Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Letters from our Fathers/Flags of Iwo Jima (2006/2007)

Both Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima tell the story of the battle for Iwo Jima, a small island to the south of Japan. It is 1945 and Iwo Jima is a strategic island because the Americans want to use it as a staging post for attacking mainland Japan. Flags of our Fathers tells the story from the American point of view; the capture of the island and the raising of the American flag on the top of the hill. A photo was taken, and the picture became an iconic image of the war, and as such was used to generate much needed revenue for the war effort from the American public. Three of the remaining soldiers who were in the photo were taken back to the US and paraded around the country to help raise the money; except that one of them wasn’t in the photo! The film follows the stories of these three soldiers, as well as the fighting on the island that led to the raising of the flag and the death of the other soldiers in the photo.

Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story from the Japanese point of view, the awful conditions of the soldiers and their desperation to defend the island. The story is told through the eyes of a foot soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) and General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). The soldiers regularly write letters home, but of course once the fighting starts no more letters are delivered. However, as one of the few survivors, Saigo manages to bury a bag of the letters before he is captured. In true Saving Private Ryan style, the film begins in the present day, where we see some historians digging in the caves in Iwo Jima and unearthing something; at the end of the film we flip back to present day and the bag of letters that Saigo buried is unearthed.

FOOFs is much more of a spectacle than LFIJ, and this makes sense in that the three soldiers are paraded around the USA, making speeches, taking part in naff re-creations of the flag-raising, and generally being wined & dined as heroes. In this way, the film is almost a celebration of war. Of course the soldiers don’t feel like heroes, and the film is concerned with them fighting their demons; losing friends on the battlefield, struggling with an alcohol problem (Ira Hayes; played by Adam Beach), or not even being in the photo!

LFIJ is far less a celebration than a depiction of the grim reality of war; constantly eating weed soup, backbreaking work digging tunnels, and the desperation of the soldiery when it is clear they can’t win. What is interesting is the common ground to the films; the fighting. The conflict is gruesome, relentless and confusing on both sides, and all of the battle scenes are essentially black & white. There is some vague colour but it is very mute; the only full colour coming from gunfire and explosions, serving to highlight the terror. In this way the cinematography is fantastic, beautifully framed shots, including some really cool pilot-cam moments from the American fighter planes.

The most poignant scene of both films is a moment in LFIJ, when having captured an American soldier who subsequently dies from his wounds, General Kuribayashi reads out a letter that the GI received from his mother. All of the surrounding Japanese soldiers are amazed at the ordinary content of the letter. One of the soldiers remarks that his mother tells him about the same kind of things from back home. At this moment it hits the soldiers that the enemy are just people too.

I did enjoy both films. The direction by Clint Eastwood is solid, the cast are great in both films, and the look of the films is excellent. I think I was just a bit under-awed by them. Clint’s films are so often tremendous that I expected more “Wow” from the movies. They are both very well made films, no doubt, I just wasn’t amazed by them.