It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s $90 million film about American soldiers in WWII’s Pacific theater, was geared toward receiving critical acclaim and Oscar nominations, not Letters From Iwo Jima, a $20 million subtitled companion piece about the Japanese. Yet, in the story of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and the assorted Japanese officers and grunts assigned to defend the barren black-sand island of Iwo Jima, Eastwood crafted a tale that’s both humanist and fatalistic. It’s a compassionate history of the losers as written by an absolute victor.
The film began as an afterthought. Eastwood, who became interested in the story of Kuribayashi while researching Flags, approached executives at his longtime studio, Warner Bros., whom he had to beg to make the Oscar winners Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. He promptly received a green light, thanks to a script by newcomer Iris Yamashita inspired by actual letters of the island’s final defenders (Paul Haggis co-wrote the story). The director shot the film right after Flags in a very Eastwood-like 33 days (Baby was shot in 37, River in 39).
The resulting movie — purposefully or not — seems to evoke some of our contemporary attitudes toward war. It also raises questions about how soldiers fight for their country when they’ve been abandoned, and the value of bravery in the service of a lost military cause. It is through our enemies that we may be able to more clearly see ourselves.