THE LIVING & THE DEAD
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS ★★★★★ Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Robert Patrick 15A cert gen release, 132 min
EVERY war produces an indelible image that resonates more than any others, be it the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad three years ago; the screaming, burnt naked young Vietnamese girl after a napalm bomb attack in 1972; or the six US soldiers raising the Stars & Stripes on the summit of Mount Suribachi on the desolate Pacific island of Iwo Jima in February 1945.
That moment in time, captured by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, became a potent symbol of triumph, hope and propaganda for the US, boosting sales of war bonds. Four years later, it was celebrated in the John Wayne movie Sands of Iwo Jima, which incorporated footage of the battle.
Clint Eastwood returns to Rosenthal’s famous photograph in his thoughtful, moving new film, which punctures the myths built around the image and addresses issues unpalatable for the postwar era in which the Wayne movie was made.
Scripted by Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) and William Broyles Jr (Jarhead, Apollo 13), Flags of Our Fathers is based on a book by James Bradley, whose father John was one of the six soldiers who raised the flag. He wrote the book “to find out why my dad was silent” and because “everyone knew the photo, but nobody knows the story.” The story the film tells is one of reluctant young heroes – John Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe) and the two other surviving flag-raisers, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) – as they are taken out of service, thrust into the spotlight and taken on a whistlestop tour of the US to be feted in the style of the era’s movie stars.
Addressing an admiring throng in Times Square, Gagnon insists that they just put up the flag and got their picture taken, that the real heroes were killed on Iwo Jima. To capitalise on the impact of Rosenthal’s photograph, the US military is intent on spinning the legend, even though one of the three soldiers who died in battle was misidentified in the picture.
Replicas of that image, large and small, are constructed, and when one is served as dessert at a celebratory party, the raspberry sauce poured on it evokes the blood shed in the island combat that claimed thousands of young lives.
The palette for the epic battle scenes is aptly sombre, verging on monochrome as the soldiers make their way across black sand under grey skies. These sequences capture the conflict in all its chaos, cacophony, fear and destruction as the body count soars.
There are more harsh realities for Ira Hayes, who, as a Native American, has to endure jibes about tomahawks and wigwams from fellow soldiers and military brass, and is turned away from a bar that refuses admission to his race. And as this fine film charts the experiences of all three survivors after the war, it takes on a melancholy tone suffused with disenchantment and tinged with bitterness.
Flags of Our Fathers concludes poignantly on images of the real US soldiers, and with a dedication to “Phyllis and Bummy”, Eastwood’s longtime collaborators, casting director Phyllis Huffman and production designer Henry Bumstead, who died this year. (opens today)