The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

In a biographical article for the June 14, 1987 edition of New York Times Magazine, the historian, and Marine Corps veteran William Manchester tells us why he hated the classic 1949 war movie The Sands of Iwo Jima.

“It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in ”Sands of Iwo Jima,” but that film underscores the point; I went to see it with another ex-Marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because we couldn’t stop laughing.

After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there. The hospital was packed, the halls lined with beds. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Marine Corps was being bled white.

Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ”Hi ya, guys!” He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing.

This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left. If you liked ”Sands of Iwo Jima,” I suggest you be careful. Don’t tell it to the Marines.”

My father, who was also a Marine Corps veteran, felt very differently. The The Sands of Iwo Jima might have been his favorite movie. My father not only idolized John Wayne. He modeled his “style” after Sergeant Stryker. He imitated the way he spoke, the way he walked, the way he lit his cigarette or buttoned the top button on his shirt. The movie that Manchester hated so much was probably the reason my father joined the Marine Corps in the first place.

I suppose the difference was generational. My father was born in 1935. Manchester was born in 1922. The Sands of Iwo Jima is first rate propaganda, but it’s not aimed at front line soldiers who have been wounded in battle. Released shortly after the end of the Second World War, it was geared towards people like my father, teenagers who were still in junior high school when Joe Rosenthal took his iconic photo of six United States Marines raising the stars and stripes over Mount Suribachi. The Sands of Iwo Jim shows nothing of the horror of war. It’s easy to see why Manchester found it so ridiculous. You never see the human body degraded or dismembered. Grown men don’t cry out for their mothers. Heads don’t explode. Blood doesn’t spurt out in gushers from limbs ripped from their sockets. Sergeant Stryker is killed by one clean bullet through the heart, an instant and almost painless death. For a real combat veteran, it must have felt like a slap in the face. For a starry eyed teenager, on the other hand, or for an Army or Navy veteran who spent the Second World War fixing jeeps or filling out supply forms, for anybody who looked up to the men who gave their lives to fight the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, The Sands of Iwo Jima must have been a powerful intoxicant in 1949.

What makes The Sands of Iwo Jima one of the most influential war movies of all time is not the fake machismo John Wayne symbolized for William Manchester and the wounded Marines at the Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in 1944. It’s the opposite. The Sands of Iwo Jima is not about masculine strength. It’s about masculine weakness, vulnerability and complexity. I can see now why my father came back to this film in his middle age. On the surface, it all seems ridiculous, even fascist. “In boot camp you learned out of a book,” Sergeant Stryker says to a group of new recruits. “Here you gotta remember the book and learn things that haven’t been printed. You gotta learn right and fast. Any man that doesn’t want to cooperate, I’ll make him wish he hadn’t been born. Before I’m through with you, you’re gonna move and think like one man. If you don’t, you’ll be dead.” But the Sands of Iwo Jima is not about a superior man imposing his will on his inferiors. It’s about the need for a group of men to work as a team, to suppress their individuality, to come together, and get the job done when none of them can do it alone.

The film has four main characters. The rest are the usual ethnic stereotypes, the wise cracking Italian from Brooklyn, the dim but good natured Polish American, the farm boy from the Midwest, who round out just about every movie about the Second World war. Stryker and PFC Al Thomas are veterans of the war in China and the Battle of Guadalcanal. Robert Dunne, the film’s narrator, Stryker’s right-hand man and a natural conservative, the kind of loyal employee who likes to tell his coworkers to shut up and stop complaining about the boss. PFC Peter Conway, the son of Stryker’s old commanding officer, is the opposite, a sullen rebel who resents his own father – a hero who died on Guadalcanal — and takes out his Oedipal rage on Stryker. “Every time you open your mouth, he’s talking,” he says. “Every thought you think is his. It’s as though he’s at my shoulder.”

The Sands of Iwo Jima would have been a better movie if the characters of Dunne and Conway had been better better developed, had the deck not been stacked so strongly in favor of Stryker, in favor of the father against the son. Alas, however, this is a patriotic, flag-waving movie of the late 1940s, and Peter Conway, James Dean a few years before his time, will not have his say. Robert Dunne will have his say, but not his own point of view. Dunne’s role is to prop the old man up when he stumbles. Conway’s is to provide appearance of conflict, then to grow up and take the old man’s place after he’s gone. Al Thomas might just be the most fascinating character of all, mainly because he’s also the most flawed. I can understand why William Manchester found The Sands of Iwo Jima so offensive, but I’ve also read the book Wartime, where Paul Fussel, another World War II veteran, talks about how the main quality of most American soldiers in World War II wasn’t cowardice or brutality, but sheer incompetence. In 1945, the United States Army, and the Marine Corps, just weren’t very good.

At the Battle of Tarawa, Thomas, who’s played appropriately enough by Forrest Tucker, who would later join the cast of F-Troop, gets two men killed, not out of cowardice, but out of weakness and stupidity. On an errand to pick up badly needed ammunition, he goofs off for a few minutes to have a cup of coffee. By the time he gets back, one man has been shot, and the other bayoneted, probably the only time I’ve ever seen in a war movie where caffeine addiction has been the indirect cause of someone’s death. Thomas carries the secret around with him, a brutal sense of guilt, until Stryker finds out and confronts him. What happens is fascinating. Stryker beats Thomas, who fights back, but who also seems relieved he’s finally being punished for what he did. When a car pulls up, and a senior officer threatens to arrest Stryker for assault, Thomas covers for him. They were only having a friendly boxing match, he declares. There’s nothing to worry about. Stryker now realizes Thomas feels genuine remorse because he recognizes it in himself. He’s gotten men killed senselessly, we surmise. “Everybody makes mistakes,” he says, “only when we do, someone dies.” The two men form a pact. Thomas has his guilt absolved. Stryker not only avoids a court martial. He now has the complete loyalty of a man who had formerly been a troublemaker. How many secret pacts like this, agreements between two men to cover up for their mutual shortcomings, actually came out of World War II?

When the film shifts from the Battle of Tarawa to a brief interlude on Hawaii and then to the Battle of Iwo Jima, the focus shifts from the relationship between Stryker and Al Thomas to that of Stryker and Peter Conway. Stryker, we’ve learned, has a wife who’s abandoned him and has taken their baby with her. Stryker is an alcoholic. He’s never seen his infant son, and it’s strongly implied that the breakup was so bad that he never will. In maybe the best scene in the entire movie, Stryker is approached by a woman in a bar. It’s strongly implied she’s a prostitute. “There are some jobs worse than dying for your country,” she says bitterly, and asks him if he’d like to come back to her place for a drink. He’s lonely so he reluctantly accepts. After they get back to her apartment, however, it’s so sparsely furnished that Stryker understands she doesn’t have any money. He gives her ten dollars to buy a bottle of whiskey, looks around after she leaves, and hears something rattling in the other room. Initially terrified — he’s jumpy because of the war — he discovers, not a Japanese soldier but a small child in a crib. When the woman returns, with food as well as whiskey, Stryker realizes that she’s a single mother who doesn’t always have the money to feed her son. Reminded of his own wife and his own child, he gives her all the money in his wallet, and leaves. “’I’ll pray for you” she calls out after him. “I’ll pray for you.”

Since he’s headed for Iwo Jima, he’s going to need it. Leaving the woman’s apartment, Stryker also realizes he’s been cured of his own alcoholism, that he’s at peace with himself, her offer to pray for him acting as sort of absolution. He can accepting dying, if he has to. He can also deal with Peter Conway when the two men meet at another bar. Conway, who has been married earlier in the film and who has received a letter from his wife he’s about to be a father, should be happy. He’s not. He cruelly lashes out at Stryker, implying that it’s his own fault his wife left him, that the Marine Corps has made him a bad father. His own son, he insists, will be much better. “I won’t have to write,” he says, taunting the older man. “I’ll be where he is. And I won’t insist that he be tough. I’ll try to make him intelligent. And I won’t insist that he read the Marine Corps manual. I’ll get him Shakespeare. I don’t want him to be a Colonel Conway or Sergeant Stryker. I want him to be intelligent, considerate, cultured and a gentleman.” Peter Conway sounds like an insufferable little prig, but we can also hear the pain in his voice, the sense of emotional rejection he experienced. But Stryker’s restrained, forgiving attitude changes him. Stryker is no longer the harsh, authoritarian Colonel Conway. He’s the father Peter Conway has wanted all along.

We can see how different it is between the two men when they land on Iwo Jima. Conway is now a good Marine. He’s joined Robert Dunne at Stryker’s side, surrogate father and surrogate son having reconciled just in time to take Mount Suribachi together, and just in time for Stryker’s death. Conway will carry on in his place now that he’s gone. “Saddle up,” he says, slipping into Stryker’s, and John Wayne’s, familiar way of speaking as John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and Michael Strank raise the Stars and Stripes over Mount Suribachi, “lock and load.”

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2 comments

  1. I was born in ’51, got TV in ’56. Saw a lot of black and white war “history” like Air Power (bombing runs and dogfights). Got a bit negative about war, especially during Viet Nam, when draft dodgers were showing up in Montreal. I, along with others, tired of that John Wayne mystique that Ronald Reagan portrayed. Later, I’ve become anti-military, wondering if pacifist Quakers make conscientious objectors a necessity. Peace over Power?

    1. It cost a million dollars to make The Sands of Iwo Jima. I’d guess that was a pretty sizeable budget back in 1949. But the technology back then was crude compared the technology Spielberg had in Saving Private Ryan.

      So the movie uses a lot of newsreel footage for battle scenes. Interesting enough, it works Stryker and his squad almost seem to leap out of current events right into a fictionalized drama.

      I’m actually torn between the fact that this is an excellent film and the fact that it’s right wing propaganda. My cinematic side and my political side are in conflict. William Manchester, who was writing towards the end of the Reagan years was a liberal and hated everything Reagan stood for. So he’s getting a great dig in against John Wayne.

      But I can’t help but think Manchester missed why this film was such effective propaganda. Stryker, Thomas and Conway are all flawed, even weak men. But conservatives know this. They voted for Reagan in spite of the fact that he was basically just a second rate actor. They voted for Bush not in spite of his being a dumbfuck but because of it. Conservatives have a sense of Christian redemption of flawed men liberals really don’t.

      The Sands of Iowa Jima is great propaganda not because the hero is a strong leader, but because he’s a weak vulnerable leader who needs to be propped up.

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