Speaking of provincialism: I mentioned that I finally watched “Letters from Iwo Jima.” It was one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen, and was far superior to “Flags of Our Fathers.” It also annoyed me from start to finish, because when taken with its companion film, they constitute a perfect example of Hollywood’s instinctive discomfort with the war genre.
If you are a director, for example, you will be applauded for showing that the men who served in the enemy forces were People Too – which comes as a stiff rebuke to all of us who thought they were animated clay devoid of individual personality – and if you dwell not overlong, or at all, on the nature of their imperialist, racist, theocratic government, you are creating a Space in which the common humanity can be understood. You will also be applauded if the men who served on “our” side were Human as well, which is to say they were capable of casual brutality. We see some Japanese soldiers killing a POW – the details of the torture are omitted, possibly because they are quite unhelpful – but later a captured soldier is given medical treatment, and has a bonding moment with a Japanese officer who had spent some time in California. When he dies the officer reads the letter the soldier had in his pocket, and all give it a respectful hearing. Later two soldiers give themselves up to the Americans, and as they discuss whether or not the Americans will give them a hot meal, a soldier shoots them dead, because he doesn’t want to spend the night guarding them. By this point your sympathy for the “enemy” is nearly complete.
“Flags of our Fathers” spent as little time as necessary on Iwo Jima, and concentrated its rambling Mobius-strip narrative on the domestic propaganda uses of the flag-raising photo. The government, for the usual devious reasons, used the photo to bolster support for the war, which was going on for some reason or another; the details weren’t entirely clear. “Letters from Iwo Jima” spends as little time as necessary on the domestic front, but a flashback does give us a hint about Japanese society during the war. An officer assigned to Iwo Jima to enforce political purity – you know, the way the Navy regularly posted officers to make sure everyone bowed to a picture of FDR every day – reveals his moment of shame, when he was forced by a superior to kill . . . a dog. A family dog. That tells us everything, I guess: these guys will kill a family dog in front of the kids. I gather the dog is supposed to stand in for Nanking.
“Flags of our Fathers” informed me that there were no great causes, that the soldiers were a complaining, fractious lot who fought for each other, and there was no such thing as heroes, just “men like our fathers.” The two being mutually exclusive, I guess. “Letters from Iwo Jima” told me that the enemy was full of honor and discipline, which was Tragically Misguided, and it was all quite sad because several of the Japanese officers had been posted to the United States, and performed charmingly at official functions where they were accepted as equals before that terrible misunderstanding at Pearl Harbor.
I almost quit the movie after the Yanks shot the surrendered soldiers. The recollection of the first film, with its vapid screaming PR displays and careful elisions and gruff cynical vets recalling the BS of it all, eventually overwhelmed the respectful treatment of the Japanese. If the same traits – death-worship, the nobility of suicide, fixation on honor not as a trait but a code – had been ascribed to Allied forces, it’s impossible to imagine a Hollywood movie that would not have treated the characters as absolute lunatics. I have no problem with a respectful treatment of the soldiers who fought on the other side. But the point of the first movie seems to be the unfortunate effect of the battle on Ira Hayes. Clint Eastwood gave the hero of “Letters” an honorable death. Ira Hayes ended up face down in a pig farm.
The text on the back of “Flags of Our Fathers” describes the “complicated nature of heroism, courage and patriotism.” “Letters from Iwo Jima” simply describes the acts of the Japanese defenders as “heroic.” Make if it what you wish.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Lileks Movie Review