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During World War II, John Wayne's action films usually cast him in an unrealistically heroic light, pulling off such stunts as using a bulldozer to attack enemy positions. But the ensuing years brought some changes. For one thing, the new spate of movies produced at the end of the 1940s tended to take a more realistic, less glamorized view of war. And Wayne's screen image was already becoming associated with characters no less ready to fight but increasingly complex in their motives and actions. His great Western roles of the post-war years - notably Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) - heralded a new Wayne action hero, one approaching the dark, brooding, morally ambiguous qualities of his later work as Ethan in The Searchers (1956). The move toward this new persona brought Wayne his best reviews up to that time and his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (He wouldn't be nominated again until 1969 for True Grit, which won him the Academy Award.)
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) cast Wayne as Sergeant Stryker, a tough, experienced Marine who knows how to take callow recruits and turn them into soldiers. His troops think of him as a martinet and bully at first, unaware of the sacrifices he has made for the Corps, including his broken marriage. In one brutal battle on Tarawa, one of his closest friends is left wounded on the battlefield, crying out his name through the night. But he does nothing to help him, knowing that any action would tip the enemy off to the squadron's position. His men, particularly Conway (John Agar), the pacifist son of a military hero, hate him for not rescuing the wounded man. Eventually, the troops end up on the island of Iwo Jima, in one of the most famous battles of the Pacific theater. It's there they learn the value of the tough training he has put them through and rally to victory armed with everything he instilled in them.
The cast of Sands of Iwo Jima also had to go through some serious training to become believable as fighting Marines. Director Allan Dwan, a movie veteran of nearly 40 years, asked General Erskine, commandant of Camp Pendleton in California where the movie was shot, to give him the toughest drill sergeant he had to put the young actors through their paces. The sergeant drilled them for two solid hours until, in Dwan's words, they "fell on their faces." After three days of this, they were in sufficient shape for the demanding shoot - and never again tried to keep pace with Wayne's late-night drinking and carousing.
The Marines had a particular interest in making this an authentic depiction of their actions during World War II. The other branches of the service had been amply glorified in a number of movies - Air Force (1943), They Were Expendable (1945), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) - but with a few exceptions, Hollywood had not produced a popular film that spotlighted the Marines.
In 1948, producer Edmund Grainger ran across the phrase "sands of Iwo Jima" in a newspaper article and immediately thought of the famous photo of a group of Marines raising the American flag at the summit of the island's Mount Suribachi. With a title and an ending in mind, Grainger wrote a treatment for the story and promised his film would not only portray the valor of the Marines but make money and influence public opinion at a time when the Corps was waging a political struggle for funding and survival. Sands of Iwo Jima was a huge success, earning nearly $4 million in domestic rentals alone and making the list of the top ten box-office hits for the year. In addition to Wayne's nomination, the film also received Academy Award nominations for Best Editing, Best Sound Recording, and Best Screenplay. On the basis of Sands of Iwo Jima and his next feature, Rio Grande (1950), Wayne, for the first time in his career, became the most popular star in Hollywood, a position he more or less maintained for decades.
Sands of Iwo Jima was a technically difficult picture, but with the Marines' full cooperation, Dwan and Grainger were able to keep the cost down to about $1 million. Technicians built plaster palm trees, pillboxes, and gun emplacements, laid thousands of feet of barbed wire, and covered the sand with oil and lampblack to resemble the island's volcanic ash. When they were finished, they had transformed Camp Pendleton into a Hollywood set, big enough to stage two major battles, using actual Marines as troops, as well as planes, cruisers, destroyer escorts, and other equipment. Sands of Iwo Jima also skillfully weaves actual newsreel footage into its battle scenes and Dwan recreated the famous flag shot that has become one of the major icons of the war, using three of the real Marines captured in the photograph.
As a testament to the enduring popularity of Sands of Iwo Jima, a TV documentary was produced in 1993 about the making of the film. The show featured interviews with some of the surviving cast members, including John Agar and Richard Jaeckel (both are now deceased).
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Director: Allan Dwan
Screenplay: Harry Brown, James Edward Grant
Cinematography: Reggie Lanning
Editing: Richard Van Enger
Art Direction: James Sullivan
Original Music: Victor Young
Principal Cast: John Wayne (Sgt. Stryker), John Agar (Pvt. Conway), Richard Jaeckel (Pvt. Flynn), Forrest Tucker (Pvt. Thomas), Adele Mara (Allison Bromley), Wally Cassell (Pvt. Regazzi), James Brown (Pvt. Bass), Arthur Franz (Corporal Dunne), Julie Bishop (Mary).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon