By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 9, 2006
In “Flags of Our Fathers,” director Clint Eastwood uses the story of the World War II battle of Iwo Jima to create a sober meditation on the nature of—and the need for—heroism. At the end of the film, a voiceover explains that the soldiers’ bravery was actually prompted more from a need to help and protect each other than from patriotism alone. What was deemed heroism was, in this circumstance, an illusion created so that the people back home could believe in the war effort.
The film tells the story of the iconic picture of servicemen raising the American flag over the island of Iwo Jima and the battle that prompted it. “Flags of Our Fathers” is based on a book by James Bradley, with Ron Powers. Bradley is the son of one of the men in the photo.
Showing five Marines and one Navy corpsman struggling to raise a billowing American flag over a battle-scarred landscape, the photograph became a symbol of the heroism and bravery shown by the American troops. The battle of Iwo Jima was a vital strategic victory in the Pacific theater. Because of the photo, Iwo Jima also became a vital turning point on the home front. The photo appeared at a time when support for the war effort in the United States was at a serious low. The image raised morale at home, and the men in it were considered heroes. From the very beginning, controversy surrounded the incident. The famous photo, which ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize for Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, actually commemorates a second flag raising, not the original, and one of the men in the photo was originally misidentified.
Of the six men pictured, three died on the island. The survivors, Marines Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes and Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley, were brought back to the United States when the photo began to cause a sensation and were used in a huge publicity tour designed to raise money for the flagging War Bond drive.
The film flows back and forth in time, from the Marines’ training, to the battle, to the survivors’ reception back in the states, to the author Bradley’s investigation into his father’s war experiences. Although this technique allows the story to unfold slowly and provides a dramatic arc that slowly reveals what actually happened on the island, it is at times confusing.
Wearing helmets and carrying their gear, the men are often indistinguishable. It is even difficult to identify which soldiers are Japanese through the dirt and confusion of battle. This may have been intentional, to reinforce the idea that the men are all connected. Each of the men is a hero at the same time that none of them is. Interestingly, many of the minor characters become unique only at the moment that we see them killed.
Shot in sepia tones, the battle scenes show the chaotic and gruesome nature of the fighting. Shells explode, bullets fly, and men are blown apart across the screen. The violent, frenzied scenes of battle juxtaposed with the depictions of the troops before the battle, when they are nervous and do not know what to expect, create a real empathy for these young men. Barry Pepper as Mike Strank and Jamie Bell as Ralph Ignatowski are standouts in the platoon.
One memorable scene shows the troops on deck as the fleet of troop ships heads toward Iwo Jima. The soldiers are exuberant as they cheer for a plane flying overhead. One falls overboard, and the other soldiers’ laughter turns to uneasiness and calm acceptance as they realize that the ship will not or cannot stop to pick up the struggling man. The men understand they are on their own, and they can only rely on each other heading into this dangerous situation. That recognition is both sobering and poignant.
Eastwood goes on to illustrate the effects of war on the men who survived it as he follows the three men who return to a hero’s welcome at home. Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is the Marine who saw the least action but begins to believe his own publicity once he returns to the states. Hayes (Adam Beach) faced bigotry in the Marines as a Native American and succumbs to alcoholism and guilt after his return to civilian life. Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) looks after the troops both during the battle and once they return home. He is more mature than the other two, and he manages to keep his elevation to “hero” status in perspective.
Each of the roles is well acted, but the subdued tone of the film and the stereotypical nature of the characters make it hard to form a connection to any of them. More sympathetic are the depictions of the Gold Star mothers of the men who did not return. In both cases, though, Eastwood does well to rely on dignified emotion rather than on overt sentimentality to make his point about how these experiences changed the lives of these people forever.
Eastwood’s political commentary is less about the nature of war than about the mechanics of war. The soldiers are thrown into a political circus as salesmen of patriotism. They must raise money to fund the war, and from a re-enactment on top of a paper-mâché “mountain” to a banquet dessert designed to depict the crucial moment, the details show how the publicity tour cheapened the real acts of bravery that took place on the island. Yet, Eastwood also makes it clear that this publicity was necessary to give the troops the supplies they ultimately needed to win the war.
At times confusing, at times horrifying, at times touching, “Flags of Our Fathers” is consistently thought-provoking as it examines how people create, view and sometimes destroy their heroes.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.