Anne Gjelsvik, Rikke Schubart, eds. Eastwood's Iwo Jima: Critical Engagements with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 256 pp. $27.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-231-85043-8; $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-16564-8; $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-16565-5.
Reviewed by Jason McHale
Published on H-War (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Eastwood's Iwo Jima: Critical Engagement with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima is a collection of fourteen papers presented at a one-day seminar, held in Denmark in May 2008, entitled “Visions of War in a New World Order & Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006).” What compelled the participants of this seminar to collect these papers into an anthology was their view of the uniqueness of Eastwood’s approach and presentation in his two films. Eastwood was the first director to make two films at the same time about the same event in two different languages. Letters from Iwo Jima marked the first time an American director made an American film entirely in Japanese. The editors of the anthology, Rikke Schubart and Anne Gjelsvik, note that the “director touched us so deeply with his compassionate portrayal of soldiers, be they American or Japanese ... we were simply compelled to respond” (p. 1).
Unfortunately, in their desire to respond the editors and contributors produced an uneven, and perhaps unnecessary, volume. What the authors and editors seek to accomplish is not always clear and not well thought out. Schubart and Gjelsvik state in their introduction that two questions guided the creation of the anthology: “Why two films?” and “To what use can we put Eastwood’s diptych in thinking about war today?” (p. 2). Answering why Eastwood produced two films becomes clear quickly. The films were needed for the sake of the narrative that Eastwood sought to show. The second question, however, is never truly answered by any of the contributors. This is a common issue with the volume. Questions are posed but often left unanswered.
There is much to be said about the problems with this volume; however, instead of focusing on the book’s drawbacks, this review will examine the few pieces that historians may find interesting and useful. The anthology is divided into four parts: “History,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” and “War Today.” “History” is dedicated to providing a historical context but falls short. There is no mention of the events that led to the Battle of Iwo Jima or anything on the history of the Pacific War. Instead, three rather different essays are presented that leave the reader wondering about the context. The next two sections “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” have selections focused on the respective films, while “War Today” offers a political science perspective.
The second chapter of the “History” section, “The Forgotten Cinematographer of Mount Suribachi: Bill Genaust’s Eight-Second Iwo Jima Footage and the Historical Facsimile,” looks at cinematographer Bill Genaust and his eight-second film of the second flag raising captured in Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photo. Instead of looking at the clip in the context of Eastwood’s movies, Bjørn Sørenssen uses it to explore how the history of the Pacific War has been told at different times as part of three popular documentary series on television (Victory at Sea, The World at War, and The War). Sørenssen then examines how Genaust’s film of the flag raising was treated in two films, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). While the examination of how the portrayal of the Pacific War in documentary films changed over time is interesting and worthy of further inquiry, the final part of the chapter, examining the differences in historical accuracy of the two movie’s (Sands of Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers) reenactment of the flag raising, detracts from those thoughts.
The final chapter of the first part, “Flags of their Stepfathers?: Race and Culture in the Context of Military Service and the Fight for Citizenship” by Martin Edwin Andersen, looks at Native American and African American contributions to American military service since the founding of the United States. Using marine and flag-raiser Ira Hayes as a starting point, Andersen explores what military service meant to each group and how the Second World War served as a flashpoint for their greater integration into American society. In both cases, Andersen starts with the first conflicts in American history and examines how each group dealt with obstacles in the way of serving the nation and how the Second World War experience aided a larger integration of American society.
The second part “Flags of Our Fathers” opens with Robert Eberwein’s “Following the Flag in American Film.” Eberwein traces the use of the American flag in film from 1899’s Raising Old Glory over Morro Castle to 2006’s Flags of Our Fathers. Of the fourteen contributions in the volume, this essay is the most interesting and well presented. Tracing the use of the American flag in film, Eberwein looks at the complex symbolism of the flag presented at different times. Despite its interesting foundation, however, the reader may be left wondering why this piece was included in the volume as discussion of Eastwood’s two films occupies only two pages of the fifteen-page chapter.
The other essays collected have little value to historians. No new arguments or insights are presented that could be useful for spurring further academic investigations of the topics presented. The contributions highlighted in this review are the ones that some historians may find useful and interesting, but overall the collection is unclear about its purpose. The essays do not relate or complement one another and often seem out of place as a result. Overall, this volume is perhaps better suited for those in film and media studies.
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Jason McHale. Review of Gjelsvik, Anne; Schubart, Rikke, eds., Eastwood's Iwo Jima: Critical Engagements with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima.
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