Political Film Society - Newsletter #267 - December 27, 2006

December 27, 2006


Letters from Iwo JimaBased on letters written by soldiers at Iwo Jima that were discovered many years later, Letters from Iwo Jima reconstructs the efforts of Japanese soldiers to defend the strategic island of Iwo Jima in 1945. The movie is subtitled and in black and white. When the film begins, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe) has arrived to handle the defense. His command extends to the naval troops, who resent being under his authority. He begins by stopping the digging of trenches at the beach and moves artillery into caves on Mount Suribachi. The soldiers, many without proper training, are without proper food, and water supplies are destined to run out soon. The few remaining civilians must be evacuated. Air and naval support is denied. The Americans have just destroyed the Japanese naval fleet at Saipan and are sailing toward Iwo Jima to assert overwhelming supremacy. The only way to hold the loyalty of troops that rationally would surrender to the Americans is to prey on their fears about American barbarity, later proved unfounded, and tp remind them that true soldiers fight until death. Much of the film focuses on Saigo (played by Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who was drafted, sent to Iwo Jima without training while his wife was pregnant, was lucky enough to survive when comrades near him died, wrote letters prolifically, but died in the end. Kuribayashi has flashbacks to the time when he was honored by American friends at Harvard with the gift of a special pistol. Audiences will gradually become sympathetic to the plight of the soldiers who face inevitable death. Although some may perceive the film as glorifying Japanese militarism, the story portrays a victimization of decent soldiers by a code of behavior now discredited in Japan and thus is an anti-war film about the futility of military aggression. The Political Film Society has nominated the film, directed by Clint Eastwood, as the best film of 2006 in promoting consciousness of the need for peaceful rather than violent methods for resolving conflicts. MH

Flags of Our FathersLetters from Iwo Jima is the counterpart of another Clint Eastwood film released in 2006, Flags of Our Fathers. Few recall the controversy about one of the most memorable photographs of all time--the one featuring six soldiers attempting to raise the American flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on February 23, 1945.

But the recent book, Flags of Our Fathers (2000) by James Bradley with Ron Powers has come to the screen as a reminder, an exposé of sorts that is depicted with enough gore to equal the realism of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998). The first flagraising was by an advance unit that indeed inspired the troops to proceed with the battle to victory. However, the flag was removed when an unnamed politician sought Old Glory as a trophy, and a second flag was raised. The photograph is of the second flagraising. When the snapshot appeared on the front page of newspapers across the country, politicians in Washington saw the picture as a symbol of victory and envisioned using the flagraisers to attract citizens to buy more war bonds to finance the struggle. Accordingly, three survivors (the others were already dead) were summoned to Washington and later to New York and Chicago in order to make personal appeals for war bonds. The problem was that the photos showed the backs of the soldiers, not their faces, and the soldiers who were summoned were not the ones who raised the flag in the photo. The story is voiced in part by James Bradley (played by Tom McCarthy), the son of John “Doc” Bradley (played by Ryan Philippe as a soldier, by George Grizzard as James’s aging father), who was a medic at Iwo Jima. Evidently, “Doc” Bradley never talked about his war experiences with his son James, who decided to do some research in order to find out the truth. He learns that his father goes along with the charade for the sake of selling war bonds, as do the other two men, including Ira Hayes (played by Adam Beach), whose emotions get carried away. As a Native American, Hayes is ribbed by his fellow soldiers for being an “Indian,” treated with disdain by a Senator, praised by President Harry Truman (played by David Patrick Kelly), and refused service at a bar in Chicago, culminating in disorderly conduct that results in his discharge from the Marines and brief imprisonment; later, he visits the father of one of the soldiers to tell him that his son was actually in the scene depicted by the photo, and thereafter he commits suicide. When the truth leaks out later, the scandal erupts but inevitably fades. Much of the film involves flashbacks to the battle and James Bradley’s interviews of the survivors. Several themes are clear: (1) The soldiers who fought were indeed very young and inexperienced, cannon fodder in the quest for victory. (2) The real heroes of Iwo Jima were those who died. (3) Soldiers did not consciously die for their country; they died while trying to help their fellow soldiers. (4) Politicians unapologetically use soldiers for their own agendas. (5) Iconic photographs can change public moods; in the case of the Iwo Jima flagraising, the photo served to convey a sense of victory. James Bradley notes quite early in the film that the picture of the American soldiers holding a gun to the head of a Vietnamese played a similar role in summarizing a mood, though that was the barbarity of America’s role in the Vietnamese Civil War. (6) War has tragic effects on soldiers and their loved ones, a message that speaks directly to the battlefield costs of the current wars in which the United States is engaged. In the latter respect, Flags of Our Fathers is a very subtle anti-war film. MH