Monday Movie: Sands of Iwo Jima, by David Bax
Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima is an all-time classic. Its DNA, a blend of swashbuckling adventure, camaraderie, nobility and solemn fatalism not only informed later World War II projects like Saving Private Ryan (soldiers are killed almost immediately after a battle has begun) and Band of Brothers (new characters suddenly show up halfway through as recruits are brought in to replace the characters who have died) but can also be found in something as recent as Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, another war tale about soldiers from different walks of life united by their admiration for one another and their adherence to a shared ideal.
In Sands of Iwo Jima, John Wayne plays Sgt. Stryker, a hard-ass platoon leader initially despised by those in his charge. But once tested in battle–a test some of them fail, either by dying or by causing others to die–they learn to respect him and, in time, come to see him as someone who might just be human.
The movie comes to see him that way too, particularly in a scene in which, while on leave in Honolulu, he visits a prostitute (not actually specified as such; this is 1949, after all) who’s also a single mother. There’s a lot of messy but glorious humanity to go around in Sands of Iwo Jima. But it’s still a movie I feel a little guilty about loving. Even with all the death and grief on screen, it’s a film that is unabashedly pro-military and approving of war. Real battles–including some real battle footage–are undeniable action set-pieces. This is a problematic trait of almost all war movies but Sands of Iwo Jima doesn’t even try to question the senseless futility of war. It’s an all-time classic of a decidedly difficult genre.