The most popular World War II films are told from the perspective of the winners. Like the war itself, they’re epic, noisy and violent. No matter how much corn syrup is splattered around the set, at least audiences get to leave feeling good about the ultimate outcome.
Enter “Letters from Iwo Jima,” an American World War II film in the tradition of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” telling its story from the point of view of the Axis, not the Allies.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” is part two of Clint Eastwood’s ambitious project, an attempt to tell the story of the battle of Iwo Jima from two sides, American and Japanese. The first chapter, “Flags of Our Fathers,” did a fair job of illustrating the dark side of selling a war to the American people. Ultimately, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is even darker for its brutal exploration of the losing side of war.
Unlike “All Quiet on the Western Front,” with its English-speaking actors playing German soldiers, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is performed in the native tongue.
Admittedly, it’s hard to gauge how accurate the film’s linguistics are, considering the film’s director is Eastwood. Though Eastwood, who at best has experience in Italian (Sergio Leone, anyone?), still has visual command over the film.
Eastwood depicts Iwo Jima the same way the soldiers who landed on its beaches saw it: a grim, desolate, godforsaken rock with nearly empty hills and beaches. There are patches of young Japanese soldiers futilely digging themselves into trenches
and underground tunnels. They are beaten with bamboo shoots if they stop to chat. Their commander, General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), trains them to fight till death.
“No one is allowed to die until he has killed 10 enemy soldiers,” he says.
Like all the ranking personnel, Kuribayashi is forced to maintain a warrior’s attitude to the privates, but inside his tent, he is as scared as any of them, and with good reason. The delusional troops are badly outnumbered and lacking in weaponry. They boast of fighting to their deaths rather than surrendering, and they sport flimsy prayer shawls around their chests as body armor.
Dealing with bad communications, bad plans and bad supplies, one officer reflects on how the mood in the war room does not match the situation on the ground. It is too easy to make comparisons to the war in Iraq, but at the same time it is hard to deny its influence on the film.
That the characters in the film are so sympathetic, even though they are supposedly our “enemy,” is a credit to the writer, Paul Haggis. “Letters from Iwo Jima” proves Haggis has no plans to slow down, even after writing “Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Casino Royale” in the past three years.
The soldiers on the island don’t speak in awkward haiku like Michael Bay’s evil-empire Japanese in “Pearl Harbor.” They are fearful and ambivalent, yet blindly patriotic. The “hari-kari” scenes in the film are not for the faint of heart. This isn’t a grandfather’s “seppuku,” or suicide with a brilliant sword and warm sake. These soldiers pull the pins off small grenades, then hold their breath.
Though “Letters from Iwo Jima” has been nominated for several Academy Awards, it was originally “Flags of Our Fathers,” not “Letters from Iwo Jima,” that Warner Bros. envisioned as Oscar bait. Warner Bros. bumped up the release for “Letters from Iwo Jima” after less than stellar box office results for “Flags of Our Fathers.”
Looking at both films, it’s hard to say why one film appealed more to audiences than the other. Perhaps it is because “Flags of Our Fathers” details the dark side of marketing a war, and “Letters from Iwo Jima” details the dark side of war itself.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” was written by Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita and directed by Clint Eastwood.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” received 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.