The Roads to Letters from Iwo Jima
For Clint Eastwood, the road to Letters from Iwo Jima has been long. He began his acting career infamously typecast as the Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone Western trilogy in the 60s. The films were the death nail to the Western because they reduced its mythological identity to genre pulp. Style was the main focus. Eastwood was the ultimate mysterious gunmen. He played the role to the point of modeling it. He didn’t have to do anything but have the right look. Disgruntled by this futile existence, he took work in oddball films like Paint Your Wagon. The roles didn’t stick with the public. They wanted him to be the antagonist he was in the Leone films. When Eastwood was able to play Dirty Harry, he got the best transition he could get. The film essentially was one note like his classic role, but allowed him to act his way to that point instead of model to it.
When Dirty Harry opened in 1971, he also made his directorial debut with Play Misty for Me. The film went under the radar, but gave Eastwood the power to pick his acting roles by also directing the films. He extinguished his earlier persona with a string of Westerns that redefined the role he became famous for. High Plains Drifter featured him as another lone gunman, but this one was driven to his ends by the untimely death of his brother. The Outlaw Josey Wales tried to give context to the struggles of guerrilla units after the civil war. In Pale Rider, he again played a mysterious gunman, this time posing as a Preacher who only wants peace in mining town. The films were classic westerns, but all aimed to give layers of meaning to the role that made him famous.
By the 80s diversity finally was applicable to Eastwood’s resume. His acting roles (whatever their quality) showed a great range in roles and he was continuing as a director by tackling many different projects. But, critical acclaim was elusive to him as a director. The problem is that he was too much of an everyman with what he did. Sometimes he directed films just to ensure they were made. Sometimes he directed average comedies because the story was appealing. Then every now and then he would do a personal film, like Bird. Never did he show a consistent style or moral objective to his films. Eastwood finally reached the heights of critical acceptance with Unforgiven, a western that brought everything he knew in the Western together into one film. It was also the last film he ever made to objectively deal with the violence and character traits that made him famous.
Not all agreed upon Eastwood’s sudden ascendance into critical favor. Pauline Kael, in an interview shortly after the release of Unforgiven, said that she didn’t understand how he was able to reach such heights by making that film amongst many other bad ones. The critical acclaim came again with his recent films, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. This time endorsement seemed more sincere because Eastwood had adopted a very simple filmmaking style. The camera was relaxed and scenes were simplified to reach a greater essence. It was a style that was explained by reflecting on the growing wisdom of his experience. He was done making films that typified the violence that made him famous and was now making films based on his diversity of his feelings and thoughts. The Bridges of Madison County was a romantic affair that was critical of the old age version of marriage while Million Dollar Baby took a different stance in the usual conservative position on euthanasia.
The problem is that not only was Pauline Kael right, but these films were surrounded by more problems than Unforgiven was. Eastwood was still taking on questionable projects in between his more serious films. Before making Mystic River, Eastwood directed the terrible comedy, Space Cowboys. Then there are many more problems with both Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. Mystic River, adapted from a crime novel, had a hard time overcoming the slimness of its source. The film tries to create depth out of a murder mystery but the ending is second rate literature only. The film was resolved on the note of a procedural misunderstanding instead of one based on a character tract. And while Million Dollar Baby had a controversial ending, the film was the equivalent of 1940s melodrama only. Eastwood did little to make the film resonate besides sticking on a controversial ending. It was not a serious effort to tackle a controversial subject.
When Eastwood went into Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, he went into both projects riding off critical and financial highs. Both films were given extravagant budgets because it was felt Eastwood could do no wrong. For critics of Eastwood’s previous efforts, nothing could prepare them for the new found depths he would reach in these films. Flags of Our Fathers extinguished the myth of World War 2. It focused on the role of three soldiers who were elevated to national heroes and used to promote an expensive war. Two were white Caucasians, but one was also a Native American. His story extended to the cultural ramifications he faced with his own people. The film was focused on their story, but because they raised the flag at Iwo Jima, the story catapulted to a serious look at America as well. The multiple layers of their situation allowed the film to give both a political and cultural perspective to a major historical event. The film was a revealing perspective of a war that Hollywood had only exploited with hundreds of films that reduced it to a win or lose situation.
Flags of Our Fathers deals with the American side of the battle for Iwo Jima. It also dealt with the American identity of heroism, as spread by popular culture. It dug at intrinsic American beliefs. Letters from Iwo Jima, the tale of Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, also deals with the intrinsic beliefs of the Japanese culture after World War 2. The film has little to say about the Japanese political environment at the time. It focuses the majority of its attention on the emotional weight that the Japanese soldiers had to shoulder in the face of impending doom. The soldiers had to win a war, but they also had to question whether their perception of America was even correct. They were told to believe the Americans were evil. When World War 2 ended, the United States took control of the country and the Japanese people were in a sticky situation of being under scrutiny for submitting to a false philosophy and being on the wrong side of a large war.
The Japanese national cinema defined their post war situation by featuring prominent filmmakers who presented a better image of Japan. Yasujiro Ozu made peaceful, simple films. Kenji Mizoguchi made historical works that dug at the questions of human nature. While war films were made in Japan, there still was uneasiness about the subject of war from Japan becoming acceptable in the United States. The filmmaker to break the barrier of war from a Japanese perspective was Akira Kurosawa. Works like Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood became recognizable and accessible to audiences around the world. Both films were historical works, but they were made with an energy that goes beyond simple historical allegory. When Sergei Eisenstein made Ivan the Terrible, he was just another filmmaker using the historical format to address current issues and situations. Kurosawa was a working filmmaker during WW2 and a child of war zones. In his auto-biography, he said his father forced him to face the horrors of war so he wouldn’t be afraid of it.
Because Kurosawa grew up to recognize the ordeals of war, he was able to successfully delve into the subject. His films were never simple portraits of heroism or courage under fire, but human tales of men who were warriors but lived in a world of chaos and had to find the courage to do the right thing. In Seven Samurai, seven warriors take on the task of defending a small village from invading forces. The end, while pronouncing them as the victors, shows how much they truly had to sacrifice when only defending a small village. The difference in Japan with World War 2 was that there was no victory to salvage. Japan had to humble itself to the horrors and consequences of war the way the surviving samurai did in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s artistic comment is that victory at the cost of such a devastating war would not have been worth it anyways. Other filmmakers also made films that dealt with war and asked for people to look beyond the surface of victory.
The work of Japanese filmmakers in the 1950s was so strong that it was able to create a national identity to the Japanese take on war. Sure, many filmmakers in the 60s and 70s explored war through genre films, but Japan had already classified itself under a rich tradition of explorative thought for it take anything away from what had already been established. Films like Fire on the Plains dealt directly with the topic of World War 2, but other filmmakers like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi dealt with the nature of war. Letters from Iwo Jima continues in this tradition. It focuses on the soldiers in the context of what they were sacrificing to fight the war. The film has little interest in the political ends of Japan to win the war or success in what Japan can do to show military dominance. All of these qualities are greater in American cinema but have little resonance here. Eastwood’s mastery isn’t that he created a film from the Japanese side of World War 2, but creates one that keeps the film true to the nature of Japanese storytelling. Letters from Iwo Jima is a true humanistic portrait.
While Letters from Iwo Jima is successful for transferring the Japanese perspective to an American film, it also goes beyond that. Flags of Our Fathers was not only successful because it played to contradictory aspirations to the usual portrait of World War 2, but because the film covered so much of the identity of World War in America. Martin Scorsese once said that the best part about a Stanley Kubrick film that it equaled the thought and imagination of ten films from anyone else. Clint Eastwood is able to also do that for Letters from Iwo Jima. Many films have been made about World War 2 from the Japanese perspective, but I’ve never seen a film besides Letters from Iwo Jima encompass so much characterization. Many realistic dramas have covered a quarter percentage of what Eastwood covers. That scope is explained by the fact that Letters from Iwo Jima is an adaptation, but many adaptations stop at trying to encompass a book. The details in books make it impossible. Letters has an aura around it like it did try to do as much as possible. The film excels because the drama doesn’t try to be too much and the focus is excellent.
World War 2 is old enough to not be dominated anymore by propaganda. Good films have been made about the subject. Sometimes an excellent film is even made. The American national cinema needs a heartfelt cinematic classic though. I have a belief about war on film. War can be scrutinized and lampooned from every angle, but it needs a major work that manages to be sentimental and also critical. Grand Illusion is the greatest work ever made in that category. It was a heartfelt work and it was also a memorial for the civility that was lost forever in war. Letters from Iwo Jima is about the Japanese perspective, but it achieves such depth that it deserves to go on the short list of American films that need to be watched yearly. I think of other films like The Best Years of Our Lives and others, but I do think that this film will stand the test of time.
It also is a major success for Clint Eastwood. His success in 2006 was unpredictable to me given his history and faults. But for a filmmaker who wanted to expand beyond the limitations of his beginnings; he not only has done that, but he sent himself into the stratosphere of American filmmaking. I do not know if his next film will attempt to do what he has done with these films, but he has made two great films. They will last but he has finally proven himself.