What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Send In The Marines Blog-A-Thon being hosted by J-Dub from Dubsism and Gill from RealWeegieMidget Reviews. The premise is simple. Since this event coincides with the anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps, this blog-a-thon is dedicated to films or television programs either about the USMC, those in which actual Marines appear, or feature actors who served in the Marine Corps.
“Sands of Iwo Jima” revolves around Sergeant John Stryker (played by John Wayne) who is the the definition of “leatherneck.” As he is a hard-ass of the first order, he is disliked by his men because he subjects them to rigorous and unyielding training. The two most notable conflicts are between Stryker and Privates First Class Peter Conway (played John Agar) and Al Thomas (played by Forrest Tucker).
Thomas dislikes Stryker because he blames the sergeant for his own demotion back to Private First Class. In the case of Conway, the relationship between he and Stryker is a bit more complex. Conway is the son of Colonel Sam Conway, an officer Stryker served under and for whom he bore tremendous respect. But Pete Conway is a very different person. He is intelligent, college-educated, and harbors more than a bit of resentment for Stryker and the Marine Corps in general, both of which he consideres to be anti-intellectual.
Along the way, both Thomas and Conway start to appreciate Stryker’s ways, but not at the same pace. On Tarawa, Stryker’s men are being decimated by a Japanese pillbox when Stryker takes it out with a satchel charge. Later during this same battle, Thomas “goofs off” when he goes to get ammunition, stopping to savor a cup of coffee. As a result, two Marines run out of ammunition; one is killed and the other severely wounded when the Japanese overran their foxhole.
That night, Stryker’s squad is ordered to dig in and hold their positions under the cover of darkness, and to do absolutely nothing which will tip their position as they are stretched to thin to resist a counter-attack. From their foxhole, Stryker and Conway can hear the wounded Marine from Thomas’ foxhole pleading for help. Conway tells Stryker he’s going to retrieve him, at which point Stryker says if Conway gives away their position, he’s going to get them all killed. Conway tells Stryker the only way to stop him will be to kill him, and Stryker leaves no doubt that’s exactly what’s about to happen.
Later after the battle, Stryker discovers Thomas’ role in the death of one of his men and the bayoneting of another. Stryker challenges Thomas to a fight, which is seen by a passing officer. While the officer intends to charge Stryker with striking a subordinate, Thomas throws a smoke-screen by claiming the sergeant was merely giving him a judo demonstration. After the officer leaves, Stryker tells Thomas “well, at least you’re no stool pigeon.” At this point, Thomas breaks down and apologizes for his dereliction of duty. Stryker believes Thomas’ apology to be sincere; thus ending that rift.
However, Conway proves to be a tougher nut to crack. During a training exercise, a live grenade gets loose in the training compound. Everybody hits the deck, except Conway,who is distracted reading a letter from his wife. Stryker tackles him before the grenade explodes. Stryker is wounded by the grenade, but still admonished Conway “if you ever want to see that wife of yours again, you’d better pay attention to your job.” Thomas layers on by telling Conway “Boy, you many not know it, but you just got your life saved.”
But something happens before the grenade scene which really tells you want Stryker is all about. While on leave in Honolulu, he picks up a bar-fly and returns with her to her apartment. She tells him she’s almost out of scotch, so he gives her money to make a run to the market. In the meantime, he discovers she has a baby in the other room. When she returns, he finds out she’s also bought baby formula. Even by the time she’s tells Styrker the baby’s father is “gone,” it’s plainly obvious she’s a prostitute (a fact that is explicitly NOT mentioned), especially when she says “there are worse ways to make a living than fighting a war.”
Stryker takes the baby formula from here and proceeds to prepare it. Surprised, she says “You know about babies?” at which point he tells her he has a son. After they feed the baby, he gives all the money he has in his pocket and leaves.
The films final scene sees Stryker and his men landing on the beaches of Iwo Jima. They incur heavy casualties going up the beach, but later Stryker the the men he has remaining are selected to be part of the patrol that will charge up Mount Suribachi. During the charge, more of Stryker’s men are killed, including Stryker himself. The remaining members of Stryker’s squad, including Thomas and Conway find a letter Stryker wrote to his son. This is where Conway has his epiphany about Stryker; the film ends with him essentially becoming Stryker.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
In much the same way that Peter Conway didn’t appreciate Sergeant Stryker until he was gone, there were many members of the dynastic Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers of the 1960s who didn’t appreciate their legendary coach. Like Stryker, Lombardi was hard on his men. Like Stryker, Lombardi believed in rigorous training. And like Stryker, the guys who didn’t appreciate him when he was in Green Bay certainly figured out his worth when he left in 1968, and the Packers went quickly from dynasty back to also-rans.
Wayne’s “Sergeant Stryker” became an iconic symbol of the Marine Corps, don’t tell me this isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about one of his “tough guy in a war movie” roles. Stryker shares that iconic status with Lombardi for the same reason. When you think legendary “tough guy” football coach, if the name “Lombardi isn’t the first one to pop into your head, you haven’t been paying attention.
But what a lot of people might miss is both Stryker and Lombardi only cared about two things. They care about whether their men can do the job and they care about the men who do the job. They don’t care about who or what those men are. As tough as they both were, Stryker and Lombardi were equitable in their distribution of “tough love.” With Lombardi, is was about making his men winners. With Stryker, it was about giving them best chance to survive the war.
But it both cases, all that mattered was the team. Once you earned your spot on the team, who you were or how you got that didn’t matter. Stryker treated “The Greek” the same as he did the Flynn brothers; getting “The Greek” killed is why Stryker beats the crap out of Thomas. If you look at the Green Bay Packers in the early years of integration in the 1960s, the first thing you’re going to notice is there were a lot more black faces in Packer green than almost any other team in the NFL. All that mattered to Lombardi was whether or not you could play football, and he was going to make sure you did it better than anybody else.
The Moral of The Story:
People really don’t know what they have inside of them until somebody drags it out.
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