The History Place - Movie Review

Letters from Iwo Jima

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Back in November, I reviewed Flags of Our Fathers for The History Place. Recently, I watched Director Clint Eastwood's companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima. This latter film, though burdened by subtitles, is the better one, as the Academy Awards acknowledged.

I am not the only reviewer who was struck by the similarity between this film and John Keegan's classic book, The Face of Battle. Like Keegan, who gave us an unforgettable soldier's-eye view of four world-altering battles, Eastwood puts his audience down in the caves with the doomed Japanese troops. In painstaking detail across more than two hours, his film fleshes out the 40 days of heroic agony undergone by the 20,000 imperial soldiers and marines who perished in and around those tunnels.

Ken Watanabe, who distinguished himself in the otherwise-lackluster Tom Cruise flick The Last Samurai, earned his best-actor nomination as Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Having traveled extensively in the U.S., the general recognizes the hopelessness of the Japanese cause. Still, he insists, if he and his troops can keep their homeland and their families safe for even a single extra day, then their sacrifice is justified.

With a cast of characters that includes a former baker, who wants only to see the child born after his induction, a comrade doing penance following his disgraceful dismissal from an elite home-guard, and an Olympic equestrian champion who brought his stallion to the island, Letters lovingly develops the humanity of the Japanese soldiers our fathers and grandfathers faced from 1942 to '45. Their ingrained sense of honor is in constant conflict with their fears and their longings for home and hearth. When Mount Surabachi is about to fall, a martinet lieutenant orders his men to commit suicide. The young baker, whom we have seen as a loving husband and father in a moving flashback, quavers between obedience and his individualistic sense of the act's utter futility.

Following the almost-Biblical 40 days of savage battle, the Japanese general attack that climaxes the hostilities is compelled by the sheer lack of virtually everything. Not only has the ammunition run desperately low. The food and water have run out. An NCO hands the young baker a tin mess cup. "Dig some worms," he tells him.

Much of the story of Flags of Our Fathers takes place after the battle. The survivors of the legendary flag-raising react to their fleeting fame in varied ways. Their later life experiences range from the pedestrian to the tragic.

For the vast majority of the Japanese soldiers there were no later life experiences. What is more, most of them knew this before the battle started. In the days leading up to the American invasion, Kuribayashi and his troops learn that the imperial fleet has suffered an irretrievable defeat at Mindanao. They stand by helplessly as their air support is stripped away to defend the home islands. They dig their tunnels, hoard their water and write their letters.

The letters mostly never leave the island. But thanks to the ever-resourceful young baker, they survive to be discovered 60 years later by Japanese archaeologists. Kuribayashi's letters and drawings actually did survive to be published as Picture Letters of Commander in Chief, one of the main sources for the film. In reality, many of them made it back to his family before communication between Iwo and the home islands became impossible.

Eastwood takes another modest liberty in depicting Kuribayashi's fate. While it's assumed that he died leading the final banzai charge, testimony from the handful of surviving witnesses was contradictory and his remains were never definitively located. An assumption is that he removed all insignia of rank before the last charge. Suicide and 'fragging' by one of his own men remain remote, but not undisputed, possibilities. Eastwood gives us a moving denouement that may or may not be accurate.

At Iwo Jima, some 20,000 Japanese troops faced off against approximately 100,000 Yanks. Only 296 imperial troopers survived the encounter. Eastwood is said to have considered 'Lamps Before the Wind' as the title for his film. The inspiration came from one of Kuribayashi's letters, this to his son, in which he wrote, "The life of your father is just like a lamp before the wind."

Thanks to Clint Eastwood's 'magic lantern,' Kuribayashi and his heroic soldiers take on new life. That we come out of the theater caring as much for them as we cared for the GIs in Flags of Our Fathers is Eastwood's way, I presume, of driving home to us the real tragedy of war.

Rated R - For graphic war violence.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

Letters from Iwo Jima - Official Website
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