In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque—a German veteran of World War I—published All Quiet on the Western Front (its literal translation: “Nothing New in the West”), an acclaimed anti-war novel that would go on to sell over two million copies in its first year of publication. It told the story of the war from the perspective of the average German soldier who lived and died fighting it, and it was embraced by American readers eager to empathize with their fellow men (legal and geographic borders notwithstanding). One year later, the up-and-coming director Lewis Milestone adapted the novel into a film for Universal Pictures; it would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The present day brings a companion to this (deservedly) canonized classic. In Letters from Iwo Jima, American cultural icon Clint Eastwood also examines a specific point in American history from the perspective of a former enemy. Consider for a moment the post-9/11 wounds (repeatedly rubbed raw) that continue to foster anti-“other” sentiment both within and without our national borders, and Eastwood’s decision to empathize with the former “Japoteurs” takes on an added dimension of boldness (even if such bravery is more indicative of regressive American attitudes than it is of Clint’s well-worn wisdom).
Despite their distinctly different plots, battles, and explicitly defined themes, both films critically observe the same timeless characteristics of war: the manipulation of information and swaying of national emotions by the government so as to bolster public support; the need to dehumanize one’s enemy in order to encourage battlefield aggression; the long-clichéd (however true) insights regarding our common brotherhood; and the futility that defines the act of two (or more) large groups of people trying to kill each other. Both films are infused with the sense of honor that accompanies one’s service to one’s country, but they also understand, with a weary heart, the waste that goes hand-in-hand with the carnage.
Both Eastwood and Milestone’s conscientiousness is most evident in their refusal to be pigeonholed into any one philosophy; their depictions of good and evil defy the black-and-white moral codes toward which even the most well-intended works tend to gravitate. Soldiers rightfully defend their own lives in All Quiet, only to loathe their murderous selves thereafter, while Letters (along with its companion piece, Flags of Our Fathers) shows a battle in which corruption runs rampant on both sides, the glossy romanticism of history crumbling before our very eyes.
Both films portray the experience of war mainly from the perspective of the common person. All Quiet on the Western Front contrasts the relative naïveté of the average citizen with the experiences endured by those who leave an otherwise normal life to take up arms. Beginning with the opening shot and continuing through the departure of the soldiers we come to know so well, Milestone continually frames the images of war (marching troops, lethal explosions) through a series of doorways and windows: the war and its horrors are kept outside and at bay, and those afforded the shelters of society can never truly understand the experience of battle.
As the soldiers’ spirits are weathered down (both literally and figuratively), Milestone contrasts this architectural motif of distant safety with a recurring use of low-angle shots parallel to the ground. Earth is the predominant element in a soldier’s life, from the muddy experiences endured in boot camp to the filthy trench dugouts on the battlefield (at one point, starving men attack rats with shovels). On leave, Paul (Lewis Ayres) refutes the mindlessly patriotic babbling of his former professor (who, ironically, is now trying to convince even more easily swayed youth to go out and fight): “When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!...Our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death!”
That Letters from Iwo Jima spends the majority of its time underground in the Japanese-dug caves is a telling connection, to say nothing of its piteous portrayal of soldiers brainwashed into thinking that suicide is their only way out of a losing battle. While we see more of the wide-ranging mechanics of war in Eastwood’s film—particularly through the experiences of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who oversees the battle—the Japanese soldiers defending their home country are more intensely contained by the earth than the Germans on the Western Front. Death is indeed a likely occurrence in both films, but the Japanese codes of honor (which Eastwood shows to be largely incompatible with modern warfare) demand it. Much like the young schoolboys in All Quiet—so easily swayed to go out and protect the fatherland—the Japanese soldiers’ intense (and seemingly senseless) commitment to higher ideals sees many of them killing themselves long before the battle’s end. Few scenes of any 2006 film are as numbing as those of wide-eyed soldiers pulling pins from grenades, holding them to their chests and waiting for the inevitable. “This is the hole that we will fight and die in,” writes the rebellious soldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) in a letter to his pregnant wife.
The most striking of the films’ shared qualities is their universal empathy. In these meditations on mankind’s tendency to destroy itself, neither side is presented as an overt ally or enemy. In Letters, as Japanese soldiers fend off advancing American troops, the carnage leveled against both sides is shown with wincing realism, unhampered by stylistic exploitation. All Quiet goes one step further and never acknowledges who is being fought at any given time, regularly reversing the perspectives in the midst of battle as Milestone’s craning camera hovers omnipotently over the proceedings.
All Quiet is the more visually aggressive of the two films. With the oppression of censors still a few years off, Milestone and his collaborators were free to use every trick in the book to depict the bloodshed at hand, with no moment more disturbing than the shot of an advancing soldier cut off by an explosion: when the dust clears, all that remains are two stubby hands, still grasping the barbed wire. The film’s centerpiece battle runs only eight minutes, yet its hellfire feels twice as long as Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day onslaught (Milestone’s film being one of Steven Spielberg’s chief influences).
Even without explicitly addressing the political particulars of their time, both films balance an awareness that war can be a necessary evil and a conviction that its very existence signifies a failure of government. In All Quiet, this is most memorably conveyed during a rare quiet moment when the German soldiers come to realize that they don’t even know who they’re fighting or why. Further illustrating the divide between those who orchestrate a war and those who must endure it, the Japanese soldiers of Letters tell tales of the military raiding their homes and businesses for food and supplies, while the many high-ranking officials on Iwo Jima are so concerned with pleasing the homefront media’s approval that they employ traditional war tactics rather than those that might actually ensure victory in battle.
Both films leaven emotional manipulation by avoiding showy touches; indeed, Eastwood’s work regularly recalls the stylistic earnestness of the 1930s Hollywood that effectively birthed Milestone’s film. In All Quiet, after stabbing an American officer, German soldier Paul is forced to spend the rest of the battle in a mortar hole with the dying man, and it is during this period that his grasp on reality truly begins to crumble (he begs for forgiveness, promising to write to the man’s family and send monetary aid). This scenario is somewhat mirrored in Letters when Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a renowned Olympian who once lived in the United States, orders that a wounded American soldier be rescued from battle and treated for his wounds; the two men proceed to chat in a friendly manner that confuses and unsettles Nishi’s fellow officers.
Both films are perhaps most honorable in the ways they examine the dirt under everyone’s fingernails. No matter what the trends or truths are in history, no group of people has ever been completely free of either sin or virtue; to suggest otherwise is to highlight just how far serious thought has been allowed to degenerate in today’s socio-political environment. Some will dislike these films’ emphasis on the murky grays of morality, particularly during a wartime era of high-stakes emotions, national sentiment, and emboldened patriotism.
We’re now seeing a variety of films borne of the sentiments of our own time (one wonders when the next Apocalypse Now or Born on the Fourth of July will arrive), though we needn’t literally return to the morning of September 11th to deal with these realities. The implications of the WTC collapse, the Pentagon attack, and the United Airlines Flight 93 crash have radiated outward through the world in ways more profound than any tally of collateral could represent, or the immediate political effects of a still-ongoing war could indicate. As much as one might hunger for the next great filmmaker to create a monument to our present times, it is sometimes best to look back upon what has come before in order to find the necessary tools to work through the issues of today. In 1930, the Academy, in a rare instance of strong-mindedness, saw fit to reward Milestone’s humanitarian efforts. Let us hope they show equal wisdom to Eastwood’s endeavor this month.
House contributor Robert Humanick’s writings have appeared in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth. He also works sporadically with fellow Slant critic Paul Schrodt at The Stranger Song.