Even today, the iconic, Pulitzer-winning 1945 photograph of five US Marines and a Navy corpman raising the American flag on Iwo Jima retains an extraordinary power. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph tells a story, creates a mood, evokes an ethos, and elicits a metaphorical or allegorical response, all at the same time.
The image of a half dozen anonymous men in uniform straining together to raise Old Glory on the battlefield readily invites a number of interrelated morals. Unity, commitment and self-sacrifice for a cause are all embodied in the forms on those six young men, along with the heritage and values of the flag waving over their heads.
Adapted by Million Dollar Baby collaborators Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis from the book by James Bradley and Michael Finch, Flags of Our Fathers reveals that although in many ways the world of the photograph was simpler and more innocent than our own, it was not as credulous or lacking in media savvy as we might suppose. From the start, there are questions about the photo’s authenticity, rumors and reports that the seemingly perfect shot was staged.
It wasn’t, but the story behind the photo isn’t as simple as it might seem either. The flag in the photograph is the second flag raised that day on Iwo Jima, after 2nd Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson orders the original flag replaced. He does this, astonishingly, to thwart Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal’s whim to make a personal souvenier of the original flag, which the indignant Johnston feels belonged by rights to the battalion.
As fascinating and ironic as such background trivia is, it hardly seems to blunt the essential power of the image itself. Even the controversy over the misidentification of one of the fallen soldiers in the picture seems a footnote, if a crucial one to the families of the soldiers in question.
Flags of Our Fathers raises these issues, but the real issue behind them is the exploitation of the famous image — along with the three surviving men in the picture — as a much-needed PR windfall by a cash-strapped government. After the photograph becomes a sensation, Marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), Marine runner Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Navy corpman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) are brought back to the US for a publicity tour, billed as “the heroes of Iwo Jima,” to promote the 7th War Bond Drive and regalvanize the war-weary American people for the final push in the Pacific. (Philippe’s character is the father of the author of the book.)
The word “exploit” here is perilously double-edged. It can mean either “use to advantage” (in a shrewd sense) or “take advantage of” (in an abusive sense). To its credit, Flags of Our Fathers avoids suggesting that the whole enterprise was somehow fundamentally and inherently fraudulent or abusive. Despite the oversimplified promotion of the photo and its subjects, and the glossing over of the misidentified man, the photo legitimately bears witness to a state of affairs worth celebrating and supporting.
The battle for Iwo Jima was real, not staged. The raising of that flag, whether the first or the tenth such flag, legitimately represents the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought and died there, without whom there could have been no flag at all. The singling out of these three particular soldiers may be an accident of history, but they are truly heroes, and fairly represent their living and fallen comrades on Iwo Jima. They are heroes, not for raising a flag, but for what they and others did to be in the position to raise the flag.
The kitschiness of the PR campaign may invite more cynicism today than it did at the time, as the heroes reenact the flag-raising atop a papier-mâché “mountain” in stadiums across the country, and are “treated” to vanilla ice-cream sculptures representing the six figures in the photograph. (Surely, surely, even if there really were such ice-cream sculptures, no waiter would drench such a confection in blood-red cherry sauce. That just has to be a heavy-handed conceit of the film.) But kitsch isn’t a moral category, merely a question of taste and culture.
Though there is an iconoclastic dimension to the film, Flags of Our Fathers is not as cynical as some critics seem to regard it. Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, though generally dismissive of the film, praises the “noble undertaking” of underscoring how the photo (in which Rosenbaum strangely seems to miscount four figures rather than six) was “mendaciously exploited to sell war bonds.” From a different end of the political spectrum, New York Post critic Lou Lumenick’s more positive review describes how the film “dissects how that heroism was cynically packaged for public consumption.” Sometimes cynicism may be in the eye of the beholder, at least partly.
Less ambiguous or open to interpretation is the sad irony of the less-than-glorious futures that await the heroes of the hour after their hour has passed. Even in his moment of triumph, Hayes, a Pima Indian, is never exempt from racist harassment both in and out of the military, and already he has begun to battle the heavy drinking that will eventually destroy him. Gagnon does his duty on the tour circuit and cheerfully takes business cards that he hopes will pay off later in life, but it’s a cruel truth that society has a treacherously short memory for gratitude.
Though Flags of Our Fathers regards the experiences of its subjects with sympathy, it ultimately goes too far in debunking the reality of their heroism, above all in opening and closing voiceover narration. “We like things nice and simple,” muses the narrator at the start of the film. “Good and evil. Heroes and villains. Most of the time, they’re not who we think they are.” By the film’s end, the narrator concludes, “Maybe there’s no such thing as heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It’s a way for us to understand something so incomprehensible.”
And what is that incomprehensible something? The sacrifices soldiers make for their comrades. “They may have fought for their country, but they died for their brothers.”
That’s as succinct an articulation of the reigning Hollywood orthodoxy of war movies (other examples include Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and K‑19: The Widowmaker) as you’re likely to find: that the truth about war is not ideas, politics, or patriotism, but loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers on the battlefield. It’s an ethic that allows no room for such wide-eyed ideals as “saving the world from barbarianism.”
This sentiment, too, contrasts strikingly with the assessment of heroism expressed in an epigraph to the acknowledgments section in the original book, quoting historian Stephen Ambrose: “I was ten years old when the war ended. I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarianism. I still think so. I remain a hero worshiper. Over the years I’ve interviewed thousands of the veterans. It is a privilege to hear their stories, then write them up.” The book’s very subtitle — “Heroes of Iwo Jima” — could not be claimed by the film, except as irony.
Tendentious voiceovers aside, Flags of Our Fathers remains a thoughtful exploration of the tensions and ironies of the cult of heroism. Hayes could be speaking for countless heroes when he protests that he is not a hero: “All I did was try not to get shot.” Like many heroes, Hayes fails to appreciate that the very fact that he was in a position to be shot in the first place, and that he did his best under those circumstances, is more than enough to qualify him to be honored as a hero.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.