One of Billy Wilder’s first jobs in the German film business, he told me once, was an assignment in the mid-1920s to show around Berlin a famous and respected American film director and his beautiful former-showgirl wife. Allan Dwan at that time was considered one of the best of the Hollywood picture-making pioneers, an all-around professional who could handle comedy as easily as he could handle drama, who had a good touch with pathos and a fine understanding of human nature, who was superstar Gloria Swanson’s favorite director, as well as the legendary Douglas Fairbanks’s favorite too. Indeed, Dwan had directed Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1921), which was the first movie ever to cost a million dollars. In later years, he would become Shirley Temple’s favorite director as well.
As Doug Fairbanks was the most popular American star during World War I—-while Allan Dwan did eight pictures with him–so John Wayne was the favorite of World War II and immediately after, and for a long time. Dwan directed the first of only two pictures for which the Duke was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor: as the toughest Marine of all time, Sergeant Stryker, in 1949’s popular SANDS OF IWO JIMA (available on DVD). This was also the first time Republic Pictures–mainly a B-western studio–spent over a million dollars.
I still very well remember seeing the picture in a theatre for the first time when I was ten, and being extraordinarily shocked when John Wayne is killed at the end (only happened about four times in the star’s long career). The finality of one image–Wayne’s back lying motionless with a bullet hole through the shirt that had “Sgt. Stryker” stenciled above it–was among my first and most vivid associations with death.
Dwan was the loveliest old gentleman when I knew him–ages 80 to 96–still jovial, deeply encouraging, understanding, funny. He gave me the best definition for what made “certain people” uniquely film stars, something which didn’t exist before Douglas Fairbanks, and which reached its peak in longevity (including posthumous) with John Wayne: “In pictures, personalities are it,” Dwan said. “It isn’t acting per se as it’s known in the theatre. You’d bring some kid in who just blazed off the screen…That’s what we looked for–some photographic quality, some mysterious hidden thing certain people have…”
Very few of our current stars “blaze off the screen.” Orson Welles used to quote actor Akim Tamiroff who described the star quality Allan was talking about this way: “The box [camera] look at one person, says ‘I like him.’ The box look at another person, says, ‘I don’t like him.’ That’s all.” The box looked at Ava Gardner for her first screen test and although her acting was terrible, and her Southern accent impossible, there was one moment, only a few seconds long, where she “blazed off the screen,” and on the basis of that brief look, got signed to a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
There are no studios today looking for talent like that; the whole system had fallen apart by the early 1960s, and it’s been catch as catch can since then: a lot of good actors, but precious few real stars, of the personality sort. Clint Eastwood and Barbra Streisand are the most memorable of recent stars like that; Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis fall into that category, but most actors today try to be versatile and, like Brando, prefer not to be typed.
Part of the effect of a film like Sands of Iwo Jima is that the leading character brings a lot of history with him, becoming more than simply an actor playing a role, adding a good degree of residual reverberations from other parts in other pictures, thereby heightening the impact when he is killed at the conclusion.
The picture has certain dated scenes and ones that became a cliché but never were that interesting; nevertheless, Dwan keeps it moving right along, and Duke was in his post-Red River period—a tough, prickly gent, decidedly dangerous—in which he bloomed as an actor and star. In Sands of Iwo Jima, John Wayne is archetypal John Wayne, and that’s reason enough to see it.