Monday, June 25, 2018

The Boys in the "Sands"

No, not The Boys in the Band (1970), nor even the adult film The Boys in the Sand (1971), but a glimpse at some of the boys in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), a "gung ho" WWII action movie laced with some jaw-dropping homoerotic dialogue and situations. Now, granted, times were different then and most, if not all, of the things I'll be looking at were either innocent or unintentional - just part of the camaraderie of the U.S. marine storyline - but they still bear closer inspection and perhaps warrant a chuckle or two. This won't be one of my microscopic examinations of the film's plot itself, per se, just some highlights.

By 1949, the war won by the allies, there had been countless movies about various branches of the armed forces, be it the army, the air force or the navy, but the marines had gotten rather short shrift. Here, we are introduced to a collection of U.S. Marines about to be put through their paces by a Sgt. Stryker, played by no less than "The Duke," John Wayne.

Here we find James L. Brown and Forrest Tucker, two of the men under Wayne who've already seen some action. Most of the others are newbies. Brown is Wayne's unwavering champion while Tucker cannot stand him for having busted him for an infraction, resulting in a 30-day lock-up and demotion.
Arthur Franz, the third somewhat seasoned soldier, meets two of the raw recruits - Richard Webb and Wally Cassell. Cassell has big plans for Webb (as "Handsome Dan Shipley) after the war. In his first on-screen moment with him, he remarks on Webb's body (he says "physic" instead of "physique!") and how he's going to represent him as a movie star.
Then we meet, among others, young, blond brother Richard Jaeckel and William Murphy, from Philadephia - "The City of Brotherly Love" - though you'd never know it from the behavior they display. Their constantly brawling and battling it out over practically nothing!
While the men are put through their rigorous preparation for battle in the Pacific, we see Wayne shouting orders at them while they jump off a platform into the water. I don't know where I've been (clearly not in the marines!), but I never knew that they were instructed to grab their nose with one hand and their balls with the other when jumping.

One of Wayne's rawest and most difficult recruits is John Agar. Agar had already worked with Wayne on Fort Apache (1948) and would also appear with him in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970) and Big Jake (1971.)

Agar's problem is that his late father was once Wayne's command- ing officer, one who Wayne admired. However, that same man was always disappointed in his son Agar, thinking him too soft, not tough enough, embarrassing to him and referring to him as having "no guts."

At bath time, Cassell is still going on about his fellow recruits' "physics!" He gives a raucous "Mmm-hmmm" and can't help remarking about what his plans are for them in Hollywood after the war. He's rewarded with a helmet full of water dumped on his head to cool him off...

Wayne, whose wife and young son have left him because of his devotion to the service rather than to them, has a problem. He spends all available nights getting plastered on booze. Brown takes noted interest in Wayne's well-being, all but begging him: "Don't do it. Just this once, don't do it... Don't get blind, staggerin' stinkin' falling down drunk."

In medium shots, Brown looks so lean, dark and handsome. Up close, something about him is rougher and more rugged seeming. But I love his hair and I was immediately captivated by his utter dedication to Wayne in this movie, while forever and always eschewing the opportunity to meet a woman.

The rest of the guys are out on the town (including poor Hal Baylor, who's sporting a huge bandage from some tough-love he got from Wayne during bayonet training!) They're on the lookout for girls, but at the same time have trouble keeping their hands off one another.

Sure enough, they find Wayne all shit-faced drunk and in danger of being picked up by the MPs! Tucker, who has no great love for Wayne, still doesn't want one of his own to be taken in by them. Brown, who is never far from Wayne in any case, steps in and offers to take care of him. (One of the marines exclaims that Brown must "follow him around like a little dog!")

In the (very!) cozy pup tents for two, Agar spills his guts to his sleepmate that he's in love..., not in love with his fellow soldier, but - as Wayne overhears in a nearby tent he shares with Brown - Agar's in love with a young New Zealand gal he met while out on the town. Note that Wayne sleeps shirtless.

Adela Mara plays the young woman Agar falls for and ultimately marries and impreg- nates. So we know that at least one of these guys is doing something with a female!

The day of the wedding, Baylor and Wayne don't attend the ceremony with the other soldiers. They stay behind to get Baylor up on his bayonet practice. What is the best way Wayne can think of to get the young man on board?

Dancing! They do a jumping jig together, complete with arm-in-arm do-si-dos! Well, if ya can't make it to the wedding reception, ya gotta have yer fun somehow, pilgrim...

After the wedding, Tucker and Cassell have an exchange of their own which ends with Cassell saying to Tucker, "Al, if I was a girl, I'd marry you," receiving a hand shove to the face in response.

On the ship headed to Hawaii for more training and an eventual mission, Wayne leads the men, some of them shirtless, in some jumping jacks and other sweaty calisthenics.

As usual, Jaeckel and his brother break into a fight, this time over Murphy's shirt, which Jaeckel claims is his.
I swear these two are locked in a clinch like this for 20% of their screen time!
Baylor pulls them apart, giving us a pretty good glimpse of Murphy's "physic."
The quarters on board are impossibly cramped and intimate, to say the least.
When Agar gets so fed up with Wayne's command- eering attitude (well, he is their command- er!), he tries to throw a punch at him, but is restrained much the way bosomy damsels are on the cover of cheap paperback crime novels or vintage men's magazines...
Later, in the field of battle Agar and Wayne square off yet again, this time under far more dire circum- stances. Tucker has foolishly abandoned Wayne's best buddy Brown to die alone in the sand and Agar wants to go retrieve him, but Wayne forbids it because it will give their position away to the enemy.

A distraught, teary-eyed and sweaty Wayne must listen while a wounded and desperate Brown cries out to him from the nearby battle- ground.

All's well, though, because Brown is soon repaired and sent back for more fun and games, much to Wayne's delight.

But since Brown is nearly certain that Tucker ought to be dead, considering the way the mission had gone down, Wayne realizes that Tucker must have really messed up somehow.

Tucker's whole demeanor has changed since the incident. Even though he still wants to stick it to Wayne, he can't help but feel guilty over having left Brown to die without ammunition while he stopped for some coffee!

They lay into one another until a superior officer stops them. Tucker, who was quite the tall, nice-looking, blue-eyed towhead in 1949, covers for Wayne once more, though he has also saved himself from further punishment. (Tucker would later appear in Wayne's 1970 film Chisholm, the two having become good friends in real life since this.)
Wayne heads out on the town and comes upon hooker Julie Bishop, who makes money a variety of ways including getting soldiers to buy her watered-down booze at a nightclub. he agrees to go home with her, showing the first sign of interest in the female sex yet other than his five years estranged wife...

...but he's beyond startled to discover that Bishop is not just your ordinary prostitute. She's a mother with a baby, desperately trying to make ends meet. He assists her with making the little man some Pablum, then throws a wad of money at the child and leaves (with no dessert from mama but a peck on the cheek.) She tells him that he's "a very good man" and that she'll pray for him.
Naturally, this being a day that ends in "y," Brown is down below outside her apartment (stalk much?!) waiting to see that happens with Wayne. Wayne assures him that he's not going to get plastered as usual. Nonetheless, he wants a drink with Brown and right away...!

They head into another watering hole as Wayne exclaims what would eventually become a cult catch- phrase, "Lock 'n load!" By the way, Brown worked with Wayne this same year in Jet Pilot, an infamous Howard Hughes production that didn't see release until 1957!

Agar, whose young son has just been born back in New Zealand, insults Wayne yet again in the bar, still in resistance to Wayne's adoration of his father. Brown cannot believe his ears and berates Agar while Wayne defends him. He then claims maybe he'll get drunk and Wayne can "steer" him home!

Now comes the big battle of the movie and some newer recruits have come along (a few of the earlier ones having been wounded or killed in the prior skirmish.) One of them is then eighteen year-old Martin Milner, who is teased for carrying a bunch of books in the pockets of his uniform.

When he's soon shot down, the camera zooms in on one of the titles...! I know the word "gay" didn't mean THAT back then, but still... (By the way, James Brown was one of the stars of 1944's Our Hearts Were Young and Gay!)

This being Iwo Jima, the allies do win the battle, but at the price of many human lives. (Some of the actual soldiers who raised the flag are shown in the finale of the film.) This very successful movie earned four Oscar nominations: Best Sound Recording (which went to Twelve O' Clock High), best Film Editing (the winner being Champion), Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (won by The Stratton Story) and Best Actor, John Wayne's first nomination (the statuette going to Broderick Crawford in All the Kings Men.) He would win twenty years later for True Grit (1969.)

Wayne, a thrice-married father of seven, was considered a "man's man" throughout his long career. yet rumors swirled that he'd been put through some casting couch shenanigans from his mentor John "Pappy" Ford during his early days in the 1920s. (Ford was later casually outed as a repressed/closeted bisexual by his longtime collaborator Maureen O'Hara in her autobiography, which added to further and renewed speculation.)
If you believe the staggeringly salacious book "Hollywood Babylon: It's Back" (and I'm not saying I do, but Jesus is it a page-turner!), Nick Adams was about to (or was threatening to) publish a tell-all book about his affairs with both Elvis Presley and John Wayne (!) prior to his sudden, mysterious death... Who knows.

Brown passed away of lung cancer in 1992 at the age of seventy-two. He'd continued to act until about 1970, but primarily worked in gym equipment sales and in Faberge's Brut film production company. In 1975, he was persuaded to take a small role in Whiff, which reignited his acting career. If the handsome chap seems at all familiar to you, it may be from his 1954-1959 stint on television as costar to The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. 
Or... from one of the 39 appearances he made between 1978 - 1988 as J.R. Ewing's all-purpose private detective Harry McSween on Dallas! How's THAT for a mind-blower...?!


Gingerguy said...

I've seen a few movies from this period that are laughably homoerotic or at least loaded with ambiguity. There was a recent bio pic of Dalton Trumbo, about the red scare and I was surprised to find out that John Wayne didn't serve in WWII. He was so frequently cast in war movies I just assumed he had.
I love the dancing maneuvers. I guess they could only do that when they were alone.
That Murphy has some body.
What a cute baby, that whole scene is very "Marnie".
Love the baby faced Martin Milner!
I saw a film like this that had Russ Tamblyn in a barracks doing some really crazy, campy stuff, after reading this I am going to look that up.

Gregory Moore said...

Thanks for shining the light on a film I've always avoided (my late dad watched WWII films on a pretty non-stop loop when I was a kid, which tended to interrupt my cartoon/Three Stooges time). That is quite a decorative cast. My uncle (still living, 92 y.o.) served in the war with Richard Jaeckel, and has always said, "He was built like a brick shit-house!" That's one way of putting it! Still, my favorite member of the cast is a fellow who gained his biggest fame in his later years, as a sort-of goofy character actor...but right around the time this film came out, he was a total hunk: Forrest Tucker. He's famous, of course, for his most "notable attribute"--but his portraits and some of his film work in the early 1940's show him to have been a remarkably handsome guy. One of my 'secret favorites'!

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, I recently read that Wayne - as the father of four and breadwinner - was excused from service. Then it later felt that he'd do better as a propaganda film star. But he did take heat for it. When he made "The Fighting Seabees," some of the servicemen used in the film gave him some trouble on set and after hours. Conversely, Errol Flynn tried everything to GET in the service (any branch) and no one would take him because of his health. Then he got a lot of guff from people who didn't realize the reasons...

Gregory, my step-grandfather always used the term "Built like a brick shit-house," too! LOL Must have been quite the catchphrase of a certain era. Jaeckel was a solid, stocky li'l booger. He was in "Come Back Little Sheba" figure modeling for Terry Moore and did a lot of rugged roles, but was strangely covered up in "Iwo Jima." Maybe he felt lacking next to that brother's body. Wowza! One thing I admire about Forrest Tucker is that, though he played many comedy parts and zany sitcom stuff, he could still be a remarkably threatening bad guy when he chose to be! Incidentally, he was one of the sources for part of the gossip in "Hollywood Babylon: It's Back" but he refused to confirm or deny anything about "The Duke," claiming nobody'd believe it anyway. Hmmm (He was also the subject of gossip in the book, as he - despite being a prime Tinseltown swordsman - had a male companion late in life who was glued to him constantly and allegedly sometimes filled in during dry dating spells! LOL)

Gregory Moore said...

Oh my....well, if it's been in print, I choose to believe it was TRUE! Isn't that how it works? (hee haw). There's a fairly scurrilous little video on YouTube, wherein a fairly sanguine (and, presumably, sore) Mrs. Forrest Tucker is coaxed into divulging how freaking huge it was. Don't know if I can link here, so just YouTube "Forrest Tucker Interview 6 The Big One" (har!).