Monday, July 21, 2014

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Director: Allan Dwan                                       Writers: Harry Brown & James Edward Grant
Film Score: Victor Young                                Cinematography: Reggie Lanning
Starring: John Wayne, John Agar, Adele Mara and Forrest Tucker

A post-war film about battles during the Pacific Campaign, Sands of Iwo Jima is a film about a squad of men who wound up participating in the iconic photo of the flag raising that is the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial outside of Arlington Cemetery. The battle is also the subject of two recent films by Clint Eastwood. The first is Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Eastwood, about the men involved in the flag raising. The second is a Japanese film produced by Eastwood called Letters from Iwo Jima, about the Japanese solders on the island during the attack. One other modern rendering is the episode “Iwo Jima” from the HBO mini-series The Pacific. As expected from a film produced during this period, it’s a somewhat sanitized version of the battle, with an emphasis on the human relationships of the members of the squad rather than the realities of the fighting itself. The film was directed by Allan Dwan and uses actual war footage of the event, as well as featuring the three surviving members of the flag raising in brief cameo roles.

The film begins with Marine Corps replacements being sent to New Zealand in order to prepare for the next island invasion. John Wayne is the sergeant of one of the squads, in which only he and two other men survived Guadalcanal, one of which is the narrator of the story, Arthur Franz, and the other James Brown who is the only friend Wayne has. The personal drama is introduced right away because Forrest Tucker had served with Wayne in China, and also lost to him in the fleet boxing match. The other young replacements include John Agar, Richard Jaeckel and later, Martin Milner. Wayne begins by putting them through as much training as they can take, trying to teach them the tactics that will keep them alive in the island fighting they’ll be doing, but some of the men resent it. Tucker, obviously, but Agar is the son of a war hero killed in action and hates the military, only signing up because it was expected of him. But Wayne has his own checkered past. His wife left him before the war and took their son, and he drinks to forget. Ultimately, however, it the humanity of the men that comes through. Tucker saves Wayne from the shore patrol when he’s drunk, and Agar falls in love with Adele Mara and marries her.

The first objective for the Marines is Tarawa, a thin island that is essentially one long airstrip. Several of the squad members are injured, including Brown, while Tucker abandons two of the men so that he can drink coffee behind the lines, resulting in the death of Peter Coe. After a few weeks in Hawaii the men boarded the ships again, this time for the island of Iwo Jima. Bigger than Tarawa, it contains three airfields, but the only landing areas are surrounded on two sides by high ground, so it’s going to be a deadly battle. The Japanese have been living underground in tunnels, so the two months of bombardment have done little to diminish their resistance. John Wayne does his usual job of playing John Wayne, tough and tender and a born leader, and was acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination, along with Harry Brown for the screenplay, and two other technical nominations. Allan Dwan does a respectable job with the direction, and the film score by Victor Young makes frequent use of the “Marine Corps Hymn,” similar to what Max Steiner would do with the “Navy Fight Song” three years later in The Caine Mutiny. Sands of Iwo Jima is very much in the patriotic tradition of the films made during the war. While showing some dissent among the soldiers it is still a patriotic war film that attempts to honor those who participated and reinforce the righteousness of the cause.

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