“Sands of Iwo Jima” is a John Wayne movie and he gives one of his best performances. He was nominated for Best Actor. Sgt. Stryker became his most iconic role and he brings the full force of his charisma to it. The character is a bit more dimensional than his cowboy characters. He gets to play tough, empathetic, drunk, morose, heroic. He is outstanding. The supporting cast is adequate and very old schoolish. John Agar is the “I can’t live up to my dead father who happened to be a mentor for Stryker” so I will hate Stryker instead guy. Forest Tucker is the Stryker foe. Throw in an aggravating Italian Brooklynite for dubious comic relief. The actual war heroes inserted into the cast can best be described as “not actors”.
“When Trumpets Fade” is dominated by Ron Eldard as the anti-hero David Manning. It is a remarkable performance. The character is far from stereotypical. He is a survivor loaded with PTSD and a cynical anti-authority attitude who is thrust into an authority position. Eldard plays him as a guy who would have despised Stryker. The supporting cast is satisfactory. Martin Donovan is excellent as Capt. Pritchett. Zac Orth does good work as the "dead meat" Sanderson.
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“Sands of Iwo Jima” is not an iconoclastic movie. In fact, it helped set the template for war movies until the 1960s. It begins with a dedication to the Marine Corps (and is virtually a recruiting film). The unit is not as clearly defined as heterogeneous as in many similar movies, but it is still a small unit movie. You have a hero and a defined mission (raising the flag). Conflict in the unit (actually two – Stryker vs. Thomas, Stryker vs. Conway) is resolved. You have the redemption in the form of Conway who has daddy issues and is a reluctant warrior. You get rituals like a marriage and mail call.
“When Trumpets Fade” was obviously made with cliché-busting in mind. However, it is a war movie so you do have some familiar elements. It has a dedication to the men who fought in the Hurtgen Forest. There is a mission (actually two), but reluctantly led by an anti-hero. You definitely have the leadership forced on the main character trope, but the twist is that he fights against it and is downright surly. Does Manning get redemption? He would certainly have sneered at that. There are no rituals that I noticed. Kudos for reversing the “fat guy with glasses must die” cliché.
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“Sands of Iwo Jima” is your standard boot camp to battle flic. Stryker inherits a motley group of Marines and trains them in a tough love way for the realities of battle. Meanwhile, conflicts within the unit are developed so that combat can resolve them. There are two battle scenes. The first to establish heroism and the realities of war (Tarawa). The second to show the success of the unit evolution as it accomplishes a mission (Iwo Jima). The flow from training to off base to training to combat is smooth and entertaining, if predictable.
“When Trumpets Fade” has an anti-hero thrust into command of a squad of replacements. There is no training or bonding. Manning does not want to lead and does not care about his charges. The traditional early arc of a combat film is dispensed with. The transitions are mainly from Manning encountering authority to combat sequences. Similar to “Sands”, there are two main combat scenes. Unlike “Sands”, these episodes are basically the suicide mission variety. Both movies have the “who will survive?” vibe.
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“Sands of Jima” has two big combat scenes- Tarawa and Iwo Jima. In the first, Stryker takes out a bunker in typical John Wayne fashion. Considering the potential inherent in the Battle of Tarawa, the movie is surprisingly lacking in action. A promised night banzai charge never materializes (WTF?) and only the first day of the three day battle is shown. Big letdown. The Battle of Iwo Jima is more intense and satisfying although it relies substantially on actual footage (but very well used). The violence is very old school. There is little blood although we do get some bullet wounds. Nothing women can’t handle. However, men will probably cry (you know what I’m talking about, guys).
“When Trumpets Fade” is from the VioLingo school and intentionally pushes the envelope created by movies like “Sands”. It also has two major combat sequences. The first is the mission to take out the artillery battery. Manning is forced to shoot one of the replacements who has freaked out and is causing the rest to panic. Sanderson uses a flamethrower to roast the Germans. The second mission is similar with the target being some emplaced tanks. This time grenades and Thompsons and Garands are more de rigueur. The movie throws in two larger group actions involving the graphic results of sustained artillery fire. The wounds are graphic and bloody and there are numerous delimbings. Plus two losers of battles with flamethrowers.
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COLOR ANALYSIS: This was a great match-up between Old School and VioLingo. VioLingo is what I am trying out as my name for modern war movies that feature realistic violence and soldier talk and behavior. The two movies could not be more opposite. "Trumpets" is over the top in its "war is Hell" theme and "Sands" is one of the few war movies that is not definitively anti-war. It is almost like Stryker's death was written in because the director decided it was needed to soften the film's glamorization of war. Certainly, no one who watches "Trumpets" rushes out to join the Army, whereas many joined the Marines due to "Sands". Another fascinating match-up was that of hero Stryker vs. anti-hero Manning. The hero vs. anti-hero is a crucial difference between Old School and VioLingo. It will be interesting to see how future bouts between these schools will turn out. For example, "Guadalcanal Diary" against "Saving Private Ryan".