This week’s hidden gem is a film in honor of all men and women veterans who served their country in times of war and peace.
Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) is a fine tribute to what has been called the greatest generation of the 20th Century, that of the World War II era. This film should have been a sure-fire hit for this veteran director, but for some reason, it wasn’t.
In Richard Schickel’s 2010 book, “Clint: A Retrospective,” he notes, “The film was mounted on an epic scale; Clint never had done a film of this scope before. But much to everyone’s surprise, it became quite a large flop, though directorially and in every other way it was a handsome effort…Maybe by the time it went into release “The Greatest Generation” notion—which was more an exercise in false nostalgia than a defensible historical idea—had run its course.
The battle for Iwo Jima last for five weeks during February-March 1945 and was one of the war’s most contentiously bloody battles. According to the History Channel, 70,000 Marines fought to capture the island which had three strategic air bases, which were critical for an attempted invasion of the mainland, some 750 miles off the coast of Japan. Some 21,000 Japanese troops were deeply entrenched in mountainous terrain defending the island. By the end, 7,000 Marines lost their lives and all but 200 Japanese soldiers died.
And although the film’s concern is with the U. S. heroes who were captured in a famous photo of one of the most glorious images of any war–the raising a US flag on the island of Iwo Jima, its main focus centered on the most serious issue of what defines a true hero and how our government possibly creates heroes for various purposes. Many times the declared heroes noted the “true heroes” lost their lives in battle on Iwo Jima.
Adapted from the non-fiction book by James Bradley (son of one the heroes) and Ron Powers, Eastwood’s screenwriters William Broyles and Paul Haggis tailor a complex narrative of the government’s attempt to make three unique heroes from one of the last great battles of the Pacific War against Japan into a propaganda machine for the war effort. Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach, as the story’s heroes John “Doc” Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes respectively, each play their parts effectively and with a low-keyed understatement. Because of Eastwood’s use of these relatively unfamiliar faces, it made the film seem more real, instead of loading the cast with stars such as Matt Damon, George Clooney or even Tom Hanks.
Key to the story’s controversy is that there were “two” separate flag raisings; the initial flag was immediately requested by a politician and a company commander who wanted “that” flag for his men, so he ordered another somewhat staged flag raised so another photo was taken.
Using mostly a cast of non-flashy and unknown performers, Eastwood’s story loops events of the 1945 war bond campaign with flashbacks of the ugliest moments of the Iwo Jima battle and present-day reminiscences of elderly veterans, who recall war heroics to writer James Bradley. From the film’s opening lines, where one veteran proclaims, “Every jackass thinks he knows what war is like -especially ones who’ve never been there,” to the many heart-wrenching battle scenes and ironic comments about valor, Eastwood creates a very patriotic and gutsy tribute to fighting men of any war. Eastwood’s film succeeds at showing the rather undefinable qualities of sacrifice and dedication to a cause that makes a true hero.
Cinematographer Tom Stern’s greenish/grey brutal battle sequences look almost black and white, and they frequently recall many of the handheld frantic images of the sound and fury of the battles that Spielberg captured in the Oscar-nominated “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).
Adding to this complex war story, the ever-ambitious Eastwood simultaneously went to work on “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), an equally remarkable tale-telling this war story from the Japanese perspective.
So on this Veteran’s Day just passed, you judge for yourself, despite its lack of box office appeal, Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” remains a fine film to honor U. S. servicemen of World War II or for any person who served our country.