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.
Bradley's book and Eastwood's film pay homage to a silent generation. As they transformed from warriors on Iwo Jima into bond salesman at the center of public adulation back in the States, the trio of flag-raisers, instant stars, felt like fakes who thought the real heroes had died on that miserable hellhole. They were just lucky stand-ins.
Hayes, a Pima Indian, was undone by war. His tragic story was encapsulated in the Johnny Cash ballad that begins: "Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won't answer any more. Not the whisky-drinking Indian or the Marine who went to war." Hayes, played by look-alike actor Adam Beech, began drinking heavily, got sent back to the war, and eventually drank himself to death on his Arizona reservation. He was just 32 when he died of exposure.
Bradley--thoughtfully underplayed by Ryan Phillippe--was stoic about the horrors he saw. He'd held hundreds of Marines during their final moments. When he was wounded himself, his fatigue jacket was already spattered with brains and blood. Nightmares and voices haunted him until he died. He heard eerie cries for "Corpsman!" forever.
A Personal Connection
Anyone who's been in combat zone will recognize all-too-painfully how hellish battlefields are, in real time and in memory, just as Eastwood depicts them here. For me, there's another personal connection to "Flags of Our Fathers." Like me, Bill Broyles, who co-authored the screenplay, is a Vietnam veteran. We're friends. In our war, Bill was a Marine combat platoon leader. I had the same job in the First Cavalry before I became an advisor to the South Vietnamese.
Twenty-five years ago, just a few years after our war ended, we worked for Texas Monthly in Austin. Bill was the magazine's founding editor. The war we'd shared fascinated and appalled us. At the time, the war itself was a fresh wound in the nation's psyche, ending with sad TV images of American crews pushing would-be refugees off their helicopter skids as they alit from our Saigon embassy.
Together, we saw "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deerhunter." We hated them. They were surreal caricatures of our all-too-real war. When we left the theater, Bill said each time: "No movie has gotten this war right yet."
Before "Flags," the last script Bill wrote was "Jarhead," the cinematic recreation of a book by Gulf War Marine sniper Jan Swofford. In Kuwait, pumping themselves up before launching the desert assault, Swofford's company watched a stream of war movies. One was "Apocalypse Now."
In that movie, there's a scene in which Francis Ford Coppola probably thinks he's showing us how disgusting war is: black-hatted Robert Duvall leads an airborne attack on a Vietnamese village as Wagner booms on loud speakers. Americans strafe, rocket, and bomb civilians--women and children--as well as Communist soldiers embedded with them. Watching in Kuwait, the Marine snipers yelled and cheered lustily: "Get some!"
Maybe there's no such thing as an anti-war movie. On some basic level, it's all war porn.
This Is Like It Is
Back then, turned off by inauthentic war movies, we were just magazine guys. Looking back now, I can see that Bill was planning to do correct the situation, personally.
Since then, Bill has often returned to war for journalistic and poetic inspiration. He became a pilgrim to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. In the mid-eighties, he returned to Vietnam. He wrote "Brothers in Arms" about his search for old allies and enemies. Then he went to Hollywood.
Bill helped create an acclaimed TV series, "China Beach," which was set in a Navy hospital incongruously plopped on the white sandy coast near Da Nang, Vietnam. Later, he wrote "Apollo 13," "Castaway," and many other movies. Bill likes to ponder people who find themselves in peril.
"Flags" isn't a revolutionary movie. Key elements will be familiar to casual students of the combat-film genre. Is it anti-war? Well, yes and no. In tackling this epochal moment, Bill and Eastwood have not given us a sentimental movie--although there are a few sappy scenes--or an original one. Nor will it end all wars, forever. It's touching nonetheless.
Many critics will watch "Flags of Our Fathers" and write: been there, done that. People who've heard metal flying through the air like angry, lethal insects, as the men on Iwo did, will think: This is like it is.