FILM REVIEW – FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
One of the most iconic photographs ever taken is the Joe Rosenthal image of five marines and one sailor raising Old Glory on Mount Sunbachi at Iwo Jima during the closing months of World War Two.
Clint Eastwood’s amazing film shows the truth behind what was essentially a very misleading propaganda stunt, which largely ruined the lives of several of the men involved in the creation of the image.
Iwo Jima was one of the most brutal battles of the war. It was the first to take Americans onto a Japanese Island. Recognising the importance of keeping the invaders off home soil, the Japanese embedded themselves in thousands of fox holes and machine gun nests and fought for every square inch of the island. The losses to both sides were astronomical.
The landing by sea went smoothly, after one sailor fell overboard and drowned on the voyage because the Americans were not prepared to break up their convoy to send a ship back to fish him out. The first men to land believed that the Japanese had been wipeout by the endless naval barrages that had largely stripped the island of its vegetation. The Japanese were actually waiting for a good moment to open fire, and as we see their trapdoors opening with men in their gun sites, we know how horrible what follows is going to become.
Five days into a two-month siege, the Americans captured the Island’s Mount Sunbachi. The flag was raised and it gave the soldiers and navy watching from offshore immense hope. Many men cheered and cried and the ships blazed their horns in a spontaneous blaze of elation by thousands of men,
Unfortunately, no one captured the moment on camera. Navy Secretary James Forrestal decided that the story would be good to tell to the folks back home, and also ordered the flag to be taken down and shipped home as a souvenir. Protests by the men made him decide to put up a second flag, and it is this incident that is captured in the famous image. Not all of the men in the second take were the same as the ones who put up the first flag, and some names became confused in the reports sent home.
When the picture hit the US media, it caused a sensation. The Government ordered the heroes home to promote their achievement as a means of getting people to buy more war bonds. Unfortunately, three of the men had already been killed in the ongoing fighting by the time the call to come home reached them. The remaining men were shocked and disturbed to find themselves regaled as heroes when their colleagues were dying in their score on the Japanese islands. The reluctant heroes found themselves restaging there flag rising moment in baseball stadiums on paper mache models of Sunbachi. One of the men, Ira Hayes, faced considerable racism for being a Native Indian, and he sank into alcoholism that eventually killed him in Civilian life. Rene Gagnon found that he couldn’t get or hold down work despite his war record, and became deeply embittered. John ‘Doc’ Bradley fared better, becoming a successful undertaker and raising a family, but he was haunted by terrible memories of a war he refused to talk about. His son, trying to find out his father’s deepest secrets after his dad’s death, tells much of the film in flashback. .
It’s a powerful anti-war film about the real nature of heroism. The men all share one thing in common, a desire to survive and to protect each other. Each time one of their colleagues doesn’t make it, they are deeply distressed, but fight on for no other purpose than to get through. Patriotism, idealism, and the cause are all reduced to the meaningless. The flag-bearers find themselves turned into something they never were with incredible insensitivity. In one horrible scene, the men in the US on the media circus propaganda tour are treated to individual meringue pies carved into the shape of a sculpture of the flag picture, and watch in disgust as maple syrup is poured over them to soak down like blood over their shapes.
Eastwood has directed some terrific films, Unforgiven among them, and there is a companion film to Flags called Letters From Iwo Jima, also directed by Eastwood, dealing with events on the island from the Japanese point of view. Flags alone is possibly one of the greatest war films since all Quiet On The Western Front.