Sands of Iwo Jima: How John Wayne Became an OnScreen War Hero

The idea for the war movie, Sands of Iwo Jima, was originated by producer Eddie Grainger, who wanted to make a picture about the Marines’ taking of Iwo Jima.

Harry Brown, a distinguished screenwriter (A Walk in the Sun), wrote the scenario, but Herbert Yates, the head of Republic, was reluctant at first to approve a big budget for the movie. It was Jim Grainger, the producer’s father and head of sales at Republic, who persuaded Yates by promising a good director (Alan Dwan) and a big star (John Wayne).

Dwan did not ask for Wayne when he agreed to direct because he thought, “there were three or four actors who could play it.” However, when the producer mentioned Wayne’s name, he got his blessing, “Go and get him–fight for him.”

Dwan had previously asked a real soldier, General Arskine, to play the lead, believing “he was the perfect type for it,” but the Gereral said, “I’m not good enough to play a Sergeant again.” Nonetheless, three of the six marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi re-enacted their real-life roles in the movie; the other three had died in the meantime.

At Dwan’s request, General Arskine sent the toughest drill sergeant, “a big, husky guy-six foot eight-who could have lifted any two men in the company,” to the set. At their first meeting, Dwan asked him “to make Marines out of these actors–full packs and rifles.” “Give them the full routine including double time.,” he instructed, “I want them to get into physical shape.” Dwan recalled that the sergeant “worked them for two solid hours until they fell on their faces. Then he let them sleep a little while and got them up and worked them some more. Well, after the third day, they were pleading for mercy, but they were Marines.” In fact, “they hardened up” so much that “the Marines around didn’t mind them anymore.”

Sands of Iwo Jima had a bigger budget, one million dollars, than most Republic pictures; the average production at the time cost about 200,000 dollars. Due to irs scope, the film could not have been made on a smaller budget, and it would have cost much more without the cooperation of the Marines. But the film made a huge profit: in its first two days of release in Los Angeles, it had an unprecedented attendance record of 20,000 people. Sands of Iwo Jima became one of the ten most popular films of 1950, grossing over five million dollars in the U.S. and Canada alone, which is the equivalent of over thirty million dollars at present.

Sands of Iwo Jima was not only Wayne’s best war movie, but also a turning point in his career: it won him his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor and also put him, for the first time, on the prestigious poll of the ten most popular stars in America. Wayne became “a big shot,” according to Dwan, because the movie was such an unqualified success and no actor “could have been better.” True, Wayne was delighted to report, “The Marines and all the American Armed Forces were quite proud of my portrayal of Stryker.” At an American Legion Convention in Florida, General Douglas MacArthur, whom he admired, told him: “You represent the American serviceman better than the American serviceman himself.”