I was genuinely impressed when I heard that an American film maker like Clint Eastwood was making two films about a wartime event, one from each perspective. The Battle of Iwo Jima was the first attack by the Americans on the Japanese Home Islands. Not only was it a vicious battle showing the tenacity of the Imperial soldiers, but it also provided one of the most iconic images of all time.
Flags of Our Fathers tells the story surrounding that picture and in particular the lives of three men who came home and toured the country as figureheads of heroism, freedom and to try and convince Americans to buy bonds to finance the war effort. It is a fractured narrative with scenes jumping from the battle on the island to the tour back home, presumably to show us the effect of war, the difficulty in assembling a coherent narrative from the memories of men who were often unwilling to talk about what had happened to them during the war. It feels however like the film has had a few too many script rewrites and been assembled from a lot of footage. About halfway through a narrator seems to appear, who is the son of one of the men, to help us get through to the end. It is shame that it doesn't quite work because a lot of the elements are there. The hot topic of propaganda in wartime, fantastic battle scenes (with Steven Spielberg as a producer would you expect anything else?) and good performances from the cast. But after an ending which seemed to go on for ever, I was left feeling very unsatisfied. It must have been a difficult thing to make a film like this with the war in Iraq still exerting its influence and one can't help but feel that this has hampered its execution.
Letters From Iwo Jima is more successful. It looks very similar of course and the music even sounds like a slightly Japanese version of the other film's score but what this picture has is structure. This is very much the story of The Battle of Iwo Jima, we see the young soldiers preparing to defend this small rock, unsure of what they will be facing in the Americans. On to the island comes General Kuribayashi, played brilliantly by Ken Watanabe, who having spent time in America himself and with a less than traditional approach to leadership has problems with his staff. At the very bottom of the pecking order is Saigo (another fantastic performance by Kazunari Ninomiya) who is saved from a beating by Kuribayashi on the day he arrives and these two men will find their paths crossing again and again as the American onslaught lays waste to the island. The performances are again superb, and with the majority of the film taking place in the warren of tunnels in which the Japanese have entrenched themselves it has some of the claustrophobic feel of Das Boot. What really shines through are the values of honour, courage, and strength as we watch this group of men struggling with the rigid structures of the military and Japanese society.
Of the over 21,000 Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, 20,703 died and 216 were captured during the battle. The Allied forces suffered 27,909 casualties, with 6,825 killed in action. The tactical significance of the island's capture, especially given the number of casualties, is still disputed. Its value as a tool of propaganda is much clearer to see.