The Devil Is in the Detail: Clint Eastwood's Powerful Drama Intimately Captures the Chaos of Conflict
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
Letters from Iwo Jima (15)
dir: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which explored the US victory at Iwo Jima in 1945, was a muted war film that couldn't quite shake off the bombast of the genre. Only a few months after its release comes Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood's story of the same battle seen from a Japanese perspective. The film, which opens on 23 February, is being sold as the companion piece to the earlier work. That status can only be provisional. It is Flags of Our Fathers that is the adjunct or footnote, outclassed and overshadowed in every department by the newer picture.
Both films are strikingly photographed by Tom Stern using a drained palette that is as close to monochrome as colour could get. Yet, in moral terms, these works are far from black and white. Letters from Iwo Jima concerns Japanese soldiers faced with defending the island. Lieutenant General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) has decided that the best hope of success lies in establishing miles of tunnel within the volcanic rock. This is greeted with incredulity by the grunts assigned to do the digging, including the puckish young baker Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Every potential fillip turns out to have its downside. A comrade's persistent bowel trouble provides cause for hilarity, until he becomes the unit's first loss to dysentery. Then there is the exciting arrival of the Olympic horse-riding champion Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). "He's a real womaniser," writes Saigo admiringly in a letter to his wife, but then notes that there are no women left on the island anyway.
As the Americans creep across the Pacific, the Japanese are equipped with the necessary psychological armoury, though the physical stocks required to see them through sustained combat--small things such as ammunition, reinforcements and food--are in shorter supply. They are assured that the enemy is prone to letting emotions interfere with duty-which is why it's best to aim for a medic, so you can pick off anyone who rushes foolishly to his aid. As the battle intensifies, and the lieutenants warn that no man will be permitted to die until he has despatched ten enemy soldiers, the troops begin to wonder if their position is futile. "I want to fulfil my duty," bleats one soldier, "but I don't want to die for nothing. …