Monday, July 2, 2012

The Unbreakable Shell

John Wayne does three things well.

He talks with a languid toughness that manages to sound both intimidating and wise at the same time and whenever he struts across the screen as a soldier or cowboy he comes across as completely legitimate, despite the painful obviousness in many of his performances.

In 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima, Wayne puts his best boot forward – and collected an Oscar nomination in the process – when he offers up equal doses of stoicism and sympathy in his now-legendary role as the no-nonsense Marine Sergeant Stryker. It is not an exaggeration to say that the very stereotype of the hard-as-nails drill instructor originates with Wayne and this performance. It is also not an exaggeration to assert Wayne being Wayne in this film is precisely what saves an effort that otherwise would be a profound piece of propaganda celebrating the legend of the Marine Corps.

Because as I said, this is not altogether incredible stuff.

There is a kind of paint-by-numbers with these World War Two epics: The platoon or company is always the center of our attention and it is typically comprised of souls with immediately identifiable accents and at least one personality trait that enables the viewer to remember something unique about that character when he is spotted among the rest of the cast. Part of this is economy, because nobody needs a film with a dozen developed characters, and part of it is filmmakers giving the audience what they expect from the genre (see Saving Private Ryan). Sands of Iwo Jima may be decades old and made within living memory of the actual event, but quite a lot of World War Two films had already appeared by 1949, many of them with Wayne in them, and Hollywood knew what people wanted. More complicated war films, with less obvious tracks, would not come until America began to grapple with how to depict the Vietnam conflict on the screen.

In the case of this film, the American triumph on the tiny island of Iwo Jima signified by the iconic flag-raising ceremony on the summit of Mt. Suribachi was known to virtually every American. The photograph, taken by Joe Rosenthal, had not only graced magazine covers and posters, it had also been used extensively as propaganda piece to raise war bonds (see Flags of My Father). The decision to graft a challenging, if somewhat one-dimensional and episodic plot, on top of a film building to an inevitable event therefore deserves some credit. Stryker could have been more boorish and more boring, and in the hands of a lesser actor he might have been.

Wayne makes him believable and he does not with his bark but with the pained scowl he gets whenever he is confronted by another’s failure to perform or on the occasions when the awfulness of failure attempts to impose itself on his life and the fate of his men. There is a telling scene when Wayne encounters a baby belonging to Julie Bishop after a brief romance in her home. The father is gone, either dead or disinterested, and Wayne is painfully reminded of his own estrangement from his child, and haunted by the possibility that he too may one day leave a woman without a man and a child without a father, should he fall combat.

The scene plays well on Wayne’s running confrontation with John Agar, the arrogant, college-educated son of an officer under whom Wayne served. Agar is the smart-aleck recruit who presents his sergeant with a problem. This would feel stale and prosaic were the father/son motif not the foundation of the turmoil. Wayne watched an officer he loved as a father die, and now the son of that officer is under his care. What is he to do? The answer is make certain the son is ready.

On the American side, the battle of Iwo Jim claimed upwards of 6,000 men and 19,000 casualties, including the lives of most of the men in the famous flag-raising photograph. All but 200 or so of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers on the island died in combat. The latter of the two statistics speaks to what manner of battle the American Marine faced on the island – the enemy, almost literally, was willing to fight to the last man, and nearly did so. America's triumph should be viewed in martial terms that take into account those horrific numbers, but also in the more human tones painted in this film. When Wayne, rather inevitably, falls, his men find a letter on him addressed to his estranged son, saying all the things he wanted to say but could not find the strength to do so while he was alive. It is a cliched moment perhaps, but it still makes the audience feel nonetheless. Here is a tireless warrior, a man among men who trained other men to do great things. And here, laid bare, in a letter he knew could only be posted after he died, is his soul. He was unbreakable as a Marine, but even Marines are people, too.

1 comment:

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