Flags of Our Fathers

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, November 20, 2006

 

With planning underway for aerial attacks on Iran's dug-in nuclear facilities, it's worth recalling Iwo Jima, which "underwent the most prolonged and also the most disappointing air bombing and naval bombardment of any Pacific Island," according to Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. The Japanese commander hollowed out the soft lava of that volcanic island, allowing his 22,000 troops to survive seven months of almost daily American air raids. Hoping to show Washington that an invasion of Japan would be too bloody, they killed nearly 7,000 American attackers and wounded 21,000 more in a five week-long battle in which all but 216 defenders died.
 
American commanders in the Pacific normally expended their men's lives economically, preferring to use instead our advantage in maneuver and materiel. When out-thought at Iwo Jima by General Kuribayashi, however, they were rescued by the extraordinary morale of their Marines.
 
Iwo Jima is best remembered for Joe Rosenthal's news photograph of the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi, in which he caught on film a half dozen Marines accidentally forming a tableaux worthy of Michelangelo.
 
The picture has generated both myths and counter-myths. It's natural to assume the flag was put up under heavy enemy fire and marked the final conquest of the island. In reality, it happened during a rare lull in the hostilities, which raged for another month. Yet, contrary to so many confident assertions, it was not "staged." Despite the technicalities of the historical record (this was actually the second flag raising that day, for reasons too tedious to recount here), the photo indeed captured the essential heroism of a battle in which 27 Medals of Honor were earned (compared to only three over the last three decades).
 
Following the 1994 death of the photo's central figure, medic John Bradley, one of his eight children, James Bradley, set out to uncover the life stories of the six flag raisers. The elder Bradley, a respected small-town mortician, had never told his son much about the war besides, "The heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys who didn't come back." The son believes his father's reticence was due to his best friend having been seized by Japanese soldiers and dragged underground, where he was tortured to death.
 
Bradley's book Flags of Our Fathers was a deserved bestseller. Now, director Clint Eastwood has turned it into a solidly made but rather confusing and slightly sour-spirited film, which almost misses the book's point that while raising the flag was unheroic, everything else this random sample of Marines did affirmed Admiral Chester Nimitz's tribute: "On the Iwo island, uncommon valor was a common virtue."
 
Ensemble movies are not well suited for war stories because viewers can't tell apart more than four clean-shaven young men in helmets and uniforms, much less the eight main characters in "Flags of Our Fathers." With Eastwood's last two movies winning four acting Oscars (Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in "Mystic River" and Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman in "Million Dollar Baby"), he could have recruited as many famous faces as Martin Scorsese did for his more lucid hit "The Departed." For some reason (perhaps his notorious stinginess), Eastwood chose obscure names, with Doc Bradley played by Ryan Phillippe, who is best known as Mr. Reese Witherspoon.
 
Exacerbating the muddle is the incessant cross-cutting between three timelines: the son's research in the 1990s, the battle, and the three survivors being dragooned into a subsequent war bond drive back home, which drove Ira Hayes, the America Indian (played in 1961's "The Outsider" by, of all people, Tony Curtis), to drink. The audience gasped in horror when a white bartender announced that he doesn't serve Indians (although Native American statesmen from Tecumseh onward have been demanding just that).
 
The indignities of being mindlessly adulated for a level of courage that is nothing special in your profession seems to interest Eastwood most, but it was more wittily dissected in "The Right Stuff."
 
One advantage of the convoluted editing scheme is that the scenes of combat carnage would be unbearable if Eastwood didn't frequently cut away to, say, a sozzled Hayes brawling with embarrassed cops. Cinematic soldiers, like John Wayne in "Sands of Iwo Jima," used to die unrealistically bloodless deaths, but ever since "Saving Private Ryan," war movies have competed to showcase the most hideous wounds. Mel Gibson's "We Were Soldiers" specialized in blood spurting from arteries, but "Flags of Our Fathers" sets a new record for goriest disembowelments.
 
Rated R for violence and language.

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