Flags of their Fathers

 

Reviewed - Letters from Iwo Jima: One of the most brutal battles of the second World War is explored from the losers' side in Clint Eastwood elegiac, moving drama, writes Michael Dwyer

CLINT Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, released here two months ago, pivots on the iconic photograph of six US soldiers victoriously raising the Stars and Stripes atop the summit of Mount Suribach on the desolate Pacific island of Iwo Jima in February 1945.

His arresting revisionist film punctures the myths built around that image, which became a potent symbol of triumph, hope and propaganda for the US. As it explores the experiences of some reluctant heroes featured in the photograph, Flags takes on a melancholy tone suffused with disenchantment and tinged with bitterness.

Eastwood's equally admirable companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima, observes that battle from the Japanese point of view. The language is different (the film is sub-titled in English) but the message is the same and powerfully delivered as the death toll soars on both sides, and the conflict is captured in all its chaos, cacophony, fear and mass destruction.

Once again, the palette for the epic battle is aptly sombre, verging on monochrome as the soldiers make their way across black sand under grey skies. Unlike its predecessor, Letters rarely moves off the island, and then only in flashbacks.

Opening on a tour of Iwo Jima as the Japanese forces prepare for the US onslaught, the film establishes the geography of this strategic outpost. A massive US fleet is approaching from Saipan, and the defending forces on the island seem hopelessly outnumbered.

At several points in the narrative, and from different perspectives, the film addresses the Japanese codes of honour, duty and dying for one's country. The soldiers are exhorted that each must kill 10 Americans before they themselves are killed. And they have an advantage, they are told: that the US soldiers are less disciplined and allow emotions to interfere with their duty.

An awareness of their mortality hangs heavily over the Japanese men as they barely subsist on a diet of weed soup. One of them jokes about dying of honourable dysentery. The screenplay singles out several soldiers with whom we can identify, and we do.

Their pragmatic commander, Lt Gen Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played with dignity and gravitas by Ken Watanabe) has happy memories of time spent in the US before the war, as does Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an equestrian champion at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he befriended Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

As Eastwood continues to explore the human dimension, we are drawn to the plight of Saigo (engagingly played by pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), a happily married young baker who lost his business when he had to give up his metal baking tins for the war effort. Called up to serve, he leaves behind his pregnant wife and worries that he won't live to see their first child.

The movie is most poignant as these men from different ranks write letters home and read the letters sent by their wives and families - and again when they read a mother's letter to a US soldier they have captured. The mood is subdued in the perfectly sustained build-up to the battle, and then abruptly shattered by a ferocious US bombardment of the island.

War is hell, and although we knew that already, the need to restate it is justified in this moving, gripping and pertinent drama. Letters from Iwo Jima makes its points eloquently and with wrenching power, and it reaffirms Eastwood's status among the greatest filmmakers working today.