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Sands of Iwo Jima (Blu-ray Review)

1 Dec, 2014 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara.

Speaking as the son of a World War II Marine Corps drill instructor who also got called back into service during the Korean conflict, my own three cents when it comes to the definitive Marine movies easily boil down to Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and, of course, the one said to have been responsible for more Marine enlistments than any other picture in history. It boasts not only one of the most prototypical John Wayne roles and performances, but one of only two (Wayne’s ultimate win for True Grit was the other) to have earned him a best actor Oscar nomination. Of course, Andrew Sarris famously commented that Wayne’s un-nominated performance in The Searchers was worth all the Oscars given to the likes of David Niven, Yul Brynner and a long litany of others … but that’s another story.
You’d expect Wayne detractors to line up to brickbat that picture as rah-rah jingoism — though if you go onto the IMDb.com chat room stuff, the comments are mostly laudatory (other than, as one seemingly knowledgeable type notes, these Marines would not have ended up fighting on both Tarawa and Iwo). And for an ‘A’-movie from a predominantly ‘B’-studio (Republic), the result is nowhere as over-the-top as one might expect, even if the comedy relief is more like the Central Casting broad stuff you’d see in the Rod Cameron (as opposed to Wayne) Republics. I seem to recall reading once about John Ford, who made three features and a documentary for Republic himself, imploring Sands director Allan Dwan to take a little more time and care on this one than Dwan usually did on the meagerly-budgeted Republics that got thrown into his lap. And from the looks of it, he did; the editing and sound recording got nominations as well (I guessed the latter just from watching this new Blu-ray), and the integration of newsreel with freshly filmed footage (though obvious to modern eyes) was not just a model of its day but also perhaps even the model.

Though I hadn’t seen Sands in years, I kind of grew up with it — having first paid a visit before its mid-to-late 1950s sale to TV at a neighborhood-theater double bill with Sergeant York (those were the days). What really struck me this time around, given all the stupid stereotypes about Wayne that are mostly products of his unintentionally self-parodying twilight years, was how truly messed-up Wayne’s character (Sgt. John Stryker) is. The guy is estranged from his wife, trying to communicate with a son who won’t write back and such a boozehound when on leave that his drinking (probably — though details are murky) was the infraction responsible for losing him a stripe. He also comes perilously close to mixing it up with MPs on a drunken night out in New Zealand, only to be saved by the intervention of a trusty PFC watchdog played by the “other” James Brown, who later became an agreeable authority figure for elementary school boomers for his role in the TV version “Rin-Tin-Tin.” Later, in the 1960s, I saw Brown on some talk show pitching some kind of weighted belt that middle-aged guys wore to take an inch or two off the belly. He either said that “everyone” or “half of” Hollywood was using them, “from Charlton Heston to Forrest Tucker.”

Well, lo and behold: Tucker, a Republic stalwart, also is in Sands and gives as good as he gets — both in a well-motivated fistfight with Wayne (from which the latter again barely escapes trouble) and in terms of his performance, which might be the best of his screen career and certainly a lot more soul-searching than anything he did in TV’s “F Troop.” The other key role goes to John Agar as an expectedly mouthy PFC who doesn’t like Stryker (nor his own father, with whom Stryker had served). This was at the time Agar was married in real life to Shirley Temple, which inspired John Ford (in typical s.o.b. mode) to keep calling the actor “Mr. Temple” on the set of one of the Wayne-Ford “Cavalry” pictures. In the movie, Agar marries a New Zealander played by Republic regular Adele Mara — though curiously, Mara’s Los Angeles Times obit printed a studio publicity picture from Sands that made it look as if her love interest here is Wayne. But the only time Stryker gets involved even tangentially with a woman is when Julie Bishop’s character picks him up and takes her back to what turns out to be a surprise-filled apartment for one of the most affecting scenes Wayne ever had on screen. (Note that Wayne turned in this performance the same year he played the much older — indeed, retiring — cavalry captain in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.)

Olive’s release has no frills but is the standard bump-up from regular DVD. Some of the fun here is seeing real Marines: the tragic Ira Hayes in long-shot as one of three hoisting the flag in the final throes of the title battle — and Medal of Honor winner/future Commandant David Shoup doing his best to read dialogue back in a time when no one could have known he would later become a severe critic of Vietnam (good man, and he took a lot of heat for it). And if you love John Wayne, you can’t get much more definitive than this. Loyal to his own, he later gave actress Bishop a good role in The High and the Mighty and later found roles for Tucker, Agar and Sands featured player Richard Jaeckel in 1970’s Chisum.

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