Sands of Iwo Jima

John Wayne and John Agar have a test of personalities as their marine unit fights its way across the Pacific. When they finally reach the Japanese held island of Iwo Jima, the animosity between individual soldiers and especially between John Wayne's no-nonsense Sergeant John Stryker and John Agar's bitter PFC Peter Conway comes to a head.

Marine Life

Sands of Iwo Jima starts off a little rocky with generic military film exposition and ends with a patently mundane patriotic appeal that may have been mundane even in 1949. But in between is an expertly told tale of how marines are trained and then thrown into combat in the Pacific during World War II.

The usual ironic combat deaths are in the story, for example when a character tells another "you'll be the death of me" we know the former is marked for killing shortly. But, such screenplay hi jinx is limited by the sheer carnage across the movie's cast, and while a typical war film (from All Quiet on the Western Front to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan) contain small cues to the audience about which members of a military squad are going to live and die in the story, that's thrown out the window in Sands of Iwo Jima because so many will be killed as the marines fight inch by inch over the Japanese defended island.

Though director Allan Dwan keeps the scope of the film relatively small as he investigates the life of the marine squad, the battle on the island of Tarawa expands in size, and then the battle on Iwo Jima itself looks epic with large tableau in which we see the mass wave of marines struggling to advance against the dark-colored beach and then the mountainous landscape.

On Mount Surubachi the surviving cast members have their final moments together (as several more will die securing the mountain) and then the famous flag raising occurs (which happened February 23, 1945) and the film is over, with PVC John Agar shouting at the survivors to get back into the battle.

Combat death

A constant theme of this film is survival. A great deal of John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker's dialogue consists of him berating his squad for sloppiness, or for a bad attitude, all deadly deficiencies in combat (and in the live-ammunition segments of their training).

Sands of Iwo Jima is not a no-holds-barred war film, there's plenty of Hollywood (what else?) wrapped up in the tale, but the preponderance of death in the cast, and in particular the use of flamethrowers (from both tanks and from men) changes the screen destruction from fields of explosions and racing men seen in many other war films set in the European battles into a something quite different here, with flames and death by fire a horrible and regular part of the combat.

Nov 2014 Bluray edition of the film available through

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Original Page May 2015 | Updated Sept 2015

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