John Wayne is known for many films, and Sands of Iwo Jima is far from his least known. The final hoisting of the flag atop of the hill is well remembered, and, being released only four years after the end of WWII, it would have resonated with many at the time. Indeed, it ended up being nominated for a slug of Academy Awards, including one for Wayne himself. However, in amongst the flurry of iconic and much discussed moments is an overlooked scene that takes place roughly halfway through the film, with Wayne as Sgt Stryker stuck in the trenches with his men as they hear a voice calling out for help. It’s an incredibly dark and powerful moment which brings war’s test of humanity to the forefront and asks a man what the right thing to do is when there is no obvious answer.
For context, the proceeding scenes outline the scenario the characters are in. Stryker (John Wayne) has been told that he and his men are going to be thin on the ground, and need to dig in and stay put until reinforcements arrive. If they get charged, they’re all that’s there to stop the enemy. There’s to be no smoking, no talking, no moving around, or else the enemy will see how few they are, and they’ll be overrun. They must stay put, or risk ending up in body bags. The men spread out along the trench with a very nice tracking shot, with Sgt Stryker hunkering down on the far left of the trench (for us it’s the far right).
The next scene – the one being analysed – begins with two static shots of desolate palm trees. It’s night time, quiet, with smoke billowing from fires nearby. To emphasise the scene’s dread, and the unnerving quiet of the landscape, despite the occasional shelling in the background, Victor Young’s music kicks in. He uses a delicate ringing sound, presumably a sustained high note on a violin, with a heartbeat-like repeating motif underneath. The same sort of ringing noise would be used later in the D-Day shell-shock landings in Saving Private Ryan, and a similar, uncomfortable two-note droning would be used to great effect in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, in the bathroom scene with Pyle. It’s not the usual 40s war movie soundtrack, full of big brass and sweeping strings, and so it heightens the unusual tension, a kind of moral twilight zone, to use a phrase which would become well known in the coming years.
The scene cuts to the faces of two men in the trenches, dark and muddied. They’re keeping watch, nervous and on edge. And here it begins, the sound of a man on the battlefield crying out for help. Slow and deliberate, not the frantic cry of the wounded, but a name, repeated over and over again, methodically. The men note the cry, and the camera tracks along to the next duo through flashes of light from the explosions all around. It pauses. “That’s a marine,” one says, before the camera moves on again, passing over the next lot to the team fourth in line. They call to Stryker that they should go and help, but Stryker refuses. “You had your orders; don’t move.”
This is the crux of the scene’s impossible conflict. Someone calls out for help on the battlefield, but to obey orders, they must leave him to die. By situating Stryker as the last man in the line for the camera to reach, director Allan Dwan has allowed us to see and hear the reactions of all his squad before getting to the man in charge. Emotional and scared, they hear the plea of a wounded man and sympathise with him, wanting to help. By hearing everyone’s wish beforehand, it fires us up as well. The repetition of this drive to aid this person helps to convince us of its reasonableness, and also builds up a simple scenario of numbers, because it’s nine against one. When Stryker has to pull someone back in, claiming it could be a trick by the Japanese, another dimension is added to the conflict. There’s no way to tell who it is, and any movement could get them all killed. It’s against orders, and a risk he can’t take. In charge of another nine men as well as himself, he has to go somewhere deep within himself, and let someone die.
We cut back to the desolate palm trees, and the call changes. “Stryker,” says the voice. “Stryker.” In the wilderness of grenades and tank fire, someone is calling for Stryker personally to help. Cutting back to a two-shot in the trenches, Pfc. Conway (played by John Agar) tries to convince Stryker that it’s his man, Bass, because how many others would know his name? Stryker, however, is resolute. He won’t go out.
We cut to a different two-shot, the focus on Conway. He speaks out, asking if Stryker realises a man might be dying. He goes on about how he was brought up to be a great marine, but Stryker doesn’t want to hear it. Stryker stares out into the battlefield throughout the monologue, trying to get the thoughts out of his mind. His face is in the shadow, whereas Conway’s is raised to the moonlight. It’s a good cinematic touch which says exactly how each of them feels. Conway wears his emotions on his sleeve, trusting in moral virtues and righteousness to give him the ability to run in and grab their guy, whereas Wayne is in the midst of inner turmoil, his thoughts darkened.
Then Conway says that he’s going to get him, and if Stryker doesn’t like it, he’ll have to kill him. Conway leans over the edge of the trench and the camera shifts to focus solely on him, but it keeps Stryker’s rifle in shot. The barrel moves to Conway’s face. “That’s just what I’ll do”. It’s impersonal, cold and rational, and the camera shows this by hiding Wayne’s face, removing any trace of humanity from the decision.
It cuts back to Stryker in a close-up as, cold and merciless with eyes narrowed and hard, he cocks the rifle. Then back to Conway, and then Stryker, slowly building up the tension as the two men battle between emotion and logic, humanity and orders. All the while, the background score works its way into our nerves. Everything is on a knife edge, and we don’t know which way it will go. Would Stryker really shoot his second in command down for trying to save someone?
But Conway backs down, and Stryker returns to looking out into the battlefield. The calling starts up once more, and Conway casts Stryker a glance. Can he really just sit there and let the man call for help, possibly dying in a forgotten trench, without at least summoning the courage to take a chance and look?
The scene then cuts back to Stryker for a gut-wrenching single. It’s almost identical to the singles used in the confrontation between Conway and him, but the cinematography has changed. There’s now a dark shadow from his helmet covering his eyes, almost invisible save for two tiny points of light reflecting off the pupils, like a predatory animal. Stryker looks away, looks back, swallows, trying to keep his emotions contained. It’s clear that the decision to stay isn’t as easy as he made it seem. He’s battling with himself, trying to hold good to his orders against his own moral compass. And the most remarkable thing is that this final single lasts for roughly twenty-five seconds including the final fade to black. It never cuts away from Stryker’s face as he battles with himself, allowing Wayne to put in the performance of a lifetime, having to sit in the trenches of WWII listening to his man die, calling for his aid, and not being able to risk helping.
That this final shot fades away without resolving anything doubles up on the moral ambiguity of the scene, and keeps the tension high. This article won’t reveal the actual identity of the caller on the battlefield (you’ll have to watch the film yourself to find out), but who they were doesn’t detract from the pit-of-the-stomach terror felt every time the scene plays. It’s slow, agonising torture, which showcases one of the greatest actors of classic Hollywood on top form. He might have been best known for swinging a gun around on horseback with a cool accent, but here Wayne goes to the utter depths of his inner torment, and truly brings home how monstrous war is.
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