Flags of Our Fathers
The first of two films directed back-to-back by Clint Eastwood, dealing with the battle for Iwo Jima. This deals with the famous photograph of Marines struggling to raise the flag on Mount Suribachi, and the forthcoming Letters from Iwo Jima will tell the story (daringly) from the Japanese point of view. It may be that the final assessment of either film will have to wait until both halves of the diptych have been seen – but it’s an unusual, interesting measure. With a production credit for Steven Spielberg, it’s not a surprise that the film has some structural similarities with Schindler’s List and (especially) Saving Private Ryan: the intricate set of back-and-forth flashbacks is triggered by the investigations of James Bradley (Tom McCarthy), whose father was among the group in the picture, to get to the truth not of the big historical story of the battle, but the personal stories of the Marines who happened to be snapped that day. We zip back and forwards within the flashback, from the grim, bleached-out chaos of the brutal battle to the bond-hawking tour that the three surviving men made immediately afterwards. There’s a sense of what that single heroic image meant to a country weary of war which needed to pay (literally) for a final victory, but also of how arbitrary that picture was – one group of Marines put up a flag, almost as an afterthought, which a politician wanted to hang on his wall, prompting an angry officer to insist it be taken down and replaced, with the crucial picture taken during the second raising of the flag. The fact that the faces of the Marines couldn’t be seen also lead to confusions of identity, with one dead man’s parents shut out in favour of another’s on the strength of a casual misattribution – though the man not in the picture had raised the first flag.
Much of the film follows Navy corpsman Doc Bradley (Ryan Philippe) and Marines Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) after the battle, which has affected them in different ways, as they traipse around the propaganda trail with ridiculous ballyhoo, and the irony is that the least-traumatised Gagnon, held back from the front lines, is a far more effective spokesman than the more heroic, but genuinely damaged Hayes (a Pima Indian whose bottle troubles are still well-known) and Bradley. It takes a while for everyone to come into focus, but the uniformed cast (which includes Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick and Neal McDonough) are individually fine, even if they don’t survive long; statestide, there’s broader work from John Benjamin Hickey and John Slattery as the fund-raisers and hand-holders, and Melanie Lynskey as Gagnon’s equally opportunist girlfriend.
Eastwood has always been engaged with American history and present-day issues, and here manages to valorise fighting men, while casting a sceptical (though not cynical) eye on the political machine they are fighting for. Beach, who was in the underwhelming Windtalkers, has the standout role (previously played on TV and film by Lee Marvin and Tony Curtis, and mythologised in a Johnny Cash song): though there’s one scene of Hayes having a drunken fight after being refused service in a Chicago bar that doesn’t allow Indians, it’s a subtle treatment of racism, with Hayes putting up with a great deal of unthinking idiocy from all the whites, from calling him ‘chief’ to suggesting it would be a better story if he used a tomahawk against the Japanese. In an early scene, he points out that historically the Pima fought on the side of the white man during the Indian Wars, and the rest of the film suggests that maybe they made the wrong decision. Using Iceland instead of Iwo, the film manages an identity separate from both Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line – keeping the enemy in this case almost completely in their hiding-holes, showing only the devastating effects of their last-ditch defence of Japanese soil.
Made back-to-back with Flags of Our Fathers, this tells the other side of the story – presenting the US invasion of Iwo Jima, a desolate outpost nevertheless considered ‘sacred Japanese soil’, from the point of view of the outnumbered forces ordered to defend it. In Hollywood genre terms, it harks all the way back to All Quiet on the Western Front, which also looked at a war from an ‘enemy’ perspective, though the use of an all-Japanese cast and subtitled dialogue aligns it slightly with Mel Gibson’s exercises in retelling familiar stories (plotwise, Letters has a lot in common with The Alamo) with disorienting, ‘authentic’ trappings that stress how superficially alien other cultures are. It’s a long, awards-qualifying picture, and a few moments tip a little heavily into ‘Oscar clip’ territory: the business with letters found on a dead enemy prompting scared soldiers to recognise essential kinship with a foe they have been told is almost inhuman can be found in any number of earlier films (including All Quiet) and is unfortunately rammed home with extraneous talk (‘that soldier’s mother … was just like my mother’). Otherwise, this is a confident, gripping, remarkable effort, tonally unlike any other film Eastwood has directed — though odd moments recall the wake-of-war neuroses of Josey Wales or Unforgiven, and even the military madness of Heartbreak Ridge.
Commanding the defence of Iwo Jima is Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who carries a pearl-handled American gun that his men believe taken from a dead officer but actually presented to him by friends at the end of a happy visit in the 1930s (and which, finally, he only uses on himself). A humane, imaginative leader and canny strategist, Kuribayashi is hamstrung by a high command who – reeling from recent losses – withdraw the naval and air support he needs, to protect the homeland. He is furthermore stuck with a faction of fanatical subordinates who seem eager to commit honourable suicide well before the situation becomes hopeless. One astonishing sequence, which solves a mystery raised in Flags of Our Fathers, finds a group of enlisted men ordered to kill themselves by pressing live grenades to their hearts and successively blowing their torsos apart – though Kuribayashi has specifically ordered that these troops fall back and regroup after initial defeat rather than take themselves permanantly out of the fight. Fanatics like Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who ironically survives because no tank trundles across him as he lies on the battlefield hugging a mine in the hope of making a last grand gesture, harp on about the strength and discipline of the code by which they fight, but the film gives this the lie by showing how they defy orders they take exception to and are far less useful in a battle than dishonourable comrades who keep alive to fight again.
In a large, brutally whittled-down cast of characters, flamboyant officers – like Olympic horseman Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a personal friend of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford – stand out, but focus eventually narrows to a pair of everymen, drafted baker Saigo (Kazunari Nonomiya) and busted military policeman Shimizu (Ryo Kase). The film invests much of its emotion in their personal survival: after they have risked a great deal to join Kurabashi’s forces, Ito decrees their flight treasonable and is on the point of beheading them when the c.o. intervenes. Shimizu, who has wound up in the front line for refusing to murder a dog, eventually surrenders to the Americans, and a GI summarily executes him rather than be bothered with a prisoner. This scene resonates uncomfortably with American military reality in 2006, though (as with Ito’s desire to chop off subordinates’ heads) the blame is laid on mid-ranking soldiers who disobey well-intentioned superiors rather than institutional evil. Eastwood shows these Japanese soldiers as human beings, but does not flinch from the insane, feudal side of their culture – in a pre-battle lecture, infantrymen are advised to shoot at American soldiers wearing a red cross, and NCOs are shown whipping private soldiers. Saigo becomes the film’s Private Ryan, an emblematic survivor saved almost on a whim – Kuribayashi gives him a job which will keep him out of the final battle – who hardly outweighs the mountain of corpses he gets to walk away from.