Sgt. Stryker (played by John Wayne): “Life is tough, but it's tougher if you're stupid.”— Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), screenplay by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant, based on a story by Harry Brown, directed by Allan Dwan
A prior post of mine focused on the movie that won John Wayne an Oscar after four decades in the industry, True Grit—released on this day 45 years ago. That film dealt in a seriocomic fashion with the nature of courage. Bravery was a major theme—perhaps the defining one—in the career of the actor, who died on this day in 1979 of lung and stomach cancer.
As he had done for the past 15 years, when he defied a longtime industry taboo by disclosing his first operation for cancer, Wayne reacted to the recurrence of his disease with a candor and grace that won the admiration not only of those who regarded him as an American icon, but even of many of those who saw him as the embodiment of militarism and racism. The movie that helped to solidify these contradictory views was Sands of Iwo Jima, which had netted the actor his first Oscar nomination.
It is one of the characteristic ironies of Hollywood that this matinee idol, who never served a day in the armed forces even when so many of his contemporaries did so in WWII, played a career soldier in Sands of Iwo Jima. Over time, his character—a hard-drinking, hard-as-nails Marine sergeant who really does, appearances to the contrary, care about his men, a tower of strength as a soldier but not as husband or father—became a cliché.
Among the actors who played a similar type was Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge. The two actors, in fact, projected similar personas and charted similar career trajectories. Both men began as protégés of genre directors (Wayne, with the pioneer of the film western, John Ford; Eastwood, with “spaghetti western” auteur Sergio Leone and action director Don Siegel). Both were “personality stars” who, rather than utterly transform themselves for roles, played an infinite number of small variations on the same character type. Both made virtual trademarks of elements in their physiques (Wayne: the catlike walk; Eastwood: the squint) and voices (Wayne: slow, with gathering force; Eastwood: raspy). Both finally achieved significant critical acclaims and Oscars at age 62—Wayne, for True Grit, and Eastwood for directing (and starring in) another western, Unforgiven. Both, in late middle age, directed films that glorified the Marines (though New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted that Eastwood had far the tougher task at this, for “It requires a certain crazy vision to transform the American invasion of Grenada into the equivalent of Iwo Jima”).
You might think that Wayne—who was so professional that he even worked well with co-stars who could not have disagreed with him more on politics, such as Katharine Hepburn and Kirk Douglas—would have welcomed the opportunity to act with Eastwood, whose screen personas and politics were a match for his own. Not a chance. When the younger man broached the idea of working together in the early 1970s, Wayne rejected it immediately. He simply recoiled at the level of violence in Eastwood’s recent High Plains Drifter, and said so. Likewise, the anti-hero that Eastwood played so often was inimical to the heroes that Wayne played in films about the West, which, Wayne noted, represented "the triumph of personal courage over any obstacle, whether nature or man."