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FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Ryan Phillipe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Audio:  Dolby 5.1 and 2.0
Video:  Color Widescreen 16:9
Studio: DreamWorks Home Entertainment
Features:  None
Length:  132 Minutes
Release Date:  February 5, 2007

“Did you get it?”

“I don’t know.  I wish I could have seen their faces.” 

Dialogue between photographers when Rosenthal took the famous photo at Iwo Jima.

“Some people wonder all their lives if they’ve made a difference.  The Marines don’t have that problem.”

Ronald Reagan, quoted in the book

Film ***1/2

John Bradley was a young marine who just wanted to serve his country as a corpsman, come home and marry his childhood sweetheart.  He did these things, purchasing a funeral home in which he worked after the war, and provided well for his family. 

He also just happened to have been one of the marines who raised a flag at Iwo Jima, and was captured in the most reproduced photograph in history.  The photo rejuvenated the American war effort with its promise of success when the Marines captured an island less than 700 miles from the Japanese mainland.  John “Jack” Bradley was also fortunate enough to have survived, one of only three of the original six who did.  He carried the horrible memories of looking for fallen comrades with him deep inside, never discussing the war with his family and refusing interviews with the media.  Around Memorial Day every year they would call and anyone who answered the phone said he was fishing in Canada.  He believed that there were no such things as heroes.  He told audiences on U.S. War Bond drives that the real heroes were the ones who died.

This film attempts to turn the amazing best-selling Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley, Jack’s son, into a coherent movie, and for the most part it succeeds.  I expected it to be a flag-waving inspiration, and instead it seemed at first to be an anti-war diatribe showing the perils of war in general, almost mocking the gallantry of the Americans who fought in the Pacific without the help of our Allies in Europe.  It is truly heartbreaking in many places, resembling Saving Private Ryan in its unflinching brutality as the marines land on the island.  But as the film progresses, we get to know the men, and see them as they really were, not heroes or legends, but just men who loved their country.  The film is in some ways the reverse of the book; since in the book we get to know them first, then see what they did during and after the War in the Pacific.  I would have preferred that approach, but then the movie might have been four hours long and impossible to follow. 

Iwo Jima is literally just a black rock one-third the size of Manhattan stuck in the middle of the Pacific.  But like many battlefields of the Civil War, it has taken on mystical and sacred airs.  One hundred thousand men fought one of the bloodiest, most bitter battles in history there in early 1945.  Eighty thousand Americans were sent to displace twenty thousand Japanese, who knew they were probably doomed but fought to the death anyway.  Since the island was not bombed as much as planned before the invasion, the men knew they might not make it.  It was the D-Day of the Pacific.  The historical consciousness of America usually thinks about D-Day in Europe, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombings.   We forget that fighting in the Pacific and Asian theatres was beyond ghastly, worse than any nightmare any filmmaker could imagine.   It is easy to see where Tolkien may have gotten his inspiration for darkness settling across the world, because at one point one-third of Earth was controlled by three despotic superpowers. 

I have read much of the book Flags of Our Fathers and found it to be an uplifting, touching story of men just doing their duty and unintentionally becoming international celebrities and “heroes” because a photographer captured them erecting a flag on Iwo Jima.  You could not ask for a better cross-section of American soldiers. 

At first I found the film disappointing since it was not what I expected, but it gets more and more gripping with every minute, as we meet Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, who falls into alcoholism even while he is being praised as a hero one minute and then refused service at a restaurant because he is an Indian.  He was a very serious, quiet man according to the book, and Adam Beach’s heartbreaking portrayal of a young man who survived the horrors of war unable to adjust to life in the states is strong and anchors the movie.  We learn very little about the other men really, other than Mike Strank, who Ira called “the finest marine I ever knew.”  The U.S. Military ought to pay him anything he wants just to recruit, because he was born to portray the brave Marine’s Marine. 

According to the book Strank was an immigrant who did not even have to serve, but volunteered, and became the prototypical marine who was fast, smart, decisive, and fearless.  There are several explosions in the film which seem so real that you can hardly believe what you are seeing; one moment Mike is standing there, the next there is only black smoke.  We see what real courage is, and how these men bonded together in the worst circumstances.  At the very end of the film, we see James Bradley going through his father’s war mementos, which never saw the light of day until Jack Bradley passed.

If nothing else, this film preserves the moments which buoyed the Marines from near-obscurity to their present status as the branch of the military that so often has to deal with situations no one else wants to even try to fix.  It also made me understand why so many veterans do not want to talk about their experiences, because then they have to relive the horror and pain, and perhaps their guilt at surviving when their buddies did not.  There is really no way to verbally explain their experiences anyway.

While it is not in the league of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List as immortal film testaments to the horrors of World War Two, it is still very good, and I highly recommend the book and film together since they compliment each other well. 

BONUS TRIVIA:  There were actually two flags raised, so that the first one could be taken down and sent to a congressman.  This caused some confusion as to who was really there at the raising.  The men were also frequently accused of staging the whole incident, when in fact they were simply following orders.

Video  ***

The entire production has an odd plastic quality, and the colors are strangely monochromatic.  But then the island was called “hell with the fire out,” just a smelly black rock (“Iwo Jima” actually means “sulfur island”). The scenes of men assaulting the beach pale in comparison to Saving Private Ryan, and the scenes of America at the time are sometimes almost black and white, but browns and reds are clear.  On the other hand, when they reach the top of Mount Suribachi, and the flag is planted, the views are breathtakingly real.  The transfer seems fine; obviously the filmmakers wanted the color scheme this way.  The carnage is difficult to stomach (a head just flies through the air and we see his face clearly when it lands with a thud) and unfortunately flashbacks and changing of scenes may make the viewer even more disoriented, just as the soldiers were disoriented and suffered flashbacks when they attended star-spangled fireworks celebrations at home.  I suspect Eastwood did all of this on purpose, and for the most part it works.   

Audio ***

Often dialogue is muffled and the mix between battle sounds and dialogue is not always good.  The music was written by Eastwood himself, and most of it is inspiring.  The rear channels are used superbly for the battle scenes but rather minimally for hometown scenes.  Serviceable but not as good as many recent action flicks. 

Features  (Zero Stars)

None.  Hopefully there will be a special edition with the usual commentaries and documentaries.   

Summary:

Not what I expected, but as a companion to the book, Flags of Our Fathers is moving and gripping.  Highly recommended. 

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