The next time you’re talking war movie trivia with friends, ask, “Who’s the hero in Sands of Iwo Jima?” Almost inevitably, they will respond, “John Wayne.” Or perhaps “Sergeant Stryker,” since that’s the name of the character that Wayne portrays. But either way they will be wrong. The hero is not Stryker, as one might expect because he is the film’s central figure. It is instead the squad he leads into battle, and the story unfolds most richly when this is understood.
In everyday terms, anyone potentially can behave “heroically” in the sense of behaving courageously. But in mythic terms, “Hero” has a specific meaning. It refers to the character in a story who undergoes an adventure in which he is challenged and changed, and from which he returns with a “boon”; that is to say, something of lasting value for himself or for others. Mythologist Joseph Campbell set forth this definition in a classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 (the same year in which Sands of Iwo Jima debuted). Based on a study of cultures the world over, Campbell discovered that each had stories of a hero whose journey of adventure shared a common structure.
Although you may never have heard of Campbell’s book, you’ve surely seen its ideas on display, because when creating his Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), writer/producer George Lucas consciously drew upon them. The Hero (Luke Skywalker) leaves the “ordinary world” of the planet Tatooine, enters the “special world” of the adventure, learns how to function in this special world, fights an adversary (the Empire), reaches a point of maximum peril (the loss of a hand and of his friend, Han Solo, in The Empire Strikes Back), and finally defeats his adversary and brings the boon of enduring peace to the galaxy in Return of the Jedi. But although Campbell was the first to identify this structure, story-tellers have unconsciously used it for millennia. So it was with Sands of Iwo Jima, written by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant, and directed by Alan Dwan.
As Campbell makes clear, the Hero’s journey invariably contains certain standard archetypes, chief among them the Mentor, who teaches the Hero how to operate in the special world of the adventure. In the Star Wars trilogy the Mentor is Obi Wan Kenobi. In Sands of Iwo Jima it is Sergeant John M. Stryker. Thus, the film opens in the “ordinary world” of a New Zealand training camp. The members of the squad—in mythic terms the Hero Team, because they embark on the adventure together—are the first to be introduced. Only then does Stryker appear. His task is to prepare the Hero Team to enter the “special world” of combat. He makes this plain when he and the squad first meet: “If I can’t teach you one way, I’ll teach you another. But I’ll get the job done.”
Save for the two combat veterans in the squad, Stryker is not particularly well liked by the men. Nor does he try to make himself likeable. He even butt strokes PFC “Sky” Choynski (Hal Baylor), who cannot master the foot work involved with bayonet drill. But true to his word, if Stryker can’t teach Choynski one way, he’ll teach him another, and later in the film he does so using the “Mexican Hat Dance” to give Choynski a sense of the rhythm and shifting of body weight involved.
Many adventures involve both a Mentor and a Shadow Mentor. The latter tries to induce the Hero into embracing the dark side of the special world. In the Star Wars trilogy the Shadow Mentor is Darth Vader. In Sands of Iwo Jima, Stryker represents both Mentor and Shadow Mentor. Most of the squad see only the Mentor. But one of them, PFC Peter Conway (John Agar) clearly perceives the Shadow Mentor, helped by the fact that he regards Stryker as the epitome of his own father, a flinty Marine colonel under whose command Stryker served on Guadalcanal. Of his father, Conway speaks bitterly. “I wasn’t tough enough for him. Too soft. ‘No guts’ was the phrase he used. He wanted me to be like Stryker. . . . I bet they got along just fine. Both with ramrods strapped on their backs. . . .They’re not going to strap one on mine.” Conway views Stryker as the embodiment of man the violent animal as opposed to man the lover of life, family, and culture.
Conway encounters the Shadow Mentor most directly during the first night after the invasion of Tarawa. This is the point of maximum peril for the Hero Team, for it has been assigned to hold a sector that ought to be defended by a force three times its size. In the midst of this tense situation, Conway and Stryker hear the desperate cry of a wounded comrade. Stryker refuses to help, saying that the cry may be a ruse and that an attempted rescue will give away the squad’s position. To Conway this response is inhuman. “Sit here if you want,” he says, “I’m getting him. The only way you’ll stop me is to kill me.” Stryker turns his rifle on Conway, his expression one of icy malevolence: “That’s just what I’ll do!” Conway stays put.
Then, using Stryker’s trademark phrase, Conway steps forward to lead them. “All right, saddle up!” he growls. “Let’s get back in the war.” The squad has completed the Hero’s adventure. But myth permits a nuanced reading of the film that leaves us wondering what individual journey Conway has completed. Has he embraced Stryker as Mentor after all? Or has he embraced the Shadow Mentor? Perhaps, as Campbell once expressed it, Conway has “put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life” and has at last submitted “to the absolutely intolerable.”