Monday, April 4, 2011


Letters from Iwo Jima (2) vs. We Were Soldiers (7)

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: “Letters” develops four main characters – Gen. Kurabayashi, Col. Nishi, Private Saigo, and Private Shimuzu. There are brief flashback scenes that explain motivation. Too brief. Even the letters that the movie is about are brief and do not tell us much about the men. “Soldiers” tries to juggle several characters, including their wives. The build-up to the Battle of Ia Drang allows the viewer to get to know Col. Moore, Sgt. Plumley, Lt. Geoghegan, and Maj. Crandall. We certainly learn more about Moore than Kuribayashi.

Score at the end of the first period: Soldiers – 8 Letters – 7

DIALOGUE: “Flags” has more dialogue than you would think. It is true to the Japanese personality and the soldier talk is realistic. We find that the Japanese soldiers were in some ways similar to our soldiers through their conversations. “Soldiers” is more conventional in its dialogue. It tries hard to be even-handed in its treatment of the NVA. In fact, the NVA commander talks a lot like Kurabayashi. The Americans, especially Moore, speak like American soldiers talk in war movies. Some of the dialogue is corny.

Halftime score: Soldiers – 15 Letters – 15

PLAUSIBILITY: Both movies are based on actual battles featuring real persons. “Letters” loses some credibility by downplaying the hardships the soldiers encountered. One soldier dies of dysentery, but it is quick and off camera. Life in the tunnels is not pleasant, but not horrifyingly disgusting as it should have been. The survival of the most likeable character is extremely unlikely considering only 296 of over 20,000 survived. His crossing paths with Kuribayashi several times is also hard to believe. “Soldiers” is excellent in its depiction of the Battle of Ia Drang, but some of the smaller details stretch credulity. At one point during training in America, they pick up a fire-fight in Vietnam on their unit radio. The final showdown is pure Hollywood.

Score after three periods: Soldiers – 23 Letters – 22

PLOT: “Letters” tells the story of several participants in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The story is linear with some brief flashbacks to their lives before arriving on the island. Although the plot is interesting in showing us the other side of the conflict, it does underdevelop several themes. It introduces the theme of dissension in the high command, but drops it. It does not fully compare the fanatical soldiers to the ones who are just wanting to survive. It neglects the families on the other ends of the letters. “Soldiers” basically uses the book as its screenplay, but with a religious subplot and the wives added in. The wives dealing with the deaths of their husbands adds depth to the picture. The battle follows the book closely, except for the ridiculous ending. By giving fair treatment to the enemy and to the Americans, it is different than most one-sided war movies.

FINAL SCORE: Soldiers – 31 Letters - 29

QUARTERFINALS: Master and Commander (6) vs. 300 (9)

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: “Master” fully develops the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. They are friends, but have honest disagreements based on different philosophies. We learn that Aubrey is a firm, but understanding captain. He usually puts the good of the navy ahead of everything, although he makes an exception to save his friends life. Maturin is a secular humanist who is on the ship as a doctor, not a warrior. He clashes with his friend on the nature of discipline and the corruption of power. The rest of the cast come off as distinct characters. “300” does a good job developing the relationship of Leonidas and his wife, but Queen Gorgo is like a male version of her husband. There is little nuance. The rest of the 300 are all buff warriors, but interchangeable.

Score after the first period: Master - 9      300 – 7

DIALOGUE: “Master” is based on a book by a master story-teller. The dialogue is very true to the characters in the books by Patrick O’Brien. Nautical terms are thrown in, but not in a way that would perplex the audience. The conversations between Aubrey and Maturin are interesting. They make you wonder who is right. “300” is based on a graphic novel. The dialogue is appropriate for that genre which means it is a bit pompous. Try reading the script out loud and you will see what I mean. Unless the words are coming from a hunky Spartan warrior, they might seem silly.

Half-time score: Master – 18     300 – 14

PLAUSIBILITY: “Master” is not based on a true story and it does throw in some incidents that might have happened on several different ships, but each of the main plot developments are plausible. I have read a lot on Napoleonic naval warfare and there was nothing in the movie that made me cringe. “300” is at a disadvantage in this respect because it is supposed to be part fantasy. However, in the area of human behavior, it does not ring true in some key areas. The betrayal of Sparta by the ephors and Theron for Persian bribes makes no sense in a society that was indifferent to wealth. The Queen being raped by Theron and then killing him at an Assembly meeting is a huge stretch of credulity. The attitude of the 300 warriors is plausible, however.

Score at the end of three: Master – 26     300 – 21

PLOT: Both movies are based on well-written source novels. You could argue that the screenplays for both improved on the originals. Master and Commander actually culls plot developments from more than one O’Brien book. Check out the long, official title of the movie. It comes off as a “best of” compilation of scenes. 300 (the movie) fleshes out some characters, most notably the Queen. This converts the very macho novel into a more balanced action/romance/political intrigue plot. The plot of Master is reflective of a ship voyage with its variety of incidents. The plot of 300 is less complex as it drives toward the climax of the battle with side trips to see what is going on back in Sparta with the Queen versus Theron.

FINAL SCORE: Master – 35     300 - 28


  1. Just as an FYI, the part in "We Were Soldiers" about them picking up a firefight in Vietnam on the radio while in the field is true. It's in the book. Also, the dialog may sound corny in places, but most of that was true also-again, it's in the book. (ie Tell my wife I love her was really said by Sgt Gell right before he died.)

  2. Thank you. That was a good catch about the firefight. I have read the book, but it was when it first was published. It seemed so much like Hollywood B.S., but you are right that it was in the book. As far as the dialogue, I will just accept the fact that soldiers, in the very early days of Vietnam, talked like that. It seems corny today, but I guess it is realistic. Thanks for your comments, I am a fan of the movie (except the ending) and you have boosted my estimation of it. Keep in mind I have it upseting a critics' darling.

  3. I just realized that I have the wrong title. It is obviously a match between "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "We Were Soldiers".

  4. I agree that the ending was pure Hollywood, but am glad that it upset the favorite. That book and LTG Moore are near and dear to my heart. The movie is (according to the authors) about 75% accurate, which I think is pretty good for Hollywood. During the filming, Randy Wallace kept telling the General-it's a movie, not a documentary!

  5. Thanks for the backing. I have a feeling the result will surprise some. I know it surprised me. I was underwhelmed by "Letters" and now wonder if the critical raves were simply politically correct.

    As far as the accuracy, I am comfortable with the way the book (one of my favorites) was brought to the screen. 75% is still 50% better than Wallace's hysterical epic Braveheart. I wish to God William Wallace would have been on that set with his claymore. I assume he would have been more forceful than Moore and have had more reason to be upset.

    I wish you would not remain anonymous.

  6. I can relate better to these categories.
    I agree with your last comment, I was totally underwhelmed by Letters... On the other hand when you pair it with Flags of our Fathers...

  7. The pairing is one of the great achievements in war movie history. Eastwood deserves tremendous credit for taking on that task. Also, kudos to the studio for green lighting Letters - they had to know it would not do well financially. A Director's Cut blending the two movies into one study of Iwo Jima would be interesting.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.