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The Greatest War Movie(s) June 1, 2007

Posted by Wilz in Entertainment, Society.
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History is written by the victors – but what if the victors made sure the history for the defeated got written too. I was very impressed, and quite excited when I heard about Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, two movies directed back to back by Clint Eastwood about the Battle of Iwo Jima. One movie took the American point of view of the battle, and the other took the Japanese point of view. Of course, large parts of both stories are fictional, although closely based on historical events.

Flags, made for the American audience, focuses on how a photograph of several American marines raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi was exploited back home in the US to raise funds for the final push of World War II. A user comment from imdb :

Flags examines the lives of those in the photo who survived the battle, their reluctance to be called heroes, the demons that they faced while on the battlefield, the constant reminder to kill or be killed, the lies they have to tell to sell, and their sense of morality sacrificed for the lesser of two evils.

Letters, which is in Japanese, focuses on the last stand that the Japanese forces made to defend their home land from invasion. Again from user comments on imdb :

To the Japanese, Iwo jima was a part of their homeland where a foreign invader was going to land and begin its invasion on Japanese soil. Throughout all of recorded Japanese history, never had a foreign invader prevailed in war against the Japanese on Japanese land. The imperial Japanese government of that time used this when they sent fighters to Iwo jima. These fighters were to ordered to “fight to the death” defending their country. That to lose and not die fighting would bring disgrace to self and family. They knew that America was planning to send an overwhelming force and they knew that they were being sent to die.

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Both films shows plenty of battle scenes, from the point of view of the respective armies. There’s plenty of zipping bullets, exploding grenades, leaking entrails and spewing blood. There’s plenty of ‘dangerous soldiers from the other side who’s going to kill me.’ However, unlike too many other war movies that’s been made, neither of the stories describe an army sent to kill another, and is righteous in its victory or defeat. Instead, both movies was simply about a battle between two sides. I read somewhere that any honest statement about war, is by itself an anti-war statement. This is superbly reflected in these movies.

In my search for balanced opinions about these movies, I’ve come across a lot of criticism, mostly leveled against Letters. Many called it a revisionist telling of history. The Japanese general’s blood thirstiness wasn’t evident enough, the mutilation of American soldiers by the Japanese was not shown, etc etc. Well, watch both the movies. An American soldier was brutally mutilated – in Flags. And if the waves of soldiers dying on the beach isn’t clear enough an indication that Kuribayashi’s goal was to kill as many of them as possible, I don’t know how else the telling could be more accurate without having him morph into a werewolf at full moon in the movie. Most people will unsurprisingly watch only one of the movies – Flags tickets sold like hot cakes in the States, whereas Letters sold out in Japanese cinemas.

Clint Eastwood probably directed the movies for their respective audiences, bearing in mind that presenting the image of brutal Japanese soldiers mutilating American soldiers would not sit too well with a Japanese audience. Actually, Letters did have such a scene, although not as brutal as the one in Flags. The movies had to sell to their respective audiences after all. Clint Eastwood’s success at sending such powerful messages through two mainstream movies however, is what makes these movies great.

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There’s also an interesting criticism made about Letters, saying that it glorified American culture by having the two Japanese commanding officers who’ve been to America appear more humane and civilized than their counterparts who have not, showing compassion and fairness towards their American enemies. LIKE DOH. If you’re a Japanese who’ve hung out with Americans for a bit, no matter where your allegiance lie, and no matter how loyal you are, you know that they’re not uncivilized fools and barbarians intent on killing for the sake of killing. Indoctrination and prejudice doesn’t work on you – you’ve freaking met them.

All in all, these are the greatest war movies I’ve ever watched. If you watch one, you should watch the other. Saving Private Ryan drops to number 2, versus Flags + Letters.

Comparing the two movies against each other though, I’d have to say that I like Letters – several times more. Letters carried a unique atmosphere that portrayed desperate but resolute soldiers not commonly seen in movies. Although the movies do not have to be seen in any particular order, I’d suggest that you watch Flags first. If nothing else, it’s more familiar – with western actors, western jokes, western action… etc. Watching Flags first gives you the setting, then Letters will blow you away.

To end, an opening quote from Flags of our Fathers :

“Every jackass thinks he knows what war is. Especially those who’ve never been in one.”

Yep – I’m a jackass, but thanks to these two movies, I’m hopefully slightly less so.

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