With one, yeah, pretty major caveat
I do have a major objection to Clint Eastwood’s new film Letters from Iwo Jima, but my first reaction is one of praise. After months of thrown-together, derivative, meretricious films, it is a delight to see a movie that actually has confidence in itself, that is willing to stand or fall on the story it has to tell.
Generally, I haven’t been a Clint fan. His early films were either hilariously bad or else just so damn bad they weren’t even hilarious. I confess that In the Line of Fire,1 featuring terrific performances by both Eastwood and John Malkovich, was an absolutely first-rate thriller, but I steered clear of “dark” films like Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million-Dollar Baby, figuring I didn’t need a lot of “heavy” irony and tragic revelations. But Letters from Iwo Jima, frankly, is a revelation. I find it amazing that the director of a film as moronic and crass as Heartbreak Ridge could create a film as gentle and humane as Letters.
Letters begins with an unnecessary hook, the discovery of a cache of letters on present-day Iwo Jima. In fact, most of the letters quoted in the film, either from General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), have been extant for decades, appearing, among other sources, in Richard Newcomb’s Iwo Jima (1965).
Most of the surprising details in the film — that General Kuribayashi served in the U.S., that Baron Nishi won an Olympic Gold Medal for horsemanship in the 1932 Olympics and hung with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, for example — are true. General Kuribayashi did make an aide run up the beach while the general “shot” him for several hours, working out fire lanes to use on the Americans when they landed. And the general did learn over whiskey (but probably not Johnnie Black) that the Japanese Navy had been dealt a devastating blow (the battle often known as “the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” in which, among other things, U.S. Navy pilots shot down over 350 Japanese carrier planes while losing only a handful of their own), so that there would be no “pincer” movement to destroy the American invasion fleet. General Kuribayashi, as he had already guessed, was on Iwo Jima, not to defeat the Americans, but to make their victory as costly as possible.2
But what about other details? Did the general stop a captain from beating two privates with a club? Did he stop a captain from beheading two privates? Did he declare the same rations for officers and men? From what I’ve read, junior officers in the Japanese army sometimes slapped privates out of frustration, even though the officer’s handbook advised against it, saying that a slap was so humiliating that it bred resentment and insubordination.3 General Kuribayashi relieved a captain for slapping a lieutenant, which, of course, isn’t quite the same thing. Even allowing for the Japanese army’s reputation for ruthlessness, it’s a little hard to imagine a captain furiously beating men with a stick, much less threatening to execute them for a little malingering.4
As for putting officers and men on the same rations, I find that entirely unbelievable. Unless you’ve been in the military, you simply have no idea how much importance the military attaches to the difference between officers and men. This has always been fuzzed over and obscured in Hollywood films, because otherwise audiences wouldn’t like the officers. They’re so stuck up and mean! They don’t do their share of the work!
One “shocking” detail is true, however. Baron Nishi really did have his men give medical attention to a wounded American, a truly remarkable gesture, because the Japanese provided very little attention to their own wounded. (Officers received much better attention than the men, of course, who were there to fight or die, not to take up space in a hospital.)
More importantly, Letters from Iwo Jima pictures Japanese soldiers as most Japanese would probably like to imagine them — good-natured individuals thrown into a living hell by forces beyond their control, a living hell with no way out. Letters from Iwo Jima does for the Japanese what Das Boot did for the Germans — lets them see themselves as victims. Hey, no Jews were killed in the making of this picture!
But the cruelty of the Japanese army, while it never reached the heights of the Germans, was horrifying enough. In the December 1937 “rape of Nanking,” for example, Japanese soldiers murdered between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese during a six-week spree that also saw the rape of thousands of women. In China, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, the period of Japanese rule remains a bitter memory.
Like the German army, the Japanese army was the brutal, barbaric instrument of a brutal, barbaric regime. Respect for the terrible sufferings of the individual Japanese soldiers should not be allowed to obscure that fact.
I’m not criticizing Eastwood because he didn’t make “The Rape of Nanking.” But he engaged in a certain amount of gilding the lily by making General Kuribayashi the champion of the enlisted men. Portraying the general as a cross between Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln is going too far. Much of the tunneling and other construction work done on Iwo Jima was performed by a thousand Korean laborers. The treatment they received from the Japanese, from General Kuribayashi on down, could have been included in this film as a way to give a more balanced picture of the Japanese.
In 1971, popular historian John Toland and his Japanese wife5 published a two-volume study, Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945.They conducted many interviews with Japanese who had lived through the period and give an excellent account of the history of the time and the Japanese perspective on the war in the Pacific. More recently, Merion and Susie Harries wrote Soldiers of the Sun: the Rise and Fall of the Japanese Imperial Army (1991), which is also excellent.
- Wolfgang Peterson directed In the Line of Fire. Did he save Clint from himself? I would say no, since In the Line of Fire is a lot better than either Shattered or Air Force One, two of Wolfgang’s other biggies. Maybe Jeff Maguire’s script made all the difference. But I still think of it as a Clint flick. [↩]
- Which he did. Over 4,000 Marines died during the 38-day struggle for Iwo Jima, an island about five miles long. Almost all the 22,000 Japanese defenders died as well. [↩]
- If a unit behaved badly, the enlisted men might be lined up and forced to slap each other until their faces bled. [↩]
- At the same time, a general would be extremely reluctant to criticize a junior officer in the presence of enlisted men. Armies like their officers, whether generals or lieutenants, to be aggressive and self-confident. [↩]
- I’m sure that Mrs. Toland had a first name, but I couldn’t find it anywhere in these two volumes. [↩]