Sergeant Stryker (John Wayne) is a gruff no-nonsense hardass who leads his squadron of men into battle during World War II. He takes a shine to one young soldier (John Agar, who also starred in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with Wayne the same year) who only went to war because of his military minded father. Since Stryker reminds him of his old man they naturally butt heads. After saving each others’ lives, the two men learn to respect one another. Eventually, Stryker leads his troops to the titular island so they can raise the US flag and be immortalized forever.
Sands of Iwo Jima is not only one of John Wayne’s best flicks, it’s also one of the best war movies ever made. Usually when a war film relies heavily on stock footage for its battle sequences, it comes off phony looking and cheap. But here, director Alan (The Gorilla) Dwan makes excellent use of the stock footage. The “real” and the “reel” are blended together quite seamlessly and the stock footage lends an authenticity to the picture that most war films lack. (The flag used for the finale was the actual flag from the battle of Iwo Jima. How’s that for authenticity!) There are even a couple of gruesome (for the time) scenes of violence (one guy gets shot in the eyeball, another is bayoneted in the gut, some soldiers get B-B-Q’ed via flamethrower, etc.) that gives the movie an added punch.
The Duke was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and deservedly so. Wayne is pretty great and is equally adept at showing his tender side as he is his tough side. Even though he’s hard on his men, he has his reasons, and deep down inside, he has a heart of gold. I particularly liked the Mr. Miyagi style scene where he teaches a soldier how to use a bayonet by incorporating a few dance steps into his slashing technique.
What made the flick for me though was the motley crew of supporting characters; all of whom went on to have healthy careers in B horror films. Besides Agar (who starred in the immortal The Brain from Planet Arous), there was Arthur (Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man) Franz (who also narrates), Richard (Blood Song) Jaeckel, and Forrest (The Crawling Eye) Tucker. This may have been Wayne’s movie but it’s Tucker who gets all the best lines like: “My natural dislike for you is developing into a great hatred!” and “That’s war: Trading real estate for men!”
Sands of Iwo Jima is just badass enough to wind up on The Video Vacuum’s Top Ten Films of the Year for 1949 at the Number 2 spot; placing it below Mighty Joe Young and right above The Third Man.