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There is indisputably some strong stuff in the film: the death-with-honor serial suicides by hand grenade, the engulfing shower of flame from an opening in the roof of a cave, and the like. But the frenzy of the battlefield is not Eastwood's forte as a director. He often seems, there, to be cribbing from other models, if not turning over the reins to the second unit or the special-effects men: the stitchery of machine-gun fire in the dirt, the mushrooming fireballs, the jostled camera. His forte is, or relies on, stately, graceful, limpid classicism, conveying an Old World chivalry generally lacking in his on-screen persona, always treating his subjects, as well as his audience, with the utmost respect. And although the novelty of a commercial American director making an art-house Japanese film is in a strict sense invisible to the viewer, outside the picture frame, beyond the range of the camera, Eastwood's fingerprints are all over the screen. We all know (don't we?) that film is a visual medium; and the present film, subtitles notwithstanding, is a triumph of style, a triumph of manner, still more a triumph of tradition. It comes across as a bit preachier than Flags, where the filmmaker, with firmer footing on home turf, may have felt freer to let you draw your own lessons, may have felt less necessity to show his personal "understanding." Nonetheless, it offers a useful, a purposeful, a further refinement of his evolving views on violence. And if it runs the risk of collapse under the cumulative weight of his solemnity (four and a half hours total), the risk proves to have been a risk worth taking. A risk rewarded. The sensible preference, finally, is not for one film over the other, but for both.

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