Flags of Our Fathers
by Bill Gallagher
It is telling that the two best and essential speeches in “Flags of Our Fathers” are
delivered in hotel suites rather than on the battlefield.
One is given by Bud Gerber (John Slattery), the civilian handler of the three survivors of
the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi at the Battle of Iwo Jima, as they
make a round of personal appearances at venues packed with Americans wanting to
believe we can win World War II.
These three, two Marines and a Navy Corpsman, are resistant, reluctant heroes who feel
they’ve abandoned their buddies back on Iwo Jima. They’re told in no uncertain terms to
get over it because the millions of dollars that they’re being used to raise will mean the
difference between victory and defeat. “If you want to go back, fine, but you better bring
lots of rocks with you because that’s how you’re going to have to fight the Japanese, by
throwing rocks at them.”
The other crucial speech is a tearful plea from Marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) as he
prepares to leave the fundraising tour, unable to cope with the demands of unwanted
celebrity without drinking as much as he can whenever he can. He is haunted and
distraught. Unable to shake the nightmare memories of combat on Iwo Jima, he can’t
staunch the emotional bleeding for his buddies who are still there. Beach gives an Oscar-
worthy performance conveying his feelings to a sympathetic officer.
How could a war movie based on the most arresting image of modern American warfare
— the photograph of the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi — not feature stirring
exhortations from grunts to their brothers-in-arms or blood-and-guts tirades from
commanding officers to their troops? Well, “Flags of Our Fathers” is not that kind of war
movie. There was no rallying cry that carried the six flag-raisers to the top of that 546-
foot mountain so they could plant the Stars and Stripes. They basically hiked to the
summit of Suribachi to run a telephone wire to the top. The flag wasn’t even the first flag
that went up there. That first one was much smaller and deemed inadequate as a focal
point for the massive fleet gathered just off Iwo Jima.
As for that famous photograph, well the first flag-raising was shot by a military
photographer and wasn’t nearly as visually dramatic as the shot taken of the second flag-
raising by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press. For years there’s been a controversy
over whether the flag-raising was staged for him. Finally, the issue is settled by “Flags of
Here’s how John Bradley, author of “Flags of Our Fathers” and son of the Navy
Corpsman flag-raiser John “Doc” Bradley, sums up his thoughts on that photo and the
subsequent stateside mission for his dad, Hayes and Marine Rene Gagnon to get people
to buy war bonds: “Heroes? They had just returned from the protracted horror of one of the deadliest and most intense battles in history, where heroes around them had acted
with unimaginable bravery, suffered and died almost by the minute. And here was an
American populace driving itself into a frenzy over...what? Over an accidental
photograph of a forgotten moment.”
Director Clint Eastwood’s great accomplishment in telling this story is the way he
conveys without cynicism or malice the horror of fighting on Iwo Jima in contrast to the
hucksterism of turning the flag-raising into a massive marketing campaign. The troops
had to take Iwo Jima. The military and the government had to sell war bonds. Mission
accomplished and mission accomplished.
“Flags of Our Fathers” should cement Eastwood’s status as one of the great living
American directors. Some might have a hard time following the story since he’s
abandoned the idea of a conventional narrative. But this story is better told by
manipulating the sequence of scenes, taking us from Iwo Jima to wartime America to
contemporary America as Bradley listens to the stories of the men who served with his
dad. It works even when it’s really obvious what he’s up to. For instance, a papier-mâché
Mt. Suribachi is built at Soldier Field in Chicago so Hayes, Bradley and Gagnon can
scale it and plant a flag at the faux summit. Hayes is stumbling drunk and has to
practically be carried to the top. As the three climb the stadium Suribachi, vivid and
violent flashbacks accompany their every step. The re-creation turns out to be more of an
ordeal than the actual ascent.
Then there are the scenes that capture the crucial taking of Iwo Jima. As a massive fleet
carrying 70,000 troops speeds toward the island, one sailor caught up in the excitement
falls overboard. The others laugh at his misfortune. But the mirth subsides as they realize
no one’s going back to pick him up. He was expendable. At a briefing on the imminent
invasion one officer is asked why, on the maps of Iwo Jima, there’s no sign of barracks or
tents for the 22,000 Japanese troops stationed there. The answer: “We haven’t figured
that out.” The reason would be known soon enough. Those Japanese troops were in
caves, so dug in they were virtually invisible to the American invaders.
The statistics tell the story of what an audacious undertaking the invasion was: 22,000
Japanese troops ordered to kill ten Americans each...then die. Only 1,083 Japanese troops
survived. Of the 70,000 American troops, 6,821 were killed in action, including the three
other flag-raisers, and 20,000 Americans were wounded. Here’s an amazing indication of
what a momentous battle it was: 27 Medals of Honor were awarded to those who invaded
Iwo Jima. That’s the most for any single battle in American history and one fourth of all
the Medals of Honor awarded during World War II.
What makes “Flags of Our Fathers” so relevant today is the fact that American troops are
engaged in Iraq in hundreds of battles with an enemy as intransigent as the Japanese who
were dug in on Iwo Jima. It’s not a stretch to imagine a jihadist being told to kill ten
Americans, then die. Those surviving American troops will come home some day. Their
stories will be the stories of the heroes of Iwo Jima. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine a
photograph of our fighting men in Bagdad, Ramadi, Sadr City, or the Sunni Triangle matching the impact of Joe Rosenthal’s snapshot. Today’s heroes may be anonymous, but
they must not be forgotten.
“Flags of Our Fathers” is not an easy movie to watch. Eastwood offers no easy answers.
What’s he trying to tell us? War is hell, and coming home can be a bitch. Steven
Spielberg produced “Flags” with Eastwood, having first optioned the book for a screen
treatment. Comparisons with “Saving Private Ryan” are inevitable, but “Flags” is more
about the chasm between those who fight the wars and those of us who will only know
secondhand the horrors many of them faced.
Bill Gallagher is the news director of AM 860–KPAM, the Talk Station. He writes the
monthly movie column for BrainstormNW.
BrainstormNW - November 2006