Between the two movies, Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima duology spells a narrative of not alternate history, but alternate perspective. Leave it to the director of Unforgiven, but this movie, equal in dramatic pathos, adds a soft political dimension. It’s a human story, one about reevaluating an enemy. Flags of our Fathers, an excellent film (with a memorable appearance by John Slattery that I’m convinced got him Roger Sterling), provides setup in this duology, having been released first.
Flags of our Fathers explores the logistics of fighting a war, even from the homefront. It’s a clever metaphor that tells us just when war ends for the soldiers who once fought it, particularly those of intensely marginalized ethnicity. It’s an anti-war story by way of being generally anti-nationalistic, and this is our segue into a view from the other side of the beach.
However, Letters from Iwo Jima can stand on its own (as Flags can), because the context is that it’s an American film, directed by an American. Together, they play nicely as first the American, familiar side, and then the Japanese side which is just as human as the first time, but Letters is a theoretically bold statement being such an international production.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Japanese collaborated on a WWII film, but this one is very forward in its statement on paper. It’s about the island-hopping campaign from the Japanese perspective, their defeat seen as desperate with fits of heroism — only when individual soldiers are highlighted amidst war machine culture.
The Japanese are driven by honor, and this leads to irrationality like grenade-suicide and chopping down your own soldiers with a katana when they want to flee a no-win situation. They might worship a human man as a god, but many among them are human. They’ll speak in English to an American prisoner, they’ll say good-bye to their wives when conscripted, they’ll lead their men with teary-eyed resignation to fate.
Although I admire Apocalypse Now as one of the best movies ever made, Letters from Iwo Jima is easily my favorite war film. It’s a tragic story, well told. It’s non-linear, but not jumbly like Flags. The flashbacks are sensible and satisfying, and support a present storyline to a depressing end, where even the bits of friendship or empathy or mercy that show through relight the battlefield in much the same way.
What always sticks in my mind here is the music. It’s scored by Clint Eastwood’s brother, and the let’s say leitmotif (I don’t know if that’s correct terminology) is perfect in terms of mood. And the washed out visuals might at first look like a riff on Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, but it makes for an almost more nostalgic look. This was a time when, despite everything, humanity actually happened — and we might’ve never known.