History, myth and the shifting sands of Iwo Jima

The bloody battle between America and Japan brings out nationalism on both sides. Now Clint Eastwood is trying to give a balanced account. By David McNeill
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Earlier this year as Japan was gearing up for a summer of painful Second World War anniversaries Yoshitaka Shindo received a phone call. Clint Eastwood was planning to visit Tokyo and would very much like to meet the Japanese Diet member to discuss a project he was working on. Was he available? "Of course I said yes," says Councillor Shindo.

The project was a movie about Iwo Jima, a speck of volcanic rock in the Pacific Ocean about 700 miles south of Tokyo and the site of one of the war's most brutal battles. Shaped like a teardrop, the eight-square-mile island was blasted almost flat, becoming what one veteran called a "sulphurous, crater-filled hellhole" in six weeks of intense fighting in February and March 1945.

When the fighting stopped, 7,000 Allied soldiers were dead and just 200 of the 21,800 Japanese troops defending the island had been taken alive. The black sands of Iwo Jima passed into military legend, immortalised in a famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal showing a group of battered, exhausted Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi on 23 February 1945. The battle remains, even after 60 years of blood-soaked history in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, the US marines' deadliest: nearly one-third of all marines killed in the Second World War died on the island.

Like many Japanese, Shindo wondered what the two-time Oscar-winning director would make of this story. The gung-ho star of prime slabs of Americana such as Heartbreak Ridge and Dirty Harry, Eastwood is well-known for his right-wing political persuasions; a long-standing Republican, he supported presidents Nixon and Reagan. Wouldn't Eastwood's effort - tentatively titled Lamps Before the Wind - be a replay of the infamous Sands of Iwo Jima, starring another Hollywood tough guy, John Wayne?

Sands, made four years after the soldiers returned home, was as shrill and jingoistic as a piece of Stalinist propaganda, and became a recruiting poster for a generation of marines, inspiring, among others, Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran whose story was dramatised in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July. With its big-hearted US grunts pitted against fanatical, Banzai-screaming "Nips" and "Japs", the movie has few fans in Japan, where many old soldiers know that John Wayne never served a day in the armed forces.

When he met Eastwood, however, Shindo was pleasantly surprised. "He told me he didn't want to make a movie simply about war, but about families and the human heart," says the lawmaker, who believes Western movies about wartime Japan focus too much on what the Japanese call gyokusai, meaning "to die an honourable death". "He wants to tell the story from both sides," says Shindo, who has a personal stake in the project: his grandfather, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was handpicked by Emperor Hirohito to lead the defence of Iwo Jima.

Eastwood's Tokyo trip, during which he flew to Iwo Jima and met survivors, and spoke to politicians including Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, confirms reports that the ageing, increasingly introspective star had something of an epiphany while working on a long-cherished project to turn the bestselling book Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley and Ron Powers into a movie.

The film - Eastwood's 26th as director - which finishes shooting this month, tells the story of the young marines in the iconic Rosenthal photo. Three never got off the island alive, while the rest became reluctant heroes, ferried from city to city to whip up morale and flog war bonds before disappearing into post-war obscurity. Eastwood no doubt hopes that the tragic tale of the rise and fall of ordinary American heroes, used then discarded by forces beyond their control, will resonate with contemporary US audiences weary of war in Iraq. But somewhere during filming he realised he was only telling half the story and decided, remarkably, to make a second film. "Sometimes you have a premonition ... and just have to trust your gut," he told Time magazine.

Those associated with the project say he developed an "almost obsessive" interest in the battle, and particularly in General Kuribayashi, a fanatically disciplined and loyal imperial warrior who was told to defend the island at all costs and give the mainland time to prepare for the US invasion. It was a mission all knew was doomed, and soon after Iwo Jima fell the US began carpet-bombing Japanese cities.

"We brought supplies to the island before the fighting began and we gave the soldiers left behind all we had, including personal possessions," says Koji Kitahara, who was a 23-year-old Japanese Navy recruit at the time. "We knew they weren't coming back." Kuribayashi drove his men relentlessly, digging more than 11 miles of tunnels in scorching heat and orchestrating a murderous defensive campaign before apparently committing ritual suicide. His body has never been found.

The self-willed Japanese general, imbued with the spirit of the quasi-religious Bushido cult, is a standard feature of countless Japanese war movies, as much a cliché as the bug-eyed scarf-wearing Arabs that populate US movies about the Middle East, but Shindo says he hopes the movie will show another, less well-known side of his grandfather.

"I'd like people to see that he was full of love for his family. Japanese soldiers like him were not fighting just to die honourably," he says.

"The reason they fought to the last man was to delay the air raids on their families and the Japanese people. It doesn't matter if the soldiers were from America or Japan, they fought to protect their families."

Eastwood is clearly aiming for authenticity. He has hired Japanese-American writer Iris Yamashita to write the script and reportedly intends to hire some of the cream of Japanese acting. Like all American filmmakers today, he has a monetary interest in getting Japan right: the country is the world's second-biggest market for Hollywood movies, one reason why the barbaric, buck-toothed stereotype of yore has disappeared from movies like Pearl Harbor, which showed clean-cut Japanese pilots warning American children to flee the bombing.

But the star got a taste of potential problems with the project when he met Governor Ishihara, under whose jurisdiction the island falls. In between jokes about the perils of being mayor (Eastwood was once mayor of Carmel in California) Ishihara says that Iwo Jima is a "sacred place" for the Japanese and wants "national sentiments to be respected". Ishihara's famously anti-American politics were formed during the war when he remembers being strafed "for fun" by US planes "with pictures of naked women and Mickey Mouse painted on the fuselage".

"I couldn't believe my eyes! I was scared to death and angry but I was also thinking what a place America must be, what a culture, and how different from Japan. Then I heard other planes but no machine guns this time; they were Zeros in pursuit, and their insignia was the Japanese flag. I felt like reaching up to embrace that rising sun."

Sentiments like that are rare in Japan, but many Japanese are ambiguous about their post-war relationship with the US, which bombed most of the country's major cities to rubble before incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Memorials to Iwo Jima are dotted all over the country, including one on Mount Takao in western Tokyo, officially inaugurated by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he was health minister. Under Ishihara and Koizumi, Japan has grown less inhibited about its wartime past and increasingly willing to commemorate its millions of dead soldiers.

After six decades of negative portrayals of the Imperial Army, nationalists like Ishihara and Shindo want Eastwood to show that Japanese troops were no better or worse than their US counterparts. "The idea that the Japanese side was undisciplined and barbaric and the US civilised is a typical misunderstanding," says Shindo. But even those who do accept that the Imperial Army committed brutal crimes during its brief reign in Asia wonder whether the movie will show how the battle looked from the Japanese side.

"We were disciplined and the US side was careless" says Satoru Omagari, a former pilot, 88, one of a handful of men to escape the island alive. He says the battle for Iwo Jima was very different from how it has been portrayed. He calls it "the most terrifying experience of my life".

"We were said to have been the ones fighting dirty, but the Americans surrounded us and for two or three days carpeted the island with shells, and we did not retaliate. When they landed they expected it to be easy but we hid and waited before attacking, which is why so many of them died. It was the only place in the Second World War where the Americans suffered so many casualties, and I think that is why we have earned this reputation of being so barbaric."

US veterans confirm that the Japanese surprised them. "They damned near cleaned our clock," says John Rich, one of the first marines on the island. "They were a formidable enemy. I threw myself into a bomb crater and there were two marines there and I realised I was the only one alive. It was an incredibly bitter battle, so I'd like Eastwood to do something that would bring us together."

Some Japanese veterans also question the authenticity of the Rosenthal photo, which is long rumoured to have been staged. By the time Rosenthal got to Suribachi, four days after D-Day, the photographer was told the flag had already been planted on the summit. The marines and Rosenthal, for reasons forever clouded in mystery, decided to restage the event using a larger flag. Rosenthal clicked the most famous image of the war, but the kinetic spontaneity that made the shot such a potent and mythological propaganda weapon has always been in doubt.

"The marines certainly raised the flag, but I don't think the act was as brave as has been portrayed," says Omagari. "Any army will plant their flag, and Suribachi was about the only place they could have done it."

Eastwood seems to have sensed the passions the battle for Iwo Jima arouses: in Tokyo he promised to respect Ishihara's wishes and avoid hurting Japanese feelings, saying he saw the battle as a "cultural, not a military conflict". But he will also be under pressure to make a movie that makes his American audience feel proud of its past.

"Over and above what side won or lost, I think the real meaning of Iwo Jima for the US was that it showed that even the winners could suffer huge losses," says Shindo. "You could see the result of this during the 40th anniversary of Iwo Jima, when America first suggested a joint memorial service that honoured both the victims and survivors. Something was learnt there on both sides."

Nippon Kaigi, a nationalist lobby group that campaigns for education on Japan's war issues, said American movies until now had been deeply unfair in their portrayal of Japan: "Pearl Harbor, for example, didn't show any of the negotiations leading up to the attack and pretended the attack happened without warning. We hope Mr Eastwood will do something different."