Clint Eastwood’s first of two films about the WWII battle at Iwo Jima is sincere, competent, and respectful. He powerfully conveys the madness and brutality of battle and the conflicting feelings of thosw who fight — dedication, loyalty, patriotism, fear, courage, compassion, callousness, sacrifice, self-preservation. If these issues are not as well-presented as in other films, especially co-producer Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” they are still important, meaningful, and moving.
The story shifts back and forth in time between the experiences of the men credited with raising the flag in the iconic photo, who were used to inspire support and raise money for the war effort. We see explosions overhead. Sometimes they are gunfire; sometimes they are fireworks. The three men are sometimes not sure themselves what they are doing or why they are doing it. But their orders are to raise that flag again and again, even if it’s at halftime on a football field. Suddenly, the New York Yankees are applauding for them. A replica of the men raising the flag in white chocolate has bright red strawberry sauce poured over it, creating an image that is anything but delicious.
The men were John “Doc” Bradley, a Naval Corpsman (Ryan Phillippe) and two Marines, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes, Jr., a Pima Indian (Adam Beach). They happened to be the ones who raised the flag the second time (when the cameras were rolling). Americans at home, sick of the war loved the triumphant picture, and loved saluting real heroes. But the men did not feel like heroes. They felt guilty staying in luxury hotels and being the center of attention. The picture was not true. One of the Marines was mis-identified, which made them feel even more hypocritical and guilty, especially Hayes, who begins to crumble with survivor guilt as he remembers those who died and what he did to stay alive. But they knew that without their help, the government would not be able to raise the money it needed to support the war effort. Meanwhile, back at tiny 5-mile-long, 2.5 mile wide Iwo Jima, the battle continued for more than a month, with 6891 Americans killed.
“When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend,” says The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “We like nice and simple, good and evil, heroes and villains,” says this film’s narrator.
War stories always reflect the times of their telling as much as they reflect the times they depict. Compare two films not just about the same battle but with the same script, the jingoistic WWII-era “Henry V” with Laurence Olivier and the peacetime version with Kenneth Branaugh. World War II was the first major conflict to be depicted on film as it was going on. The movies of the early 1940’s were as much propoganda as drama. After the war ended, there were more complex, even cynical stories, some written by men who were there, not just about heroism but about issues that spoke to the struggles of the post-war years (The Caine Mutiny, Stalag 17, Crossfire). A movie about the Korean War (M*A*S*H) reflected the concerns about the then-current Viet Nam war.
This film, or, perhaps we should say, this first half (Eastwood is working on a second film telling the story from the Japanese point of view) raises very contemporary issues about illusion and reality, about what we expect in and from heroes, about how wars are always about politicians sending young men (and now women) to be killed. Yet it fails to meet its own standards, killing off all of the characters who are pure of heart and leaving only the complicated and flawed ones alive. It keeps us curiously remote from its characters, the images more powerful than the story in an unintentionally ironic case of form over content.
Parents should know that this movie has extremely intense, brutal, and graphic battle violence, including torture. Many characters are killed and there are very graphic and disturbing injuries. A character apparently commits suicide. Characters use strong language, drink (one abuses alcohol) and smoke. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of the racism of the era and of some characters who are not bigoted.
Families who see this movie will want to learn more about the battle for Iwo Jima and the men in the famous photo. They should talk about who in the movie were the real heroes and why. Will we be making films about the War in Iraq 60 years from now? What will they say?
Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate the many superb films about WWII and other famous soldiers and battles, including Saving Private Ryan (very intense violence), The Longest Day, To Hell and Back (with Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the war, playing himself), and A Bridge Too Far. Movies that raise some of the issues posed by this film include The Americanization of Emily, The Caine Mutiny, The Right Stuff, and Gardens of Stone. John Wayne starred in Sands of Iwo Jima, with Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon appearing as themselves, and Tony Curtis played Ira Hayes in The Outsider.