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Categories: Features

Matthew Wilson examines Clint Eastwood’s duo of World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, and considers which is more effective.

In 2006, Clint Eastwood took on an incredible task, directing two separate films 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 both to their benefit and to their detriment.

The biggest difference between the two films is in how they approach their stories. With Flags of Our Fathers 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 came about. By contrast, Letters from Iwo Jima has a much more widely spread story. Dealing with the entire Japanese army coming to terms with impending defeat. Surprisingly though, it’s Letters from Iwo Jima 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 of Our Fathers, Eastwood’s decision to tell a more focussed story ends up being the film’s downfall. While the initial outline is strong – the lies of war, and survivor’s 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 survivor’s guilt), Rene (a soldier coming to realise his fifteen 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 alcoholism. 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, opposed to their actions during the war, and it leaves confusion over what their individual roles are in the battle.

While Letters from Iwo Jima isn’t as focussed, that’s to its favour. Outside of General Kuribayashi, there’s little in the way of a central character 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 of Our Fathers 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 U.S. 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 from Iwo Jima throughout as Japanese soldiers struggle between what is honourable and what is human. Since Flags of Our Fathers doesn’t have that balance it fails to present a storyline as engaging.

Despite their differing viewpoints, Eastwood approaches both films in a similar fashion. In terms of 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 of the battle. Eastwood’s later film, American Sniper, received some confusion over its stance as pro-war, or anti-war, but, in both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, 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 duolog. Part of what makes Letters from Iwo Jima so much better is how it compares to Flags of Our Fathers, and U.S. focussed war films in general. Whereas, what makes Flags of Our Fathers that much weaker is how it compares to Letters from Iwo Jima.

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 fifty years after 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.

Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers are available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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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