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Messages from Within the Volcano: Letters from Iwo Jima

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Trailer for "Letters from Iwo Jima"

Taken together, Clint Eastwood’s two recently released films about the Second World War battle for Iwo Jima constitute a remarkable achievement. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima combine to render a scrupulously fair, sometimes penetrating examination of war as it’s experienced, of its chaotic terror and brutality, and the disturbing, often ghastly consequences for the men who are in combat.

Flags, released in October, depicted the American invasion of the tiny, volcanic Japanese island in the Pacific, and, in particular, the fates of the three survivors of the six men who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi five days into the 36-day-long battle. The six were caught in that act by Joe Rosenthal’s famous photo. Flags, which Eastwood and scriptwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr. based on the book of the same title by James Bradley (whose father was one of these three), followed the men’s subsequent fates as they were celebrated, lionized and exploited to aid the war effort and political careers.

As he prepared this film, Eastwood’s attention became engaged by the ferocious but doomed defense of the Japanese. He determined to make a second, companion film about this desperate effort and the men who carried it out to the bitter end.

Flags has an ultimately somber, sobering tone despite its large-scale reenactments of the American assault, scenes of which are intercut with later events in the three survivors’ lives. The second film is even more emotionally challenging and devastatingly sad. Its organizing device is the discovery of a cache of letters from the Japanese servicemen, discovered decades after the war’s end.

This film, whose dialogue is almost entirely in Japanese (with English subtitles), also concentrates on several men, this time from both the ranks and the high-ranking officers, and especially on two of them: Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabi), the Japanese commander, and a very young grunt, Saigo (Japanese pop star Kazunari Ninomiya), a former baker.

Kuribayashi is a man of realistic intelligence, his skill and insights having been shaped by his experiences as a student in this country, and later as an envoy in Washington. Letters underscores both his understanding of the battle’s inevitable outcome and his code of honor and duty. He shares these traits with his friend, Lt. Colonel Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an equestrian who competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and retains a respect for Americans.

Both men have to contend with others of the staff officers who are stunned and angered by the general’s abandonment of the customary Japanese tactics of island defense, which involve digging in and fighting on the beaches. Kuribayashi orders them to stop digging trenches and to dig into the cave-ridden cliffs and hills above the beaches in order to make a stand above the Americans.

Both Kuribayashi and Saigo understand they’re expected to sacrifice themselves for Japan and its emperor, but the young man’s submission to this obligation is involuntary. He desires only to survive and return to his wife, newborn child and small bakery. Saigo is an attractive, resilient example of a recognizable type. He’s a spiritual brother-in-arms to cartoonist Bill Mauldin and journalist Ernie Pyle’s mordant American infantry dogfaces. Except that he’s not ostensibly fighting to defeat imperial fascism; he’s trapped in its hopeless defense.

Eastwood’s film may seem a little schematic, its drama worked out a little too carefully, a little too informed by sentiment. But first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita’s script and Eastwood’s assured direction slip the bounds of melodrama.

The film doesn’t try to soften the portrayal of the grinding fear and horror of battle, even if the filmmakers veer a little too closely to operatic excess near the end. In Flags the battle’s scope and details were vividly conveyed. Here, the action retreats into the caves and tunnels, and the feel is more constricted. The brutally violent impacts are more in close and separated by interludes of isolation. This is an epic of intimate moments and closed-in terror; it’s both like other war films and different.

Some of the critical response to Letters has been notable for a skepticism about the originality and incisiveness of its vision and ideas. The film isn’t radical in its style or overt message. But to appreciate its importance and power, you need only consider it (and Flags) in conjunction with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which delivered war’s horror aplenty, yet also suggested this was endured in the pursuit of a better world.

Eastwood’s two films make no similar suggestion. Both, especially the second, only portray war’s costs, and the plight of those who pay them. Eastwood probably didn’t set out to make an anti-war statement with them. But there is little or no glory, national or individual, in them.