Flags of Our Fathers

At the movie's end, several old men waited in our theater until every last credit had scrolled. As younger people filed out, old men stood in the aisle, paying respects. Some were bareheaded, their pates white and wispy. Others wore baseball caps inscribed "Tin Can Sailor" and "Semper Fi."

The old vets and their families weren't reading the names of the gaffers, grips, or best boys. They were transfixed by an old-fashioned slide show. Black-and-white photos flashed next to the credits, grainy shots of skinny young men--kids, just boys, really--looking forever as they did in early 1945 during the bloody assault on Iwo Jima. Fittingly, a movie about an iconic photograph ends with a slew of much more prosaic but no less authentic snapshots.

Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" is about the once-faceless men in the world's most reproduced photo. In battlefield flashbacks and colorful recreations of the grandiose heroes' welcome the nation afforded the three surviving flag-raisers, Eastwood grapples with courage and myth making.

Like "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg's masterwork about D-Day, "Flags" opens and closes with an old man--in this case, John "Doc" Bradley, a funeral home director in Wisconsin. His impending death sends his son, James, on a search for the truth behind the box of souvenirs (including the Navy Cross: surprise!) that his dad stored in the attic. Through interviews with his dad's aging contemporaries, young James Bradley uncovers Doc's story, a quest around which the movie is structured. (Eastwood faithfully adapted "Flags" from Bradley's book by the same title.)

A Premature Celebration
The famous photo was taken during an interlude in horrific fighting for the highest point, Mt. Suribachi, on the world's ugliest island, Iwo Jima. On the fifth day of the invasion, Marines raised a flag on the peak. Thousands of Marines watching below cheered. So did sailors on ships at sea, as foghorns sounded triumphantly.

A squabble over who'd get the priceless Stars and Stripes--James Forrestal, the Navy secretary visiting the island, or the men who'd bled for it--required raising a new flag in order to allow the original to be hidden and preserved. For quite a while, only a few men even knew that there'd been a first flag.

Six men raised the back-up flag. Joe Rosenthal, an AP photographer, took the shot seen 'round the world, but he didn't realize its significance. But after the film was processed back home, the image--bravery incarnate--appeared on nearly every newspaper's first page across the land. A nation weary of war took heart: The end was close.

The celebration, on Iwo Jima and at home, was premature. Most of the 22,000 Japanese defenders were still alive, waiting below in a labyrinth of catacombs, caves, and bunkers. Brutal fighting lasted another month. Meanwhile, top brass back in the States pulled the three surviving flag-raisers from the front to make that immortal photograph come alive at home. During a national tour that treated the trio like their celebrity warm-up act, the Andrew Sisters, they sold a prodigious amount of war bonds--$24 billion worth--while their comrades continued their assault on Iwo Jima.

War Is Love
Clint Eastwood loves heroes, real and invented, and their deeds, actual and imaginary. As time passes, the 78-year-old auteur has moved away from his amusingly tough (and one-dimensional) early screen roles, like the gunman in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry, the avenging Frisco cop. The longer he works, the more complexity Eastwood sees in a misleadingly simple topic.

His characters here are naive kids and grizzled vets. All become older in a hurry or die far too young. As they struggle, combat hardens them. The survivors doubt, then deny their virtuousness. The real heroes, they insist, all died back in that hellish sulphurous moonscape.

In searching for his father's story, James Bradley learned that men who sacrifice everything don't do so for God or country, but for their buddies. When hot metal is flying, principles matter less than human bonds. Hardship anneals those bonds. Killing one's enemies, ironically, creates the purest kind of fraternal love. Killers, who are also defenders, don't fight because they hate. They just don't want to let their friends down. This conundrum--war is love--is one reason why humanity gets drawn again and again into ghastly conflicts.

It's an old lesson, poorly learned, but told movingly here in the portraits of six flag-raisers. Three died later on the island's stinking sands. Three survived: Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, and Doc Bradley, a Navy corpsman. The nasty little volcanic flyspeck of Iwo Jima was held with fanatical resolve.
Thousands of American Marines and sailors died, as well as nearly all the Japanese (except for the grievously wounded who were unable to commit hari-kari), but by taking the island's airstrip, the U.S. took the war closer to the home islands. The Japanese empire fell six months later.