Thursday, March 06, 2008

Looking at the other side -- Clint Eastwood's 'Letters from Iwo Jima"

"Letters from Iwo Jima" will remain Clint Eastwood's meditation on the meaning of war. It is a meditation only an old man is capable of. In some ways, more than Nazi Germany, it is the encounter with Japan that seems to touch the Americans more about the Second World War. About 37 years ago, there was this film called 'Tora, Tora, Tora", a Hollywood war film on the Pearl Harbour attack. It was an epic film, which looked at both sides of the warring countries -- the Americans and the Japanese. Yes. It was Hollywoodish. It was sentimental and romantic. The apparently useless Americans are roused from their sloth and slumber when attacked, and show extraordinary bravery. The Japanese maintain the Samurai warrior mask. In this movie, Eastwood tries to break the Samurai mask, and he partially succeeds in doing so with the help of the letters.

The film is long -- more than two hours. It is sombre both in the play of light and the mood and atmopshere that pervails among the Japanese on the Iwo Jima island. The letters that the Japanese soldiers and officers write home reveal the human face of those engaged in war. This was to be found in Erich Maria Remarque's remarkable short novel, "All Quiet On The Western Front" about German soldiers during the First World War, which was also made into a film. "Letters From Iwo Jima" is an eastern counterpart of Remarque's novel.

What is impressive about Eastwood's direction is the fact that he is able to achieve lot more within the dramatic framework of a mainstream Hollywood film. He uses the stereotypical moulds to tell individual tales of the Japanese -- the baker -- Saigo, the general -- Kuribayashi, the proud officer -- Baron Nishi with his horse and the demoted elite officer -- Shimizu. There is also the sadistic officer, which no organisation can do without.

It is also a very austere film in terms of its narrative and visuals. There is nothing riveting or breathtaking. It seems that Eastwood made a conscious attempt to avoid any flashes of brilliance. The tediousness of every day war interrupted by fatal fighting -- which is what war is all about - is all that there is to the film. The only heroism, Eastwood is trying to convey in the film like other Hollywood films, lies in the humane acts of the soldiers and officers. The gratuitous shooting by an American of two Japanese soldiers who have deserted and walked over to the other side appears to be an unpredictable incident in the narrative. But on looking back, it is clear that somewhere the film adheres to the soldiers' code of honour.

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