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Flags of Our Fathers (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 20 October 2006
“Flags of Our Fathers” is one of the best American movies ever made about World War II, and ties with “Unforgiven” as the best movie yet directed by Clint Eastwood. Like all great war movies, it’s really an anti-war movie, and like all great war movies, it’s about the men who fought the war personally. If it has a single message, it’s the same one that worn-out but wise veterans have tried to tell us down through the centuries: on the front lines, in the actual battles, warriors don’t fight and die for their countries, they fight and die for the comrades on either side of them on the front lines.

The movie is based on the book of the same title by James Bradley (played in the film by Tom McCarthy) with Ron Powers. Bradley was the son of John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), one of the six men who raised the U.S. flag atop Mt. Suribachi in the battle for Iwo Jima. It was taken by war correspondent Joe Rosenthal (who died this year; too bad he didn’t live to see the movie), and was actually of the second flag raising by U.S. troops on Iwo Jima. The first was considered too small by observing officers, and this larger flag was erected again. More by sheer chance than by photographic artistry, Rosenthal captured a stunning, indelible image that instantly passed into American history. There are statues, paintings, postage stamps, memorials—all based on this photo, and you can’t even see the faces of the men raising it.

It’s said in the film that “the right picture can win or lose a war.” This is that picture for World War II. After Rosenthal sent off his undeveloped film, a sharp-eyed editor realized the stunning power of the image, the depiction of American forces triumphing at last, and it was almost instantaneously famous. Of the six men in the photo, three were killed in the rest of the battle for Iwo Jima; the flag went up on the fifth day, because taking Mt. Suribachi was seen by the Allies and the Japanese as symbolically important, but the battle itself raged on for 35 more days.

The battle to take this small, insignificant, windswept island was of immense symbolic importance; it was the first land taken by American troops that was initially Japanese territory. The other islands in the Pacific campaign were Retaken from the Japanese; this was actually sacred Japanese soil. It was also a major launching base for Japanese fighter planes, which had been taking a heavy toll on American and Allied ships. While 6,821 Americans died in the Battle of Iwo Jima, over 20,000 Japanese defenders died. As director Eastwood did research for the film, he realized that the battle actually pitted young men from 16 to 30 on the American side against young men of the same age range on the other side. He made another movie, largely in Japanese, about the ultimately but hard-fought Japanese defense of the island, “Letters from Viet Nam,” and it will be released early next year.
This is one of the few films I can recall that I realized is exactly what the director intended; it’s designed his way, the editing is clean and precise, the emotions it evokes are those Eastwood was aiming for. It’s as thoroughly successful a movie as I have ever seen. And it has a lot to say. Unusually for an Eastwood movies, one of the producers is even more famous than he is: Steven Spielberg. When Eastwood read the book, he sought the rights but found Spielberg had already bought them. So Eastwood suggested they make the movie together.

The initial writer, hired by Spielberg, was William Broyles Jr.’ Eastwood has Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby”) do a rewrite. The result is a film that intricately mixes three periods of time—the battle itself, what happens to the three survivors when they’re shipped Stateside to do fundraising for war bonds, and young Bradley’s efforts to find out what happened to his father during World War II. The elder Bradley (as an old man, George Grizzard) never talked about his war experiences, both despite and because of his fame as one of the Iwo Jima flag-raisers.

In 1944, Doc Bradley is a Navy corpsman, and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) are Marines. They’re sent ashore in the first wave of American invasion of Iwo Jima, and we follow their experiences up to the almost off-hand recruiting of them and three friends to raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi.

This film isn’t as shockingly violent as Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” but it’s unafraid to show us the intense, bloody nature of war, as friends are shot dead next to their pals, as running soldiers are blown apart by shells (sometimes by “friendly fire”), and how important all their relationships are. Ira Hayes is a Pima Indian; he is always regarded as an outsider, as an Indian—even his friends call him “Chief.” But he grows very close to some of the others, particularly to Sgt. Mike Strank (“Private Ryan” veteran Barry Pepper); Ira regards him as the finest Marine he ever knew.

Rene Gagnon is viewed by the officers above him, including Strank, as an unknown quantity when it comes to combat, so he’s made a runner. He’s very close to Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski (Jamie Bell), the baby of the outfit, fondly regarded by the other men. Doc Bradley, though he isn’t a combat soldier, is always on the front lines, always as much in danger as those who are doing the actual fighting.

After the photo becomes unexpectedly famous, the three are returned to the United States to be the main feature in a vast war bond drive. The American public, and especially American business, has become weary of the war; donations are way, way down—and they’re really the only way the government has to finance the war by this point. The three “heroes of Iwo Jima” are whisked around the country, and have varying reactions.

Gagnon is dazzled by it all, by meeting titans of industry, the President and other celebrities; he’s sure he can use his fame to his advantage after the war. Doc is disturbed by this, by being presented again and again with images of Mt. Suribachi, sometimes made out of papier mache, once disturbingly out of ice cream (with a choice of chocolate or strawberry syrup). More than the other two, Hayes is profoundly uncomfortable with the awareness that the real heroes of Iwo Jima died there, that he survived by sheer circumstance, not because of his own bravery. And soon enough, nasty racial prejudice begins focusing on him, hero or not. To his great relief, Hayes is finally sent back to the front lines. (In 1960, ex-Marine and Iwo Jima veteran Lee Marvin played Hayes in a TV production, “The American,” in one of his best performances, Tony Curtis played Hayes in the 1961 movie, “The Outsider.” Hayes, Gugnon and Bradley played themselves in the gung-ho John Wayne movie “The Sands of Iwo Jima” in 1949.) The movie doesn’t spare us the later lives of Gugnon, Hayes and Bradley, but that’s not what it’s about, either. The actual ending of the film, still on Iwo Jima, is deeply moving but unsensational.

Eastwood composed the understated, eloquent score for the movie, and his style of filming avoids sensationalism, though not the devastation of war violence. The movie has an immense scale, with wide-screen shots of the huge American fleet surrounding Iwo Jima, and occasional aerial shots of the island under siege. While the film is in color, the Iwo Jima scenes are in such desaturated color as to be the next thing to black and white. Many of the war scenes were shot, somewhat surprisingly, in Iceland, as the real Iwo Jima no longer has the bleak, scraped look it had in the 1940s.

If the movie has “stars,” they’re Phillippe, who’s always good, the youthful-looking Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach. He really is an Indian, and his performance as Ira Hayes is expressive and powerful; he deserves and probably will get an Oscar nomination for the role. Others making strong impressions include Barry Pepper, Robert Patrick and Neal McDonough (from “A Band of Brothers”). But the very nature of combat is an obstacle in keeping track of the characters—they’re all young men in helmets and short haircuts; it’s simply and honestly difficult to keep them straight much of the time.

But in a sense, that’s also part of the story—especially of the three surviving flag-raisers. They said they weren’t the heroes (though they WERE heroes), that all the other soldiers on Iwo Jima and everywhere else were the heroes. They’re upset by the demands the bond drive makes on them, and angered by the strange reactions they get from so many of the people they meet (but they do meet some of the mothers of the other guys). Rosenthal’s photo did help win the war, and won the Pulitzer Prize, but it came at a great cost. The fundraising was necessary; it’s just a shame that it partly had to be accomplished on the backs of these confused young men.

Eastwood never questions whether the war was necessary, or even if the invasion of Iwo Jima could have been side-stepped. And it doesn’t criticize the officers who send these young men into battle. But at heart, it questions why civilized countries in the 20th Century—and now the 21st—could see no better way to solve international conflicts than by sending young people to fight and die for causes they have little connection with.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is, for war movies, surprisingly understated (though realistically violent at times), but like all the great war movies, it does question why the best must die.

Note: One of the people the film is dedicated to is identified only as “Bummy.” This is Henry Bumstead, art director/production designer; his career goes way back and includes “Vertigo” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He worked for Eastwood from at least as early as “Unforgiven,” and often said that he’d retire—except that he enjoyed working for Clint so much. This and “Letters from Iwo Jima” represent his last film work; Bumstead, a wonderful guy, died in May of this year.

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