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Posted on Mar 1, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

A Salute to John Wayne

By Wyatt Kingseed


3.jpgThey Were Expendable (1945). Ford taps Wayne again, this time as a commander of PT boats in the Pacific. The movie is Ford’s tribute to the American fighting man, particularly U.S. sailors. Ford had just completed four years service as a lieutenant commander in the war where he produced critically acclaimed documentaries for the U.S. State Department. When James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, asked him to produce a feature film supporting the war effort, Ford turned to a recent bestseller about the real life exploits of Lieutenant John Bulkeley and Robert Kelly. Bulkeley is interred at Arlington Cemetery. He won the Medal of Honor for his service during the war and Kelly the Navy Cross.

The film accurately depicts the role PT boats performed against the Japanese Navy in the days immediately following Pearl Harbor, fighting a rear guard action in the Solomon Islands to give the U.S. Navy precious time to regroup. It captures the spirit and courage of the sailors manning the fast, lightly defended vessels. About eighty feet in length, PT boats were a real example of a David and Goliath confrontation when they went against an enemy destroyer or bigger vessel. Wayne takes second billing to Navy veteran and actor, Robert Montgomery, a real PT boat skipper during the war. They play two officers based on Bulkeley and Kelly—here characters named Rusty Ryan and John Brickley.


Forrestal and Ford wanted to show that the war required personal sacrifice, and that more was in the offing. While the war’s outcome was no longer in doubt when filming started in February 1945, few anticipated that Japan would surrender without an invasion of its homeland. Some projections had potential U.S. casualties as high as a million. In any case, officials understood that bloody beach landings were not over.

By the time the film was ready for audiences that December, however, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had brought the fighting to a screeching halt, making the film’s release that Christmas season anti-climatic. Because the American public was ready to turn its energies elsewhere after four bloody years, the film garnered less attention than it deserved. Still, it represents one of Wayne’s best portrayals in the war genre, and is a fine tribute to the men Ford sought to honor.

4.jpgIn Harm’s Way (1964). Battle station sirens wail when Wayne teams with another heavyweight director, Otto Preminger, in this story of the Navy’s response to Pearl Harbor. Wayne plays Rock Torrey, a career Navy man who rises from disgrace to command a task force in the Solomon Islands during 1942.

The last film before his 1964 cancer scare and operation, Wayne looks haggard and sick, fitting for his character, a man under immense pressure and responsibility. Though the film includes a silly subplot centered around co-star Kirk Douglas’ inner demons, it accurately depicts the notion that the war’s outcome was no sure thing at the beginning, and that American dominance took teamwork, brilliant strategy, and a healthy dose of luck.

The film replicates, and embellishes, one of the war’s most fortuitous events: PBY pilot Howard Ady’s, on a reconnaissance flight from Midway, discovered Vice Admiral Nagumo’s approaching Striking Force, setting in motion the timely launch of carrier and land-based American bombers for that battle’s decisive air attack. In the film, Douglas’ character undertakes a similar mission, this one a suicide one, knowing he hasn’t fuel to make the return trip. Just in time he spots the enemy fleet and radios Wayne where to direct the American planes for the decisive attack. Wayne listens as his friend’s plane is riddled with bullets and crashes into the sea. In real life, Ady survived his brush with history and landed on a nearby island.

The real gem here is Wayne’s understated performance—miraculous given his own deteriorated condition off screen. Variety called it a “commanding presence.” Jerry Goldsmith’s dramatic score adds power to the battle action, even if the climatic scene is done with cheesy models. The title comes from a John Paul Jones’ quote.

5.jpgSands of Iwo Jima (1949). The role of Sergeant John Stryker, a hard-boiled marine drill instructor and squadron leader, garnered Wayne his first Best Actor nomination. More than any other performance, it solidified Wayne’s iconic status and propelled him to superstardom. “Saddle Up,” Stryker’s catch phrase in the film, entered the American lexicon as young men everywhere now thought of John Wayne as the ideal soldier and hero.

The film follows a group of recruits as they move through the rigors of boot camp under Stryker’s tough tutelage to the bloody beaches of Tarawa and the black sands of Iwo Jima. At first, his men resent his unforgiving attitude, but by the film’s closing credits, they come to appreciate Stryker’s methods. Like all good NCO’s, he instructs his raw troops that a marine’s best friend is the guy next to him. Some men don’t get the lesson. One incident depicts the importance of this concept. Three marines under fire send a man back for ammo. He dallies to drink coffee instead of hurrying back to re-supply his mates. By the time he returns to the foxhole, his companions have been overrun and are dead.

This production served to shore up public support for the Marine Corps after the war, when threatened during demobilization of the military. It doesn’t sugarcoat combat like many of the propaganda spit out by Hollywood in the 1940s. Instead, it portrays it as dirty, uncertain, and de-humanizing. The film’s authenticity is further cemented when a Japanese sniper kills Stryker, symbolizing one of the 6,800 Americans killed in the battle. It is a quiet moment—even these come in the midst of battle—and it accurately shows that the climb up Mount Suribachi was less hazardous than what preceded it on the beach and what would occur later as marines moved north to the atoll’s airfields. The three surviving members of the famous flag raising atop Suribachi, a scene captured by Joe Rosenthal in a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, also appear in the film: John Bradley, Ira Hayes, and Rene Gagon.

Like most war films of the era, actual combat footage is mixed with simulated fighting to good effect. The Marine Corps lent equipment and advice to the production. Filmed at Camp Pendleton, California, it includes scenes showing the subterranean nature of the island defense. It ends dramatically with the famous flag-raising as the Marine Corps hymn plays in the background.

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