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The Original and the Best.
on 30 December 2010
In the wake of recent epics like Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and the HBO CGI inspired series "The Pacific", Allan Dwan's much earlier "Sands of Iwo Jima" seems to have been almost forgotten. This is a great pity because as much as I admire these films, with the possible exception of Terence Malick's superb "The Thin Red Line", it is the best and most entertaining movie covering the Pacific theatre of the Second World War. As one song pointed out, John Wayne did not fight on Iwo Jima, but watching his performance today you feel that perhaps he could have done. He was deservedly Oscar nominated for his portrayal of tough Marine Sergeant John M Stryker, but eventually lost out to Broderick Crawford. His performance together with the cleverly used real combat footage from Pacific battles, and the inclusion of real combat veterans under the direction of Hollywood veteran Allan Dwan ensures a fine film.
The film casts Wayne as a brutal training Sergeant, who puts his unit through training hell in a New Zealand military camp just prior to the Pacific Island invasions. This alienates him from young college educated John Agar who disapproves of this strong arm approach. But Wayne who has fought on Guadalcanal appreciates the difficult task in front of them, and respects the fighting ability of the Japanese soldier. After the invasion of Tarawa the troops begin to hold their Sergeant in greater respect. The fighting heads toward a climax on Iwo Jima, where there is a surprise finale around the famous flag raising on Mount Suribachi.
Modern viewers might justifiably call the film jingoistic and propagandist, but it should be borne in mind that this film was first released in December 1949. It could not boast the CGI inspired special effects that todays film makers have at their disposal, but compared to many war films of the period it is surprisingly realistic. What modern film can boast the inclusion of so many real veterans. The three surviving flag raisers Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and Joseph Bradley, the father of "Flags of Our Fathers" author James Bradley, all briefly appear along with others. The actual battle footage is needless to say utterly convincing. Wayne is well supported by Forrest Tucker and a very youthful Richard Jaeckel. Following the success of the film Wayne was invited to place his footprints outside Grauman's Chinese theatre, where actual black sand from Iwo Jima was used in the cement. The film stands up incredibly well for a film made over 60 years ago, and is well worth watching if you have never done so. The film can be purchased very cheaply at the time of this review. Another option would be to buy it as part of "The Classic War Collection", where it deservedly sits alongside such classics of the genre as "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Das Boot", "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "Guns of Navarone".