by Andrea Grunert

Many years ago, when I told colleagues that my PhD thesis was on the films of Clint Eastwood, some of them gave me a look suggesting that they pitied me. Even today, and despite the thirty-eight films he has directed since 1971, I hear and read condescending remarks on Eastwood, still considered by some to be a second-rate director who cannot really be taken seriously. However, since his directorial debut Play “Misty” for Me (1971), in which he challenged his hard-boiled hero image by playing a radio disc jockey who is stalked by a female fan, he has always revealed himself as a director in full control of everything he does.

Eastwood is a great narrator whose films continue to uphold traditions of Classical Hollywood cinema. But first and foremost, he is a man who knows how to tell a story in images, and these images are by no means shallow. On the contrary, they challenge the viewer to subject them to close scrutiny in order to grasp their depth and subtleties. Eastwood has a vision, and this vision is a connecting link from his very first film to his latest one, Richard Jewell (2019). The value of individualism and the exploration of man’s dark obsessions and of violence are recurrent themes in his films. Other factors they have in common are the actor-director’s interest in music – jazz above all, but also country and western music – and his fascination for the many shades of black which became a trademark of his films long before the arrival of high film sensitivity and new digital techniques. His world view can be detected in the films that he did not direct but over which he exercised control, having founded his own production company – Malpaso Productions in 1967. In the 1970s and 1980s, Eastwood was more dependent on his image as the strong individual and had to play this role for his fans, who expected him to win and not to die of tuberculosis like the country singer Red Stovall in Honkytonk Man (1982, Eastwood). However, he was presumably never involved in productions which he completely disliked, and he was able to alternate more action-oriented films with personal projects such as Honkytonk Man and Bronco Billy (1980). And he made – and still makes – use of his hero image in a creative way, not simply modifying it but repeatedly calling it into question. Reflections on the making of legends create a powerful subtext in many of his films (1). Eastwood’s star image resonates in his films, even in those in which he does not appear such as American Sniper (2014), in which Chris Kyle, the SEAL played by Bradley Cooper, recalls the police officer Dirty Harry (played by Eastwood in a series of five films from 1971 to 1988). Both men are experts in their field and both are obsessed with their dark side, one of the main differences between the two being the reason that in Kyle’s case the traumatism is explained.

The construction of heroes: Flags of Our Fathers

War and violence are the topics of both Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2007). Both films deal with the battle on the tiny Japanese island of Iwo Jima (2) that lasted from 19 February to 26 March 1945. It was the battle in which the U.S. military suffered the largest number of casualties in World War II (3), but for many Americans it became a symbol of heroism. Flags of Our Fathers was initially one of Steven Spielberg’s projects, and his DreamWorks Pictures co-produced Eastwood’s film (4). Letters from Iwo Jima was Eastwood’s own idea and represented an enormous risk for a Hollywood production because the cast consists almost entirely of Japanese actors speaking Japanese. Leaving Aeschylus’s The Persians aside, it is perhaps the first attempt to present a battle from the viewpoint of “the enemy”, this alone making Letters from Iwo Jima a unique work of art. These two films deal not only with war and violence, memory and trauma but also address the topic of legend-making (here not connected with Eastwood’s own screen persona) and questions of representation and perception.

Paul Haggis rewrote William Broyles Jr.’s first film script for Flags of Our Fathers (5). Both scripts rely on James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers (6); the author being the son of John Bradley, one of the flag raisers in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph taken during the battle and one of the film’s main characters. Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima contain realistic battle scenes that encourage emotional participation through fragmentation by camera movement and editing and the cacophony of gunfire, explosions and voices shouting commands or crying for help. There is much graphic violence – soldiers burnt alive, dead soldiers lying in their own blood, human intestines, severed limbs – but this is never used for mere effect or glorification and there is nothing heroic about the horrors of war that both the Americans and the Japanese soldiers have to endure. Instead, emphasis is put on how the war affects the characters. Flags of Our Fathers depicts the change the young Marines undergo, often doing so in subtle ways. They are portrayed as boyish and unconcerned in the scenes at Camp Tarawa (Hawaii) before the battle, and on their way to Iwo Jima. In one scene on the ship some of them have fun playing cards. When Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) shows his comrades photographs of dead American soldiers and a song referring to death on the battlefield is aired on the radio, their mood changes. Suddenly there is silence, the young men lost in thought. In the next shot, three of them are shown on deck, mere silhouettes enveloped in mist and deathly figures. The ghostlike appearance of the soldiers is in both films reinforced by an absence of colour. Eastwood uses an extremely reduced range of colours, making in particular the battle scenes in Letters from Iwo Jima (which means two thirds of the film) close to black-and-white photography. This lack of colour is reminiscent of the archive material from World War II at the end of Flags of Our Fathers, and in Letters from Iwo Jima it is an omen that the Japanese defenders of the island are doomed from the very beginning.

Flags of Our Fathers suggests that the survivors such as Bradley are themselves living dead, still haunted by their war experience. The film starts with the cry: “Corpsman!”. The camera follows a soldier running across the battlefield at night to rescue one of his comrades. It is John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), nicknamed “Doc”, who is the corpsman called to duty. The camera reveals what Bradley sees – carnage – and shows the young man’s face, then his eyes in close-up, a tear running down his cheek. In the next shot we hear the cry “Corpsman!” again as an old man awakes from a nightmare. The old man is the aged John Bradley, confronted by memories he has been unable to suppress his whole life long.

James Bradley’s book traces the lives of the six Marines, including John Bradley, who are shown in the photograph of the raising of the American flag at Mount Suribachi. Eastwood gives detailed portrayals of the three surviving soldiers, with an emphasis on the critical evaluation of their heroization and manipulation in the process of legend-making. Flags of Our Father is a fragmented, non-linear narrative which connects past and present, Iwo Jima and America. The film shifts from the battlefield to present-day America and to different moments in time – before and after the battle. Rosenthal’s photograph forms the core of the narration. “A photo can help to win or lose a war,” says the photographer in an interview in the film. Flags of Our Fathers reveals how a rather insignificant event can be turned into an icon inspiring pride and hope. As James Bradley writes in his book: “(…) the photograph suggested a very different reality from that being experienced by the Marines back on Iwo Jima.” (7). A first flag raising had taken place after the conquest of Mount Suribachi, two days before Rosenthal shot his famous photograph on the occasion of a second flag raising with a bigger flag. This second flag raising was not the result of a heroic effort but took place after an unopposed climb up the hill and passed almost unnoticed. Moreover, the photograph was shot on the sixth day of the battle, a battle that continued for thirty more days. Several pictures were taken at both flag raisings, but it is Rosenthal’s photo with its classic composition of the six men around the pole with the flag in the middle of the picture and its strong dynamism which became an American icon (8).

As the film shows, the photograph was successfully used to inspire courage in the war-weary American citizens. Many of them were unaware of the fact that the battle on Iwo Jima was still raging, but to them the image suggested triumph and the power of the will to succeed. The almost bankrupt American government used the Rosenthal photograph to promote war bonds and arranged bond tours with the three surviving soldiers who were supposedly in the photograph (9): John Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford). Eastwood, by contrasting the battle scenes with the bond tours in America, reveals two different realities and illustrates what the aged John Bradley says in a voice-over at the beginning of the film: “Every jackass knows what war is, especially those who have never been in one.” During the bond tours in the film a dessert made of meringue is created which has the shape of Mount Suribachi, and the young men, instrumentalized by the military and by politicians, become heroes but do not enjoy their celebrity status (except for Rene Gagnon). How much they are haunted by their war experience is revealed through the editing. The three men are standing on a heap of earth surrounded by darkness, but the sound of detonations accompanying the sequence does not come from machine gun fire and is the sound of fireworks. Camera movement reveals that the Marines are standing on a small artificial hill in the middle of a stadium somewhere in the United States, where a burst of applause follows the firework explosions. Then, once again, we hear the cry “Corpsman!” John Bradley, framed in close-up, turns around to face the camera, as if listening to the sound of his memory. In the next sequence he is on Iwo Jima again, and this time the noise is that of a fierce battle. The editing effects in this scene and in many others in both films are smooth. They are almost imperceptible movements from one space to another, from one time to another, revealing that these two realities simply cannot be disconnected in the minds of the survivors (10).

Giving the enemy a human face: Letters from Iwo Jima

In Flags of Our Fathers, the Japanese remain anonymous, shooting from their hiding places or presented as the faceless targets of the Marines. In Letters from Iwo Jima, the roles are reversed and “the enemy” has a face, a name and a story of its own. Eastwood shows the daily life of the defence forces, the harsh conditions in the cave system (11) which the commanding officer General Tadamichi Kuribayashi has had built over a period of several months before the American invasion.

The narrative structure of Letters from Iwo Jima is less fragmented but is just as complex as Flags of Our Fathers (12). The emphasis is on Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and the young Private Saigō (Ninomiya Kazunari), establishing a strange bond between the general and the ordinary soldier who in civilian life is a baker. Kuribayashi saves Saigō from punishment by sadistic officers several times and even saves him from death, and at the end it is Saigō who buries the general.

For weeks the Japanese had to survive in the caves and tunnels on the volcanic island – also known as Sulphur Island – with almost no vegetation and scarce water resources (13). In the final days of the battle, they were completely without food and water. However, and in contrast to the stereotype of the obedient Japanese, they are not depicted as a homogeneous group but as individuals, each with his own opinion – for example, Saigō  who expresses his criticism of the military government’s policy (“There is nothing sacred about this island”, (14) and mocks it (after one of his comrades has died of dysentery, he says that he died of “honourable dysentery”, referring to the credo of the Japanese military to die an “honourable death”). Kuribayashi is represented as an open-minded man who has spent several years in the United States (15) and is aware of America’s technological superiority. However, his ideas are regarded with mistrust by some of his officers, who see him as a friend of the enemy and therefore weak. The film represents Kuribayashi – the creator of the ingenuous subterranean cave and tunnel system on Iwo Jima who was able to inflict the greatest losses to the Americans in the Pacific theatre – as a clever strategist. Indeed, Eastwood was drawn to Kuribayashi because of his strategic skills and unorthodox solutions (16). It was in his letters that he discovered Kuribayashi‘s human side (17). His portrayal of Kuribayashi is as a skilful military strategist who shows concern for the ordinary soldiers, an attitude which distinguishes him from many other Japanese officers. Ken Watanabe plays him as a cosmopolitan and humorous character and a caring father and husband.

Beside the two main protagonists, there are several other characters in Letters from Iwo Jima who are not at all stereotypes, and who reveal their desires and fears, their hopes and their despair. It is in their letters that they often express their feelings, showing that there are no differences between the ordinary soldier and the general, the Japanese and the Americans. Many of these letters are addressed to wives or mothers. And it is a letter from the mother of the American prisoner Sam which moves the Japanese soldiers listening to Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, 18) when he reads it to them. Under the impact of that letter, Shimizu (Ryō Kaze) reconsiders his opinion of the Americans, who are described as weak and barbaric in the Japanese propaganda. However, when he decides to surrender and shows himself unarmed, he is shot dead by a Marine seeking revenge. Avoiding simplistic views of both the Americans and the Japanese, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima deal with the very idea of truth. Shimizu, suspected of being a spy by one of his comrades, reveals to Saigō that he is no longer a member of the kempeitai, the feared military police, but was dishonourably dismissed from its ranks. There are also links between the two films that serve to indicate errors of judgment by the Americans. In Flags of Our Fathers, the Marines discover the mutilated corpses of a group of Japanese soldiers who have blown themselves up with hand grenades. For the Americans, this fits the cliché that the Japanese die stoically. Letters from Iwo Jima depicts their moment of collective suicide. The men follow the example of their fanatical commanding officer to the death, but they express a variety of feelings such as fear and regret. And Saigō disobeys the orders of the officer, respecting Kuribayashi’s shunning of suicide and also his own survival instinct.

War and humanism: a dilemma?

Kuribayashi requires his men to fight to the death, following the policy of the military government of that time, which he does not question; however, this does not prevent him from taking some individual decisions. It is through such contradictions that Eastwood depicts him as a human being. But are they contradictions? Kuribayashi follows orders as military men are trained to do – in Japan as well as in the West. War is something which human beings are apparently unable to avoid, Eastwood seems to say, placing his two films in the context of recent or ongoing wars. Kuribayashi is represented as an ideal honourable and chivalrous but he remains a man of flesh and blood and is never a mere cliché, something which cannot be taken for granted in Hollywood productions dealing with America’s former enemy.

Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima have a commemorative dimension, but they concentrate on what war does to men, leaving them traumatized and forever wounded. They challenge the Manicheism created by the propaganda in both countries and perpetuated by Hollywood films and also the racism that the Pima Indian Ira Hayes was the victim of (19). There is no historical record of Kuribayashi’s death, who in the film kills himself with the colt revolver he was so proud of. This colt is an object of significance in the film’s discourse on perception and identity. When Saigō spots it for the first time, he concludes that Kuribayashi must have taken it from a dead American soldier. Later, a flashback reveals that the weapon was a farewell present from Kuribayashi’s American friends when he left his post at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Before he dies, Kuribayashi has a vision of himself driving a car along a road in America, the colt on the passenger seat. His voice-over, reading a letter written to his young son Tarō, reveals his happiness at being able to return home soon but also his regret at leaving his American friends. These two feelings coexist, being part of Kuribayashi’s complex character. After he has buried the general, Saigō is surrounded by a group of Marines. He attacks them desperately with his shovel when he sees that one of the soldiers has Kuribayashi’s revolver at his belt. Now it is a trophy and one which, ironically, will find its way back to America. The weapon creates a subtext dealing with false assumptions and also dealing with friendship and the overcoming of prejudices. It adds a new layer of meaning to the death scene, reducing its sentimental element. And this is just one example of the multiple perspectives that open up complex views on a single event, an event that changed the lives of so many men.



  1. Eastwood works and reworks his own legend, relying on the role of the powerful individual, and in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) contributes to the legend of the American invasion of Grenada in 1983.

  1. The island has a surface area of eight square miles.

  1. The U.S. casualties were “six thousand killed and twenty-five thousand wounded, while the Japanese defense force of twenty thousand was virtually annihilated.” (See John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, New York, Pantheon, 1987, p. 92). The numbers may vary slightly from author to author, but they give an indication of the importance of the battle.

  1. Both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were produced by DreamWorks, Malpaso Productions and Amblin Entertainment.

  1. Lacking access to the original script, I am unable to compare the two. The name of William Broyles Jr. as one of the scriptwriters of Flags of Our Fathers has been kept for legal reasons, but apparently his script underwent considerable changes after Eastwood took over the project.

  1. James Bradley with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers, New York, Bantham, 2000.

  1. Bradley, op. cit.

  1. Displayed in American newspapers, most of which covered the battle on Iwo Jima, it appeared in the same year on a postage stamp. The memorial to the Marines at Arlington National Cemetery is a copy in bronze of the group photographed by Rosenthal, and it became the model for other war memorials in the United States. The image was evoked once more during a ceremony paying tribute to New York’s firemen in the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001, thus showing that it still has its hold on the American imagination to inspire courage at a moment of defeat.

  1. As the films shows, there was much confusion about the identity of the six Marines in the picture in which the faces cannot really be identified. According to recent research by James Bradley, we cannot even be sure that his father was one of the flag raisers. (Cf. Michael S. Schmidt, “Flags of Our Fathers’ Author Now Doubts His Father Was in Iwo Jima Picture”, The New York Times, 3 May 2016).

  1. This editing technique is also used in sequences with Ira Hayes and to a lesser degree in those focusing on Rene Gagnon.

  1. Kuribayashi used natural caves and had new ones built, all connected by tunnels. The underground passageways had a total length of 17 miles.

  1. Letters from Iwo Jima contains sequences of a Japanese research team exploring the caves in 2005 and flashbacks to events in the lives of the soldiers Saigō and Shimizu and to Kuribayashi’s time in the United States.

  1. Flags of Our Fathers was shot in Iceland and Letters from Iwo Jima in California (Malibu, Barstow, Bakersfield).This second film also includes a number of shots on Iwo Jima for which Eastwood obtained special permission, enabling him to add landscape shots that included residual evidence of the war – tanks, weapons, helmets and other material –, shots of the two war memorials on Mount Suribachi, and a few showing Ken Watanabe as Kuribayashi exploring the island’s topography.

  1. Iwo Jima had important symbolic significance for the Japanese. Part of the Japanese archipelago, it was where the first battle fought on Japanese soil took place and was therefore not only important for strategic reasons and for its two airfields.

  1. Kuribayashi was deputy military attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Washington from 1928 to 1930.

  1. Clint Eastwood quoted by Jack Foley, “Letters from Iwo Jima – Clint Eastwood Interview”, wwww.indielondon.co.uk, not dated.

  1. Cf. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Picture Letters from the Commander-in-Chief: Letters from Iwo Jima., edited by Tsuyuko Yoshida, San Francisco, VIZ Media LLC, 2007

  1. Baron Takeichi Nishi was a Japanese equestrian show jumper and Olympic Gold Medalist at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. He died on Iwo Jima.

  1. At several points the film criticizes American racism targeting the Native American Ira Hayes. In his book, James Bradley plays down this racism and Hayes’s status as a victim.



You can read more from Andrea Grunert on the films by Clint Eastwood in the book

DICTIONNAIRE CLINT EASTWOOD,  Vendémiaire, October 2016.  978-2363582430 (In French)