines to prepare for inevitable battle. The soldiers under his command are some of the silliest and most arrogant men I've ever had to sit through in any war film made during the years of World War II and shortly thereafter. As drama, the film falls short of any real and plausible acting or character development. Even as John Stryker is likely the one man we're supposed to follow and care about the most, his true self is hardly exposed to us other than the fact that he's a drunk and an irresponsible father to the son he's left behind. Even as a drill Sergeant, we're never quite sure where he stands. The man has a heart, but almost always fails to use it, other than the occasional smile when it's provoked. His true heart is actually revealed only when he's shows pity toward a USO mother raising her baby boy without a father, but even then, his heart doesn't extend itself much more than leaving her a wad of cash to help support the baby.
So clearly, SANDS OF IWO JIMA is not a film you watch for drama or human emotions. This is a film based on real historical battles and the story doesn't short-change us on the its sequences of combat, which are also mixed in with genuine World War II footage of the time (you can always tell the difference because the real footage is of a grainier quality). The battles are generated with all of the traditional action, blood and guts one would expect to see in a classic black and white war film. But I suppose what makes the film truly worthwhile, despite its flaws, is that historical moment when our country's flag is planted and the men who have survived the battle stare in awe and wonderment and their significant and victorious achievement on the battlefield. This takes place, ironically, when after surviving much of the battle, John Stryker is shot and killed by a single bullet and misses that iconic moment. Perhaps its in his death and the letter to his son that he kept in his pocket that we finally learn who John Wayne's character really was in this film. On the other hand, Wayne made so many war films that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish who he really is in one or the other. Still, there must have been a reason he made so many of them. He never actually went into the service during the war, but did his part back home for the war effort through the American hero that he was on the big screen. That had to have counted for something.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Corporal Robert C. Dunne (removing a letter from the deceased John Stryker's pocket): "It's a letter to his kid." (reading it) "Dear Son, I guess none of my letters have reached you, but I thought I'd better try again because I have the feeling that this may be the last time I can write you. For a long time, I've wanted to tell you many things. Now that you're a big boy, I will. If we could've been together even for a little while, I could have explained many things much better than writing. You've gotta take care of your mother and love her and make her happy. Never hurt her or anyone as I have. Always do what your heart tells you is right. Maybe someone will write you someday and tell you about me. I want you to be like me in some things, but not like me in others, because when you grow older and know more about me, you'll see that I've been a failure in many ways. This isn't what I wanted, but things just turned out that way. If there was only more time, I...(stops reading). "Guess he never finished it."
Private First Class Peter Conway (taking the letter): "I'll finish for him."