This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The second film in the series, Alan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne, screened on Tuesday, June 26th. Before showing the film, I spoke as follows:
Welcome to the second in our series, The American Movie Hero, this evening featuring John Wayne as Sergeant John Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima. Those of you who were here last week had the treat of seeing Gary Cooper as Sergeant Alvin C. York — a better man in a better movie. But as I said then, I think Sergeant Stryker also comes under the rubric of the Virtuous Hero, though his flaws are more obvious than Sergeant York’s. Perhaps the worst of these — or at least the one that the film makes the most of — is his abuse of alcohol. We have to remember that when the film was made, in 1949, alcoholism had not yet been medicalized — at least not popularly — as a disease. To most it was a matter of morality or character, and Stryker himself clearly sees it this way in the pivotal scene when he seems simply to decide to stop drinking, by saying to his only friend, Pfc Charlie Bass, who is played by James Brown: "If you ever catch me feeling sorry for myself again, you’ve got my permission to belt me right in the nose."
It’s a reminder that drinking was popularly seen as a socially permissible means of, as they used to say, "drowning your sorrows" — or, as they say now, "self-medicating." Weakness was thought to be unmanly, but if you put two weaknesses together, namely emotional vulnerability and a partiality for the bottle, you paradoxically had a kind of masculine strength that was to become more and more interesting to film-makers. For The Sands of Iwo Jima was just one of a plethora of movies that came out in the immediate post-war period — movies like The Best Years of Our Lives, Command Decision, Twelve O’Clock High or Home of the Brave — which were much more interested in the stresses endured by men in combat than they were in their heroic deeds in the face of the enemy, which, of course, had still been the focus of the pre-war Sergeant York. In fact, the enemy hardly appears in Sands.
Like Sergeant York, the film is mostly concerned with the lives of its characters out of combat and manifests an urge to present us with the preparation of a man or men for combat. But where in Sergeant York this preparation was a matter of moral and spiritual insight, in The Sands of Iwo Jima it is much more a matter of toughening up the psyche. Participation in war is no longer the duty of a man to his country, at least not primarily. Instead it is something more like the experience of a natural disaster. Heroism lay in surviving it, psychologically if not physically, and in developing the sort of toughness of mind and character necessary to do so. Winning it for your country seems of incidental importance.
Yet if this is a somewhat degraded form of heroism, it is still recognizable as heroism. In one respect, Stryker is a foreshadowing of the victim-hero who was the focus of Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima movie, Flags of Our Fathers, that came out last year — among a great many other pictures, of course — but he differs sharply and from our perspective very interestingly from his later incarnations in refusing to accept either his own or anyone else’s victimhood.
"Aren’t you human at all?" asks John Agar’s Pfc Peter Conway, who is his foil throughout. The two men are sharing a foxhole and listening to the piteous cries of the wounded Charlie Bass out in no-man’s-land. Conway announces that he’s going to help Bass and that Stryker will have to kill him to stop him. "Then that’s just what I’ll do," he says, leveling his rifle. The menace in his voice and eyes as he does this could not have been conveyed by any other actor, and Alan Dwan’s camera gives us the full force of it. Yet we know that if there are two men in the world that Stryker loves, they are Conway, the son of his now-dead friend and mentor, and Charlie Bass. Duty demands that they hold their thinly manned line at all costs, and so what Conway thinks of as distinctively "human" — feelings of pity, compassion and love, no matter how strong — has to be ruthlessly suppressed. Once Conway has backed down the camera stays focused on Wayne’s face, grim, ever-darkening and bathed in sweat — or tears.
This theme of Stryker’s suppression of human feeling runs all the way through the picture, and Conway represents the rebellion of feeling against it. To him, Stryker represents everything he hates about the Marine Corps and its standard of excessive manliness that his own father had stood for — and that now Stryker is trying to enforce as a surrogate father. What’s remarkable, however, is that Stryker’s way, the manly way, wins out over Conway’s kinder, gentler sort of humanity. Stryker is one of the movies’ greatest example of what the Victorians would have called "wearing the mask" — that is hiding one’s feelings out of a sense of social duty. The feelings to be hidden were both soft and tender ones and weak, fearful and self-pitying ones — but all of them were equally hindrances to military efficiency.
And yet when the young private aboard the landing craft as they approach the beach at Iwo Jima confesses that he is frightened, Stryker says: "So am I, son."
The youngster is incredulous. "You sarge?"
"I’m always scared," says Stryker.
It’s a rare glimpse by his men of the humanity he ordinarily represses, though perhaps the glimpses are not quite rare enough for the audience. For we always see the machinery of repression working with Stryker. If he wears the mask to his men, the movie works hard — I would say too hard — to remind us that it is only a mask. Just look at how the camera looks at Wayne looking at Agar during the ship-board briefing on the way to Iwo Jima. The softer emotions are almost embarrassingly obvious — though of course Agar doesn’t see them. The American-ness of Sergeant York’s heroism was partly owing, I think, to his sincerity. He’s not a complex man who hides his feelings. With Alvin York, what you see is what you get. His face is an open book, and we read it easily, whether it expresses honest anger or tenderness or bafflement and surprise, as in the priceless look on his face when he is kissed by Maréchal Foch. The only repression in the movie is his inability to express his feelings to — and especially towards — his mother.
Wayne, by contrast, is a man of hidden depths, complex, difficult and seemingly indifferent to the hatred of his men. This presents a problem for the movie, which doesn’t want the audience to lose sympathy for him, so we keep getting reminders of the feelings that he hides from the men — as when, unobserved by anyone but the camera, he listens to Conway talk about his love for Allison, played by Adele Mara, or when he tells Arthur Franz, the ostensible narrator Dunne, to give the men a couple of bottles of sake he’s picked up.
"Tell ‘em you got it off a dead Nip," he says.
"Why don’t you break down a little?" Dunne asks.
"Tell ‘em you got it off a dead Nip," Stryker repeats.
Like his hero, Sam Conway, the father of Pete, he sees the direct expression of his feelings for another man, even his own son, as a sign of impermissible weakness, so he expresses them instead by reversing them. He’s like the comic Flynn brothers from the City of Brotherly Love, played by Richard Jaeckel and Bill Murphy, who are constantly fighting each other because they have no other way to express love.
The common heroic theme of fathers and sons is another one that we don’t get in Sergeant York. York’s father is dead and is only mentioned a couple of times in his movie. The only hint we get from it of the nature of the relationship between him and Alvin is when Alvin says he doesn’t mean, in being determined to get his plot of bottom land, to set himself up as being a better man than his father, who was unable to accomplish this himself. He thinks he’s not so good a man. That, by the way, is fairly typical for heroes, both American and otherwise, modestly to look back towards their own heroes, among whom their fathers are typically to be counted, as being the greater men. The tune that Max Steiner’s music uses as the leitmotif for the religious element in York’s makeup is "Give Me That Old Time Religion" — which is said to be "good enough for me" because, in the first place, "it was good for your father."
The introduction of young Conway into Sands breaks this chain, as it were, of admiration and hero-worship. He resents his father and resents Stryker for idolizing him as he cannot. He thinks there is another and a better way of being a father, as he tells Stryker when he sets Shakespeare against the Marine Corps manual and "intelligence","culture" and gentlemanliness (of all things) against the brutal manliness of the military milieu. But, as I say, he has to learn different by the end. Here, as in its representation of Stryker’s hidden feelings, the movie is rather clunky and awkward in making its point by showing the turnaround beginning when Stryker saves Conway’s life. But I’m more interested — as I think most ordinary viewers are — in the point that it’s making.
After that Conway apologizes for getting out of line, and Stryker replies mildly: "Everybody gets out of line once in a while. Don’t worry about it." An apology is an expression of humility and, therefore, weakness, but Stryker here responds not with his usual savagery towards any show of weakness but by making light of it. This is also true in his reaction to the contrition of Forrest Tucker’s Thomas for having caused the death of another soldier. Stryker is also reassuring in a fatherly way when Conway confesses another weakness, the little voice inside him that tells him he’s going to die in battle. "I’ve known a million guys who’ve heard it," Stryker reassures him. "Most of them made it."
"Have you ever heard it?" Conway asks him.
"No," says Stryker, though we find out later that he has.
"You’re indestructible," says Conway — a very Strykerian way of expressing affection.
"Stick close to me, then, and maybe a little of it will rub off on you" says Stryker in the same vein. That the father-son relationship between them is re-established, has already been made clear when Conway tells Stryker that he’s named his son Sam, after his father.
Finally, there’s one other similarity that I want to mention between Sands of Iwo Jima and Sergeant York. It is that both were more or less avowedly propaganda films. As I mentioned last week, Sergeant York was propaganda on behalf of American intervention in World War II at a time when the country was still neutral. Sands of Iwo Jima was propaganda on behalf of the Marine Corps. Harry Truman, who had served in the Army artillery during World War I, thought of the Marines as "the Navy’s police force" and wanted to abolish the Corps. In a move that would be inconceivable today, the Marines approached Republic pictures with a proposal for a movie that would increase public sympathy for the Corps and make it politically harder to abolish it.
That Sands is what they came up with tells you something about the American culture of the period. So does the fact that the movie was a smash hit and not only accomplished its purpose of saving the Marine Corps but became a powerful recruiting tool for the Marines — as, some say, it still is. Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam vet and author of Born on the Fourth of July, specifically blames the movie and John Wayne for his paralysis because he had been inspired to join up after seeing it. At least if it’s true that the movie still has such power over the imagination of young America, it gives us a reason to hope that in spite of Hollywood’s now all-but total commitment to the opposite extremes of the victim-hero on the one hand and the fantasy or super-hero on the other, there’s still room somewhere in the middle for real heroes.