Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, February 26, 2007

Eastwood's Movies

I've seen both of the World War Two movies by Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The first movie was decidedly mediocre. It was an unoriginal take on an old message. The ordinary soldier is just a cog in the war machine and, when his usefulness is over, he's tossed aside like an empty soda can. The sad thing is that this is a lesson we humans never seem to learn.

This antiwar message is made early on in Flags of Our Fathers. US troops are on ships that are headed for Iwo Jima. American fighter planes are flying low over the ships to the cheers of the troops on the decks. A celebrating soldier gets carried away and falls overboard. His fellows laugh and taunt him for his clumsiness until they realize that no one is going to stop and pick him up. There's a war to be fought and they can't afford to stop for one man.

That right there summarizes the movie. Three of the surviving soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima are sent home to tour the country as part of a war bond drive. They're treated as heroes in city after city but, when the bond drive is over, they're discarded. One of the three becomes an alcoholic and dies of drink. Another thinks he's got the future by the tail. During the bond drive, a number of businessmen gave him their cards. They told him that they'd love to have a man like him working for them, and asked him to call when it was all over. He took them at their word, but not a one of them returned his calls. He spent his life working as a school janitor. Like I said, this is not a new message, nor is Eastwood's take on it original.

Letters from Iwo Jima is another matter. In the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma call it a masterpiece. I'm not so sure of that. It's overly long and slow-paced in places. In addition, one never sees more than a dozen or so of the Japanese soldiers at a time, so one never gets the sense of the epic sort of struggle that the battle was. There were tens of thousands Japanese troops on Iwo Jima, but one never gets a sense of that scale. The movie seems to suggest that there were no more than a few hundred men on the island. That said, even with its weaknesses, it's an important movie.

It isn't that the message is new. The Japanese soldiers are portrayed as not all that much different from their American counterparts. They're just a bunch of poor saps who have been caught up in a war machine that is going to chew them up and spit them out, many dead, a few alive. What makes this movie unique is the sympathetic treatment of the Japanese soldiers. With very few exceptions, all past American movies about World War Two portray the Japanese soldiers as little more than animals, sadistic savages, and suicidal madmen who care nothing about human life. Not a one has portrayed them so sympathetically, and I was led to draw a profoundly antiwar conclusion. The whole military enterprise comes off as just plain insane. That's a helluva lot closer to the truth than the propaganda films that followed the war.