After spending this much time on Iwo Jima Judge Brendan Babish was beginning to get island fever.
Our reviews of Flags Of Our Fathers (published February 12th, 2007), Flags Of Our Fathers: Two-Disc Special Edition (published May 30th, 2007), Flags Of Our Fathers: Two-Disc Special Edition (HD DVD) (published May 16th, 2007), and Letters From Iwo Jima: Two-Disc Special Edition (published June 7th, 2007) are also available.
Captain Severance: Twelve thousand Japanese defenders in eight square miles, they will not leave politely, gentlemen! It's up to us to convince them.
In the fall of 2006 the smart money was on Clint Eastwood's WWII drama Flags of Our Fathers to be a major player in that year's Academy Awards horserace. But strangely enough, Eastwood had also directed another film, Letters from Iwo Jima, that would be released shortly after Flags, in time for Oscar consideration. Still, to many this second release seemed to be just a curio, perhaps made on a lark. But a funny thing happened on the way to Oscar glory: Flags of Our Fathers garnered positive, but not enthusiastic notices, while Letters became one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, a rarity for a foreign language film. Now Warner Bros. has conveniently released these two films in a five-disc "commemorative" set, which includes both movies, a ton of extras, as well as The History Channel's "Heroes of Iwo Jima," narrated and hosted by Gene Hackman.
Facts of the Case
Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima depict the battle for the small Pacific island of Iwo Jima. The decimated Japanese army occupy it, and the Americans are intent on seizing the island for strategic purposes. According to Gene Hackman, the fight for Iwo Jima had the highest casualty rate of any American battle in World War II. The battle also produced perhaps one of the most iconic photographs in American history: the flag raising over Iwo Jima.
While much of the drama in Flags of Our Fathers occurs on the island, the majority of it takes place back at the home front. Three of the soldiers who appeared in that stirring photograph have been flown home to participate in an uber-patriotic war bond drive that will provide the funds needed to continue the war. The only problem is, the events surrounding the picture have been grossly misrepresented to the American people; this was not the first flag raised on Iwo Jima, and it occurred during a lull in battle. The three soldiers all feel varying levels of discomfort about perpetuating the ruse: Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, Happy Endings) shows an occasional glimmer of unease, but for the most part basks in the attention and is grateful to be off the island; Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, Windtalkers), is tortured by what he perceives as undeserved recognition, and the guilt of receiving special treatment while his fellow soldiers are still fighting; John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, Crash) also shows signs of anguish, but like Gagnon, is able to bury these niggling feelings for the greater purpose of raising money for the war.
Unlike Flags, nearly all of the action in Letters from Iwo Jima takes place on the island. It is a dramatization of the defense of Iwo Jima, with a focus on two characters: General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins), who devised the tactics to hold off the American advance—namely, the digging of caves and the cessation of suicide by disgraced troops; and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a peaceful Japanese baker who has little interest in fighting the Americans, and sees no glory in killing himself for the emperor.
There are already multiple reviews on DVD Verdict for both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, so this review will focus on the combined impact of both films, along with the accompanying documentary, Heroes of Iwo Jima. Thankfully, I hadn't seen either movie in the theater, and was able to watch them both back-to-back for the first time in my home theater. For those who also haven't seen either film, I strongly recommend you do likewise.
In "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima," Clint Eastwood talks about some early consideration for telling both stories in the same movie, but ultimately felt the disparate cultures were too distinct to fit into one coherent storyline. Though Eastwood was correct in creating two films instead of one featuring the truncated versions of each story, it should be emphasized that these movies individually are only halves of one creative vision. And though it seems like such a simple, conventional idea, it's amazing how few war films bother to depict both sides in a battle. Though most every war film is guilty of depicting only one side, two of the most recent, well-received World War II films, The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan, both provide almost no insight into the Japanese and German armies the Americans were warring against. This is unfortunate, because it both demonizes the hidden enemy, who is only seen in the shadows, shooting at the characters we empathize with, but also inhibits a greater understanding of the conflict itself.
Taken together I imagine Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima as something like Grindhouse (which is sadly being sundered for its worldwide release) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (which never should have been sundered in the first place). In all cases, watching these two films together creates a deeper understanding and appreciation of them both. Flags of Our Fathers is a very good war film—the superior of the two, in my opinion—but, as in most war films, the enemy is seen as lacking agency; the Japanese are seen as psychopathic killers whose death should be cheered. Watching Letters from Iwo Jima forces one to reconceptualize every scene in Flags of Our Fathers in which a Japanese or American soldier is killed. The scenes in which Japanese soldiers are killed become more somber; the scenes in which American soldiers are killed—while still upsetting—takes on added complexity. The Japanese soldiers shooting at Americans were not necessarily sadistic, they were scared out of their minds. Their tiny island was being invaded by an armada of aircraft carriers; they couldn't sleep for the constant bombing; they had no food or water; they knew they going to lose, they would probably die, and—worst of all—bring shame upon their country.
I know critical and audience response mostly favors Letters from Iwo Jima, but I was found this to be the more conventional of the two movies. One of the reasons why I bypassed Flags of Our Fathers in the theaters is because there have been so many World War II movies, and I assumed Eastwood was simply adding yet another patriotic epic to the bunch. However, I was happily surprised to find that much of this film takes place off the battlefield and—far from affirming the inerrancy of The Greatest Generation—actually questions America's reverence for warfare and spurning truth in wartime. And yet, for all that, the film does not attempt to tear down American myths, but merely foster a better understanding of them.
Letters from Iwo Jima's biggest strength is that it introduces a new element of World War II—the enemy's perspective—to American audiences. This is both noble and intriguing, as many Americans—myself included—have very little idea what that battle was like for those thousands of men in the caves. And the film is enlightening in that explains a culture and ideology that will be completely foreign to most of its audience (which make me wonder if the Japanese response to the film was comparable to the enthusiastic American notices). However, there is such a long, rich history of war films in America, my appreciation of Letters from Iwo Jima couldn't help but be compromised by previously seeing just about every different battlefield convention explored in previous movies. That said, this is still a strong picture, full of beautiful imagery and powerful emotion.
The Battle for Iwo Jima box set also includes the History Channel documentary Heroes of Iwo Jima. While this clearly is not as stirring as Flags of our Fathers, it is still a strong documentary on the Americans involved in the battle for Iwo Jima, with an emphasis on the two flag raisings, the second of which was captured in that immortal picture. I'm sure a lot of people will be hitting Wikipedia after watching Flags of Our Fathers, in search of the larger backstory behind the movie, but that won't be necessary if you purchase this box set. Heroes of Iwo Jima has such a great collection of interviews with key figures that any Internet scouring is pretty much unnecessary.
Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima included in the box set are the two-disc special editions that have been previously available individually. As previous reviews in DVD Verdict have attested, these are both beautiful prints, and both sets are full of extras. Of course, an Eastwood commentary would have been nice, but somehow he seems like such a master that he's above criticism for withholding his insights from us.
Watching these fine films in tandem improves the appreciation of each. If you haven't seen either, this box set is a pretty safe bet. Unfortunately, if you rushed out and already bought Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima, this box set is not quite as great a deal as it could be. Yeah, it sucks that Warner Bros. didn't release Flags, Letters, and this set at the same time, but that's not the nature of the DVD business, is it?
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Scales of Justice, Flags Of Our Fathers
Perp Profile, Flags Of Our Fathers
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Flags Of Our Fathers
• An Introduction by Clint Eastwood
Scales of Justice, Letters From Iwo Jima
Perp Profile, Letters From Iwo Jima
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Letters From Iwo Jima
• "Red Sun, Black Sun -- The Making of Letters from Iwo Jima" Documentary
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