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Categories: Features

Matthew Wilson pays his respects to Clint Eastwood’s duo of World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, and considers their legacy.

In 2006 Clint Eastwood took on an incredible task that, to my knowledge, has not been done before or since by directing two separate films, both revolving around the Battle Of Iwo Jima in World War II. The first, Flags of Our Fathers, told the story from the American viewpoint while the second, Letters from Iwo Jima, told the same story from the Japanese side, it’s an interesting tactic that allows an all-encompassing view of this decisive battle, however the comparisons between both films are to their benefit, and their detriment.

The biggest difference between the two films is in how they approach their stories, with Flags being the more recognisable story to Western audiences Eastwood makes the decision to showcase only a handful of characters and tell the story of how the famous photo of the lifting of the flag was actually the second flag to be lifted after the first was taken down and how what actually happened was lost in the confusion. By contrast Letters has a much more wide-spread tale telling of the entire Japanese army coming to terms with them losing the battle and how they react afterwards, surprisingly though it’s Letters that has the more engaging storyline, with the themes of duty and honour serving as a more interesting basis with the fear and depression of loss weighing heavily on the film as a whole.

In the case of Flags, Eastwood’s decision to tell a more focus story ends up being the film’s downfall, while the initial outline is strong – the lies of war and survivors guilt playing a big part for the characters – the constant flashback/forward narrative keeps a disconnect between the main characters and their actions. The three leads of Bradley; a medic suffering from survivors guilt, Rene; a soldier coming to realise his 15 minutes of fame are up, and Hayes; one of the few Native American soldiers who wanted to stand and fight with his men but was pulled off the frontlines for the heroes tour back home aren’t the most interesting of people, Hayes comes out the strongest due to his suffering from abuse, both externally through racism and internally through alcohol, however he is far from the lead character. As a direct result from the shifting timelines, we spend too long focussing on the reactions the characters have after the war as opposed their actions during the war and it leaves confusion over what their individual roles are in the battle.

While Letters isn’t as focussed that’s to its favour, outside of General Kuribayashi there’s little in the way of a central characters which allows Eastwood to instead focus on the Japanese army as a whole. Since the Japanese lose Iwo Jima there’s a more solemn feel to the whole film compared to Flags and it works a lot better, forcing the audience to see things from a very different side and question the nature of honour on the battlefield. Since duty is more firmly applied in Japan’s army as opposed to America’s, the fear of dishonour is stronger than the fear of death which makes for a more harrowing experience all around, as evidenced by the film’s infamous grenade scene.

It’s in Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe, that we get the best character of both films, a Japanese general who’s spent time in America, he’s seen as both invaluable due to his knowledge of the US Forces, and as a traitorous sympathiser who cares too much for the enemy. In truth, Kuribayashi stands with his country and his honour but he does not agree with the regiment of death, preferring to have good men fight to the end rather than lose them to suicide. It’s a mindset that punctuates Letters throughout as Japanese soldiers struggle between what is honourable and what is human, since Flags doesn’t have that balance it fails to present a storyline as engaging.

Despite their differing viewpoints, Eastwood approaches both films is a similar fashion, on production values alone, the 40s setting is well-fashioned in the two films and both are distinctively different from one another, neither film cheapening out on costumes or locations. Plus there’s recognisable themes in both movies, the sense that nobody actually wants to be there and the desire to return home is clear on all sides on the battle, Eastwood’s later film American Sniper received some confusion over its stance as Pro or Anti War but in both Flags and Letters there is a strong Anti War sentiment as neither the American or Japanese forces  come out on top, for the Japanese it’s the dishonour of losing a key-stronghold against an invading force and for the Americans it’s the realisation that they lost a lot of good men for an ash-covered rock and nobody at home even knows the true story of what happened.

There is a cruel irony in this duology, part of what makes Letters so much better is how it compares to Flags and US focussed war films in general whereas what makes Flags that much weaker is how it compares to Letters. Both films are still worth watching as it’s rare to get this level of balance in a conflict that is still a huge part of the social conscience, even over 50 years since its end. Regardless of which side came out better, the fact that Eastwood took it upon himself to present both sides of the story is something that should be recognised and I’m surprised it’s something we haven’t seen more of in the years since.

 

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

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Posted on Sep 25, 2017

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