February 23 marked the 70th anniversary of the first raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi in 1945. It was the culmination of a long and bloody battle for the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during World War II. The moment was captured first in an iconic Pulitzer Prize winning photograph and ultimately in Washington, D.C.’s stunning Marine Corps Memorial. In between, that moment and the Marines who fought for it were honored in the classic 1949 movie “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
“This is the story of a squad of Marines…a rifle squad,” Cpl. Robert Dunne (Arthur Franz) tells us in opening narration. We are then introduced to a wonderful collection of fictional characters in a classically traditional training-to-combat story. Both at work and at play we get to know them as people first and soldiers second. They include Peter Conway (John Agar), a young man with a serious paternal chip on his shoulder who finds release and love when and where he least expects it. Forrest Tucker gives a great performance as the grudge carrying Al Thomas. His tragic stop for a cup of coffee creates the film’s most painfully memorable moment. An affable and fast-talking Wally Cassell lightens things up as the instantly endearing Benny Regazzi. And leading them all is John Wayne as Sgt. John M. Stryker.
Stars still do not come any bigger or more iconic than the Duke and Stryker gave him one of his most memorable roles. His tough and troubled performance became the benchmark for Hollywood Marine Sergeants to come and earned him an Academy Award nomination. It’s hard as nails and larger than life yet understandably human and completely honest. The dual sides of his character are beautifully depicted in his treatment of a hopelessly bayonet inept recruit. In one scene, Stryker brutally hits him in the face with his rifle. In another, and one of the best, he finally reaches him through music and dance.
The battle scenes are exciting, poignant and sometimes humorous. The personal stories are the same. The way in which we get to know and come to care for the characters as everyday people seriously ups the stakes on the battlefield and helps to make this one of Hollywood’s best war films and an audience favorite.
The three survivors of the actual flag raising on Mount Suribachi and the actual flag itself appear in the movie and give added significance to this tribute to those who conquered the sands of Iwo Jima. Seventy years after the actual event, there’s no better time to discover or rediscover this movie that, like all true classics, never gets old.