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Film Review

Letters from Iwo Jima

(December 30, 2006) Clint Eastwood's trajectory has been amazing: from minor actor in the TV series Rawhide (1959-65), then Fist Full of Dollars, the first Sergio Leone spaghetti western (1964), many famous roles ("make my day"), and finally to a master film maker who stars in his own films. And often composes the music. He has directed over 25 films, the last ten years doing his finest work, and has become an American icon. His best films are powerful and accomplished, often with dark, difficult themes with troubled protagonists, such as The Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and now a pairing unique in American films: Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.

The battle for Iwo Jima, a tiny volcanic island heavily fortified by the Japanese, began in February, 1945, and lasted a month. The Japanese army, commanded by General Kuribayashi, had 21,000 men, with much artillery and automatic weapons. The American invasion force was five times that. But Kuribayashi had learned the lesson from earlier amphibious invasions, such as Tarawa, that the Americans could probably not be stopped on the beaches, but that the beaches could be turned into a killing ground by weapons on higher ground. They did not expect to live, but felt that the cost and delay of the invasion would deter the Americans and give mainland Japan additional time to prepare for the expected invasion. Kuribayashi began extensive tunneling and fortifications that were almost invisible and nearly impervious to naval and air bombardment. Only a direct assault by troops with flame throwers and grenades would wipe out these emplacements. And the cost would be very high. Six thousand American marines died and 18,000 were wounded. Few Japanese surrendered, and less than 300 survived. Encouraged by Japanese tradition and trained to fight to the death, they did. It was this battle, plus the invasion of Okinawa a few weeks later, that convinced President Truman and American military leaders that the atomic bomb would have to be used to avoid the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the expected invasion of Japan.

Each film looks at the battle from the viewpoint of each side. In Flags, Eastwood focuses on the marines who raised the flag on Mt Suribachi, the Joe Rosenthal photo of which became an icon for the war in the Pacific. Most of the film looks at their experiences back in the US as the government used them to sell badly needed war bonds. The battle is seen in flashbacks, but its portrayal is unforgettable. Filmed in black and white, it has a realism missing from most war films. The Japanese defenders are seen, but only briefly, as the enemy. These men survived the war, but hardly survived the peace. Their lives were never the same, and mostly tragic. In Letters, Eastwood does something highly unusual: he views the battle through Japanese eyes. General Kuribayashi is assigned to lead the defense of Iwo Jima. He completely reorganizes the defense plan, which alienates many of his officers who think that Kuribayashi's time spent in the United States has made him soft, as they imagine all Americans are. But Kuribayashi knows America's industrial capability and knows that ultimately Japan will lose. And knows that he and his men will never leave the island. Letters, in one sense, is a typical war film about a small unit, in which each man represents a different type. Many of their prewar experiences are shown in flashbacks, such as the baker (superbly played by a Japanese pop music star) who was conscripted despite his tearful wife saying to the conscription team "none of the men ever come back". Another is a stern soldier with a surprising secret. All mostly regular guys. Eastwood's genius is that while humanizing them, he doesn't shy from depicting the brutality of their officers and the miserable existence they live as common foot soldiers. Like Flags, Letters is shot entirely in black and white, except blood, and the flashback scene of a dinner given by the American army in honor of the General when he was traveling in America. Much of both films were shot on location on Iwo Jima itself and in Iceland. Iceland because it has black sand beaches similar to Iwo Jima. The actors are all Japanese, speaking Japanese, with English subtitles. Much of the dialog is from letters discovered after the war in the fortifications. They are very affecting, and demonstrate the shared humanity of both sides. But this is not a revisionist look at World War II, and the director has made great attempts to be historically accurate. Letters is the better of the two films, but both are enormously powerful, and in my opinion, masterpieces of film making. Both are, in parts, violent and brutal, but appropriately so. I believe that Letters will become a true classic, rivaled only by All Quiet on the Western Front, made in 1930. All Quiet is probably the best antiwar film, and Letters now joins it. This is a great great film. If there was ever a film to be seen on the big screen, this is it. Despite the somber tone of this review, have a good New Year, and let's hope Letters screens in the White House.

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