A Real Slap In The Face

Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

October 24th, 2005, 4:36 pm #1

Clint's Double Take
Eastwood directs two films on the battle of Iwo Jima: one from the U.S. side, the other from the Japanese

Sometime this month in Chicago, Clint Eastwood will complete principal photography on his latest movie, Flags of Our Fathers. It's the 26th feature film he has directed since he made Play Misty for Me in 1971. And just as he has done before (The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River), he is basing it on a best-selling book. But this movie is different from all the others that he or anyone else has directed, for Flags is only half the story he wants to tell.

The book, by James Bradley and Ron Powers, recounts the ultimately tragic tale of six young U.S. Marines who happened to raise a huge American flag atop Mount Suribachi in the midst of the great battle for Iwo Jima during World War II, of how an Associated Press photographer squeezed off what he thought was a routine shot of them doing so that became an iconic image, of what happened to some of those kids (only three survived the next few days of battle) when they were hustled home to be heedlessly exploited by the U.S. government to raise civilian morale and, incidentally, sell billions of dollars' worth of war bonds. That story, rich in darkly ambiguous nuance, would have been more than enough to preoccupy Eastwood's attention for a couple of years.

But when Eastwood tried to buy the rights, he discovered that Steven Spielberg already had them, and so he moved on instead to Million Dollar Baby. Then, backstage at the 2004 Academy Awards (at which his Mystic River was a multiple nominee), Eastwood encountered Spielberg, and before the evening was out, they agreed to a Flags co-production, with Eastwood directing. Shortly thereafter, the project began to elicit an uncommon, almost obsessive, interest from its director. He has not often attempted fact-based movies, and he had never undertaken one that contained such huge combat scenes. He began to read more widely and deeply on the subject. And he began talking to both American and Japanese veterans of Iwo Jima, which remains the bloodiest engagement in Marine Corps history and the one for which the most Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded (27). As for the Japanese, only about 200 out of 22,000 defending soldiers survived. At some point in his research, Eastwood realized that he had to find a way to tell both sides of the story--"not in the Tora! Tora! Tora! way, where you cut back and forth between the two sides," he says, "but as separate films."

So, beginning next February, Eastwood will start shooting the companion movie, tentatively called Lamps Before the Wind, scheduled for simultaneous release with Flags next fall. Typically, Eastwood (who is an old friend of this writer's) is not able to articulate fully his rationale for this ambitious enterprise: "I don't know--sometimes you get a feeling about something. You have a premonition that you can get something decent out of it," he says. "You just have to trust your gut." He asked Paul Haggis, who wrote Flags, if he would like to write the Japanese version as well. The writer of Million Dollar Baby and director of Crash, Haggis was overbooked but thought an aspiring young Japanese-American screenwriter, Iris Yama****a, who had helped him research Flags, might be able to do it. She met with Eastwood, and once again his gut spoke; he gave her the job and liked her first draft so much that he bought it. It was she who insisted on giving him a few rewrites she thought her script still needed.

Taken together, the two screenplays show that the battle of Iwo Jima--and by implication, the whole war in the Pacific--was not just a clash of arms but a clash of cultures. The Japanese officer class, imbued with the quasi-religious fervor of their Bushido code, believed that surrender was dishonor, that they were all obliged to die in defense of their small island. That, of course, was not true of the attacking Americans. As Eastwood puts it, "They knew they were going into harm's way, but you can't tell an American he's absolutely fated to die. He will work hard to get the job done, but he'll also work hard to stay alive." And to protect his comrades-in-arms. As Haggis' script puts it, the Americans "may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends, for the man in front, for the man beside 'em."

Yama****a's script is much more relentlessly cruel. In essence, the Japanese officers compelled the bravery (and suicide) of their troops at gunpoint. Only the Japanese commander, Lieut. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (a mysterious historical figure who fascinates Eastwood), and a fictional conscript, Saigo, whose fate Yama****a intertwines with his commanding officer's, demonstrate anything like humanity as a Westerner might understand it. The lieutenant general, educated in part in the U.S., is respectful of its national spirit (and industrial might) and believes that a live soldier, capable of carrying on the fight, is infinitely more valuable than a dead one enjoying an honorable afterlife. Thanks to his preservationist tactics, a battle that was supposed to last five days consumed almost 40, though honor demanded his suicide in the end. Saigo, who, as Eastwood says, "wants what most human beings want" (a peaceful life with friends and family), meets an unexpected fate.

The Japanese film derives much of its strength from its claustrophobic confinement to a horrendous time and place. Haggis' work gains its power from its confident range. The screenplay starts with the Americans on the beaches and the protagonists raising the flag. It follows them on their vulgar war-bond tour (they were obliged to re-enact the flag raising on a papier-mâché Suribachi at Soldier Field in Chicago) and then traces their postwar descent into dream-tossed anonymity. You could argue that the Japanese were the lucky ones: their government and religion foreordained their fate, and they had no choice but to endure it. Chance played more capriciously with the Americans, who liked to think they were in charge of their destinies. Yet Flag's protagonists end up knowing that they were blessed by nothing more than a photo op--and knowing that the true, unacknowledged heroes were the men left behind to fight and die on Iwo Jima's black sands. The film follows three survivors: Ira Hayes (played by Adam Beach), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), the co-author's father. To put it mildly, their lives do not continue on a heroic trajectory. At one point Bradley, forever assailed by nightmares that he never discusses, wishes that "there hadn't been a flag on the end of that pole."

The inscrutability of fate has always been a major Eastwoodian subtext. But now, as he approaches his 76th birthday, he has begun to take it personally. "There are so many people who are as good or better than me who aren't working," he says of his career, "while I still am. I can't explain that, but luck has to play a part." Here's hoping his luck holds.

7,000 Marines died at Iwo Jima in February and March 1945, the bloodiest event in U.S. Marine Corps history. By making a film from their killers' perspective, Dirty Harry dishonors them, WWII veterans, America, and himself. As aging actor past his prime, I guess he never heard the phrase "death before dishonor."

I agree, it's only half the story, maybe less...
"But this movie is different from all the others that he or anyone else has directed, for Flags is only half the story.."

I should think Eastwood's "gut" feeling should tell him that it would be all well and good to also tell the story from the Japanese point of view, but I am confounded that such sensitivity would not include first telling the truth about Old Glory on Suribachi!

I know that all Marines are well informed, having taken it upon themselves to delve into and beyond the usual party line history topics, and are well aware that Rosenthal's photo and the corresponding information on the so-called Iwo Flag Raising, is only, in actuality, the raising of a "replacement flag" some time later on the same day that the actual flag raising occurred. Yet, the actual flag raising event is given short shrift, briefly mentioned only, reduced to a mere footnote, or maybe not mentioned at all in writings regarding this historic event.
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R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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