No Flagging in this Flag Waver
It's over 60 years since "Sands of Iwo Jima" was released and in that time it has been heralded as one of the best WWII movies ever made. Despite now watching it for the first time I find myself pretty much agreeing, there are parts of it which are now corny, a certain dancing scene borders on cringe worthy, but overall it is entertaining, educational and emotional. And it achieves this by giving us a typically entertaining storyline with John Wayne playing a tough sergeant hated by his men and interweaves it with the story of war, getting across the hard decisions made in the heat of battle and the pain of loss.
In a way you can split "Sands of Iwo Jima" into 3 elements starting with the standard story of a tough sergeant whose troops resent because of his cold toughness but come to appreciate him. It is a very typical storyline which sees John Wayne as the hard as nails Sgt. John M. Stryker who shouts and punches his men till they get it through their thick heads how to do things. There are very few surprises when it comes to this side and even the emotional under belly of this as we discover that Stryker is estranged from his wife and son due to his loyalty to the Marines adds nothing to make it feel any different. So that basically means we have some humour, some shouting, some drinking, some fighting and an eclectic bunch of stereotypes from tough guys to fast talking types for him to knock into shape.
But then the 2nd element to "Sands of Iwo Jima" is the recreation of actual war campaigns as we watch them men attack Japanese islands under heavy fire, being pinned down as artillery rains down on them. Now I am not going to pretend to know how truthful any of this is, my lack on WWII knowledge is shameful and I have mentioned it on here before that dull school lessons were to blame for my lack of knowledge but I will say it does feel authentic. The mix of special effect scenes as we have huge explosions on the beaches interspersed with actual war time footage creates a real sense of authenticity. And whilst my knowledge of WWII is short I do know that 3 survivors of Iwo Jima who were part of the original iconic image of the flag being raised are part of that recreation in the movie.
The 3rd element to all this is how the two parts link together because as we watch the training go on we get to know the various characters and then as something happens to one of them during a battle we feel connected to them. At the same time we also see the tough decisions which were needed to be made and a scene where the men have to listen to one of their own, injured and calling out for help is a seriously powerful scene. In a way it is the combination of a good screenplay and a good director which makes this all come together because we have fun, we have action, we have the recreation of war and also the emotion of war as friendships are formed and lost. Yes some of it is now corny and between some seriously cheesy comical scenes and a bit of over patriotism it does have issues but they are issues which only appear now and I am sure were not a problem back in 1949 when it came out.
Now as to the acting and as a long time fan of John Wayne I have to say this is one of Wayne's greatest performances delivering everything you expect from a John Wayne performance but with restraint. It means we have his toughness, we have his comical moments but they never over power the character or the movie and this allows for a more dramatic quieter side to come out as scenes allow him to show his skills as an actor rather than just being the tough guy. Wayne is not alone and whilst some of the characters are now corny John Agar, Forrest Tucker and Arthur Franz to name but a few all put in decent performances.
What this all boils down to is that "Sands of Iwo Jima" is still an impressive WWII movie which manages to get the balance of elements just right so that whilst we have action and humour we also get emotion and even a bit of education. Yes some of it is now corny and you could say stereotypical but it doesn't stop it from being one of the best put together WWII movies from either the 1940s or 50s.