Sands of Iwo Jima: Making of War Movie and Movie Star (John Wayne)

The idea for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), John Wayne’s most notable war film, was originated by producer Eddie Grainger, who wanted to make a picture about the harsh battle and 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.

Interestingly enough, Dwan did not ask for John Wayne when he agreed to direct, because as he recalled, “There were three or four actors who could play it.” However, when the producer mentioned Wayne’s name, Dawn gave his blessing, telling him: “Go and get the Duke–fight for him, if you have too.”

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 reenacted their real-life roles in the movie; the other three had died in the meantime.

Wayne plays John M. Stryker, a sergeant who’s is disliked by his men because of his ruthless training. His major critic is a new recruit, Peter Conway (John Agar), who hates Wayne’s rigid discipline. Indeed, Wayne trains his novices, ruthlessly bullying and whipping them into shape. The animosity between Wayne and Conway has other sources: Wayne had served under Conway’s father, who had been killed in action in Guadalcanal. Conway, however, does not share Wayne’s respect for his father, because the latter used to poke fun at him for being “too soft.”

In the film’s climax, Conway tells Wayne how he will bring up his newly-born son: “I won’t insist he read the Marine Corps Manual. Instead, I’ll get him a set of Shakespeare. In short, I don’t want him to be a Sergeant John M. Stryker–I want him to be intelligent, considerate, cultured, and a gentleman.”

Later in the story, however, Wayne saves Conway’s like, when a live grenade falls at his feet while he dreamily reads a letter from his wife. But Conway gets the opportunity to save Wayne’s life and even apologizes for getting “out of line.” In this movie too, Wayne is the sensitive commander who does not let it show, believing in hard discipline.

After Wayne is shot by a sniper, an unfinished letter is found on his body in which he concedes of being a failure in many ways. At the end, however, Conway becomes the fighter Wayne and his father have always wanted him to be. Killing the Japanese sniper, he takes over the command and adopts Wayne’s style of leadership.

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 benefited from a bigger budget, $1 million, than most Republic pictures; the average production at the time cost about $200,000. Due to its scope, the film could not have been made on a smaller budget, and it would have cost much more to make without the cooperation of the Marines.

Nonetheless, 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 $5 million in the U.S. alone.

Sands of Iwo Jima was not only Wayne’s best war picture; it was also the turning point in his career. For his role, Wayne received his first Academy Award nomination as Best Actor, and the movie 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.”

In later years, 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.”