The Battle for Iwo Jima: Five-Disc Commemorative Collector's Edition
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)/ Heroes of Iwo Jima (2001)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006 - Dreamworks SKG/Warner Brothers - 132 minutes)
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Jamie Bell, Berry Pepper, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Paul Walker
"Flags of our Fathers", an adaptation/dramatization of the nonfiction book by James Bradley, tells the story of the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima as experienced by Marines from Easy Company, six of whom appeared in the famous flag raising photograph atop Mount Suribachi. A present-day framing device involving the illness of a surviving Marine and interviews with others is used to generate story threads that move back and forth in time. One major thread is the Easy Company combat experience at Iwo Jima, which includes brutal battle sequences before and after two flag raisings atop Mount Suribachi that occurred early in the 35 day campaign. The other major thread follows events that occur after a photograph of the second flag raising captures the imagination of the American public. Of the six soldiers depicted in the photograph, only Navy Corpsman John Bradley (Phillppe), Marine Ira Hayes (Beach), and Marine Rene Gagnon (Bradford) survive the subsequent conflict. They are sent home and exploited for an incredibly successful war bond tour that leaves them with conflicted feelings about being hailed as heroes while their comrades in arms are either still fighting or dead. After the events of the bond tour, episodic clips from later years illustrate how their combat memories and appearance in the historic photograph affect their later lives.
"Flags of Our Fathers" is an affecting and moving film that attempts to both honor the men who fought at Iwo Jima and present a lightly cautionary tale of the impact that a single image can have on both individuals and nations. For the most part, it is very successful. The soldiers come across as believable identifiable young men rather than seasoned philosophical warriors or Rambo killing machines. This helps the viewer both appreciate their accomplishments and empathize with their losses throughout the intensely realized combat sequences.
Eastwood does a great job not pulling any punches when it comes to the exploitation and pandering in the name of patriotism inherent to the War Bond drive, while also not turning a blind eye to the fact that it was absolutely necessary for the United States and its Allies to sustain and succeed in their military efforts in the Pacific. The film's characterization of Treasury Department official Bud Gerber (Slattery) perfectly embodies the cynicism and pragmatism necessary to get such a job done.
My biggest qualm with the film has to do with its structure. The intercutting between past and present at times seems more disruptive than logical or dramatically necessary. It occasionally dissipates the impact of scenes that connect the past and future. One particularly harrowing sequence involves the fate of Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowski (Bell) a naive young Marine who was "buddied up" with John Bradley on Iwo Jima. The present day (well, near-past, anyway) Bradley calls out to Iggy from his sleep, but the scenes showing the horrifying events that would haunt Bradley over the next several decades play out spread so far apart that they do not really connect with viewers at the right time.
While I have issues with the way the non-linear structure is handled at times, I cannot dispute that it is an effective way to structure the story when used well. The past-present cutting is very effective at conveying the disorientation that Bradley, Hayes, and Gagnon must have felt after being plucked from a combat zone one day and paraded by politicians as celebrity heroes the next. The film also ends on a near perfect note that occurs right in the middle of the depicted events.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006 - Warner Brothers/Dreamworks SKG - 140 minutes)
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shidou Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe
The idea for a film about the Japanese experience at the Battle of Iwo Jima came to Eastwood while he was researching the battle for "Flags of Our Fathers". While "Flags..." was as much or more about the aftermath of Iwo Jima on American soldiers as it was about the actual battle, "Letters from Iwo Jima" focuses squarely on the battle as experienced by the Japanese officers and enlisted men who fought there.
The film, written by Iris Yamashita from a story co-authored by Yamashita and Paul Haggis inspired by historical research and the published letters of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, centers around both historical and fictional officers and enlisted men in the Japanese military at Iwo Jima. As the film begins, Kuribayashi (K. Watanabe) arrives at Iwo Jima to take command of its defenses under the imminent threat of Allied invasion. He gradually discovers that his situation is even more dire than he was led to believe, and that he will not be receiving air or naval support for the island's defenses. His plan to dig out caves and tunnels in the hills is met with disdain by the naval commanders and certain other officers, who feel that he too easily is surrendering the beaches, although other officers, including Lieutenant Fujita (H. Watanabe) and tank unit Lieutenant Colonel Baron Nishi (Ihara) remain supportive. Kuribayashi and Nishi have a unique perspective on the enemy compared to most of their fellow officers since they both spent time in America prior to the war, Kuribayashi as a military attaché, and Nishi as an Olympic equestrian athlete. Parallel and occasionally intersecting with their stories, we follow the path of Saigo (Ninomiya), a baker with a pregnant wife at home who was drafted into the Army late in the war. He is intelligent, but has little talent for soldiering. When a soldier named Shimizu (Kase) is assigned to Saigo's unit, he is initially suspected of being a spy when it is revealed that he trained with the Kempeitai military police unit. As events progress, Saigo and Shimizu, whose unit is part of the forces assigned to meet the first wave of the invasion, achieve a sort of solidarity as they are faced with progressively more desperate and impossible choices.
The film conveys the hopelessness, discipline, devotion, and chaos of the weeks before and during the battle, providing some insight into the mindset that led to the Japanese forces drawing out the first battle of the war on their own soil for 35 days despite being outnumbered by a ratio of five to one. The accepted imperative of so many soldiers to die rather than surrender leads to unthinkable acts ranging from atrocities committed against captured soldiers to mass suicides at the command of officers. By focusing exclusively on the battle from the perspective of the soldiers, only leaving the island for short flashbacks establishing character viewpoints and motivations, the film achieves a figurative claustrophobia as the threat of invasion gradually grows nearer and a literal claustrophobia when the Japanese soldiers take to the hollowed-out caves and tunnels from which they defend the island.
The cast is uniformly strong, with veteran actor Watanabe and pop-star Ninomiya providing performances that anchor the movie with relatable motivations and perspectives. Eastwood and his casting directors did a good job of overcoming the classic war movie dilemma by selecting actors with distinct facial features that make them easy to distinguish from each other when they are all dressed alike in uniform with helmets, hats, and/or identical haircuts. The combat scenes are realized viscerally with both flashes of fire that cut through the otherwise desaturated color palette and an aggressively enveloping sound mix.
Heroes of Iwo Jima (2001 - Warner Brothers - 93 minutes)
Directed By: Lauren Lexton
Narrated by: Gene Hackman
"Heroes of Iwo Jima", a documentary produce by the A&E Network in 2001, looks at the Battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath from the perspective of survivors and historians. Narrated by Gene Hackman, it includes both new and archival interview footage with several combat veterans including some who participated in the two flag raisings on Mount Suribachi. At the time of the documentary's production, Charles Lindberg was the only surviving flag raiser. Other participants include photographer Joe Rosenthal, historians and scholars including "Flags of Our Father" author James Bradley, and surviving family members of several of the flag-raising participants.
For the purpose of assessing films based on real people and events, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert liked to use the benchmark question: Is it more interesting than a documentary on the same subject would be? In that respect, "Heroes of Iwo Jima" gives Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" a high bar to clear. Presented in a very understated manner, "Heroes..." efficiently goes about its business of laying out the strategic importance of the island, the Allied invasion and Japanese defense strategies, the progression of the 35 day conflict, the circumstances surrounding the two flag raisings and how they were documented, the perspective of the participants at the time, and the subsequent impact of the Rosenthal photograph on both the war effort and those depicted in it.
Since part of the documentary's purpose is to observe how a not completely understood image fueled an immense propaganda campaign, the filmmakers are very careful to avoid the trappings of sensationalism and propaganda themselves. The net effect is both moving and humbling, allowing the viewer to get a sense of not only how Iwo Jima was such an important part of the Allied Pacific campaign, but also of why it is such a significant touchstone in the history of the United States Marine Corps.
In addition to the taped interview segments, the film also intercuts maps and graphics as well as vintage photographs and movie footage from the Battle taken by Naval and Marine photographers. At the time, it was the most thoroughly documented military campaign in history, and the footage is impressive.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 video presentation of "Flags of Our Fathers" recreates the film's highly stylized palette faithfully. The only artifact of any kind that I observed was occasional aliasing shimmer, which is mildly distracting when it occurs. On the other hand, detail is about as good as it gets for standard definition video, and filtering to address the aliasing likely would have compromised that aspect of the transfer.
The even more highly desaturated palette of the "Letters from Iwo Jima" theatrical presentation is reproduced faithfully for its 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 DVD. Unfortunately, there is a low intensity ringing along high contrast horizontal edges that mars an otherwise excellent transfer of this highly stylized film.
"Heroes of Iwo Jima" includes footage from vintage sources ranging from actual 16mm footage from the battle to archival interviews conducted in the 80s. The recent interviews and introductory footage with Gene Hackman look like the well-produced standard definition video that they are. Various types of film and video artifacts appear in the archival footage, but the newly produced footage is well mastered and compressed.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track for "Flags of Our Fathers" is a very three-dimensional mix with a wide dynamic range. Surround placement is very precise whether immersing the viewer in coimbat or a cheering crowd and fireworks display at Soldier field. Quieter moments are also handled well with excellent fidelity and subtle ambience.
The "Letters from Iwo Jima" Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is similarly enveloping and dynamic, with the chaotic battles scenes realized particularly effectively. Elements of the mix are very specifically placed throughout a three dimensional soundfield that will leave viewers fighting off the urge to dive for cover under their sofas.
The audio track for "Heroes of Iwo Jima" is a very serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 track that is primarily focused on centered dialog for the narration and interview segments that make up the lion's share of the track.
Flags of Our Fathers
The Two-Disc Special Edition of "Flags of Our Fathers" comes with a number of special features, most of which appear on the second disc.
When the first disc is spun up, the viewer is treated to skippable theatrical trailers for "Letters from Iwo Jima" (4:3 video letterboxed to 2.35:1 with DD 2.0 pro-logic encoded audio). This is followed by a promo for the soundtracks to both films in the "Iwo Jima Diptych" (4:3 video with DD 2.0 audio).
The second disc, a dual-layered DVD-9 includes five featurettes and a theatrical trailer, all are presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound except for the trailer which has Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. All of the featurettes consist of a combination of talking head interviews, film clips, and behind the scenes production footage except for "Looking into the Past" which consists entirely of archival clips.
"An Introduction by Clint Eastwood" runs just over five minutes consisting of general remarks from Eastwood about how he came to be interested in James Bradley's book and ultimately direct the movie adaptation.
"Words on the Page" runs seventeen minutes and focuses on James Bradley's source book. The first ten minutes focuses primarily on Bradley's book and how he came to write it. The balance of the featurette discusses the screenplay adaptation process. Participants include Eastwood, Bradley, screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., and screenwriter Paul Haggis.
"Six Brave Men" runs just under 20 minutes and focuses on the participants in the second flag raising on Mount Suribachi (John Bradley, Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, Mike Strank, Harlan Block, and Franklin Sousley) and the actors who play them and their comrades in the film. Interview participants include Eastwood, Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jamie Bell, John Benjamin Hickey, Jesse Bradford, Barry Pepper, Benjamin Walker, Joseph Cross, and John Slattery.
"The Making of an Epic" runs just over 30 minutes and offers an impressively comprehensive behind the scenes view of just about every technical aspect of the film's production. Interview participants include Eastwood, producer Robert Lawrence, cinematographer Tom Stern, editor Joel Cox, Phillippe, costume designer Deborah Hopper, military technical advisor James D. Dever, production designer Henry Bumstead, art director Jack G. Taylor, actor Paul Walker, Pepper, special effects coordinator Steven Riley, and Property Master Mike Sexton. It ends with a brief memorial to Bumstead and casting director Phyllis Huffman, both of whom passed away shortly after working on the film. This is the only featurette on the disc encoded with chapter stops (five of them).
"Raising the Flag" runs three minutes and 26 seconds and focuses on the process of recreating the famously photographed second flag raising on mount Suribachi. Interview participants include Eastwood, Cross, Pepper, and B. Walker.
"Visual Effects" runs just under 15 minutes and focuses on the digital effects work that went into recreating locations from Iwo Jima to Soldier Field as well as digitally grading the film to achieve the desired look. Interview participants include visual effects supervisor Michael Owens, Digital Domain visual effects producer Julian Levi, and Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Matthew Butler.
"Looking into the Past" runs just under nine and a half minutes and consists entirely of vintage documentary and newsreel footage including lots of full color Iwo Jima combat footage and clips from public appearances of Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes. Even though all of the footage is in a 4:3 aspect ratio, it is presented windowboxed in a 16:9 enhanced frame.
Finally, as mentioned above, the film's theatrical trailer is presented in a 16:9 enhanced format in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
Letters from Iwo Jima
The Two-Disc Special Edition of "Letters from Iwo Jima" comes with a number of special features, most of which reside on the second disc.
When the first disc is spun up, the viewer is treated to skippable theatrical trailers for "Flags of Our Fathers" (16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 with DD 2.0 audio) and "Ocean's 13" (4:3 letterboxed 2.35:1 with DD 2.0 audio). This is followed by a promo for the soundtracks to both films in the "Iwo Jima Diptych" (4:3 video with DD 2.0 audio), and a home video trailer for "American Pastime" (4:3 letterboxed 1.78:1 with DD 2.0 audio).
The second disc, a single layered DVD-5, contains the remainder of the extras. First up is a featurette called "Red Sun, Black Sand: The Making of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'". Presented in 16:9 enhanced video, it runs 21 minutes and includes on camera interviews with Eastwood, Producer Robert Lorenz, writer-producer Paul Haggis, writer Iris Yamashita, production designer James Murakami, Costume Designer Deborah Hopper, Cinematographer Tom Stern, and editor Joel Cox. Topics covered include the genesis and evolution of the project, the writing process, research for the production design, and the approach to costumes. The talking head interview segments are intercut with film clips, behind the scenes footage, and stills including production photographs and costume sketches.
Next up is a featurette called "The Faces of Combat: The Cast of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'". As the title suggests, this eighteen and a half minute featurette focuses on the actors as well as the process of casting them. Interview subjects include casting associates Yumi Takada and Matt Huffman, Ken Watanabe, Kazunori Ninomiya, Ryo Kase, Tsuyoshi Ihara, and Hiroshi Watanabe. There is extensive discussion of the casting process including an explanation of how Matt Huffman served as a liaison between his ailing (since deceased) mother, Phyllis Huffman, who was the New York-based casting director, and Yumi Takada who identified most of the Japanese actor who were auditioned. There is discussion of how native Japanese actors had to research Iwo Jima since it was not taught in their school's history curriculum as well as some notes about their approach to their characters and relations with the rest of the cast.
Also included is a three and a half minute montage of pans and zooms across production stills called "Images from the Front Lines: The Photography of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'". The image is enhanced for 16:9 displays, and the stills are accompanied by music from the film in DD 2.0 stereo.
Next up is a 16 minute feature called "11/15/2006 World Premiere at Budo-kan in Tokyo". This consists of red carpet arrivals of Eastwood, Lorenz, Yamashita, and the principle cast, who then individually address the premiere crowd with prepared statements. It is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 16:9 with DD 2.0 audio.
Additionally, another feature taped on the subsequent day is included called "11/16/2006 Press Conference at Grand Hyatt Tokyo". This is a bit more substantial than the premiere footage as it includes twenty-four and a half minutes of the same participants fielding questions from the assembled Japanese media.
Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 2.35:1 with DD 2.0 audio.
Heroes of Iwo Jima
The only extra included with "Heroes of Iwo Jima" is the Academy Award-nominated vintage 1945 short subject "To the Shores of Iwo Jima". It runs eighteen minutes and 45 seconds, and is in color. Most of the footage appears to be 16mm monopack color footage shot in the combat zone that was bumped up to 35mm Technicolor for this release. This is the source for a lot of the vintage footage shown in the documentary footage from the other discs in this collection. It includes expected wartime narration reflecting the tenor of the times with the narrator referring to "20 years of Jap preparation for murder" when describing the elaborate underground tunnel systems dug out for the island's defense. On the other hand, it is surprisingly frank about the brutality and casualties of the intense fighting on the island.
Note: "Heroes of Iwo Jima" was previously released as a standalone title in 2001. That release included a Battle of Iwo Jima timeline that does not appear to be included here, although it did not include the excellent "To the Shores..." vintage documentary. I do not have a copy of the earlier release to do a fair comparison of any differences in audio or video quality.
All three films come in standard Amaray size cases. "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" are packaged exactly the same as the hard cases from the separately available "2-Disc Special Editions" from Dreamworks and Warner respectively. "Flags.." has hubs on either side of the case interior allowing it to hold two discs. "Letters..." includes a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs and an insert advertising the soundtrack CD release for both of the Eastwood Iwo Jima films. Strangely, the disc menus for "Heroes of Iwo Jima" consist only of images of Ken Watanabe from "Letters from Iwo Jima".
If you are interested in the films on SD DVD and were patient enough to pass on both the movie-only edition of "Flags of Our Fathers" and the 2001 release of the "Heroes of Iwo Jima" documentary, this set is a no-brainer. The two feature films present excellent audio and very good video. "Flags of Our Fathers" has sporadic issues with aliasing flicker, but it is otherwise very detailed and film-like. "Letters from Iwo Jima" has some low intensity but occasionally distracting ringing along horizontal edges. The supplements for the 2-disc special editions of the feature films are outstanding with the "Flags of Our Fathers" featurettes being especially comprehensive and noteworthy. The "Heroes of Iwo Jima" documentary is a very well produced, informative, and understated piece that actually rivals its fictional counterparts for emotional resonance. The documentary is missing an Iwo Jima timeline feature included with its earlier release, but this is more than made up for by the inclusion of the excellent vintage documentary "To the Shores of Iwo Jima".
Note: These titles have been release in a variety of formats, many of which were previously reviewed on the HTF:
"Flags of Our Fathers" was previously released as a movie only edition. I believe that the first disc of the 2-Disc Collectors Edition is identical in mastering to the original release. For another opinion on that presentation, check out Justin Cleveland's review at this link.
I previously reviewed the "Letters from Iwo Jima: 2-Disc Special Edition" as a standalone title. I reproduced my comments with only minor edits for the purpose of this review, but if for some reason you wanted to see them on their own, that review is available at this link.
If you are interested in the Blu-Ray edition of the "Flags of Our Fathers: 2-Disc Special Edition, check out Kevin Koster's review at this link.
If you are interested in the HD-DVD edition of the "Flags of Our Fathers: 2-Disc Special Edition", check out Pat Wahlquist's review at this link.
If you are interested in the HD-DVD of "Letters from Iwo Jima", Pat also covered that one, and his review is available at this link.