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Flags of our Fathers (6/10)

by Tony Medley

Iwo Jima was probably the most vicious battle fought by American forces in the 20th Century. One-third of American casualties in the Pacific during WWII occurred on Iwo. Fittingly, the most memorable war photograph ever taken came about when Joe Rosenthal made a quick picture of six men raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis have made this film to tell the story of what happened to the six.

Most people know that three of them died within a week of the flag-raising. The other three were sent on a bond-raising tour of the United States.

Although Eastwood shows that the landing was brutal, in fact, the Japanese were laying a trap for the marines and let the landing proceed without much opposition. Once they got on the beach, however, they hit them with just about everything they had. Bad as it was, and Iíve never been able to figure out how the marines ever got off that beach, the rest of the battle was worse.

But this film isnít about the battle, although it does show the landing and what happened to the three who didnít survive. Itís about the effects on the other three.

The movie barely alludes to the controversy that sprung up about whether or not the photo was posed, but doesnít explain why this question came up. Rosenthal took the picture hurriedly, and thatís not really shown, either. Despite whatís shown in the movie, he was setting up to take it next to a guy with a movie camera, who was shooting it, also. Rosenthalís attention was diverted when the guy with the movie camera said, ďJoe, there it goes!Ē Rosenthal turned and snapped quickly, without even looking through his viewfinder. The result of which was the famous picture. This is something Iíve known for years; itís a part of the public record. Itís a better story than what Eastwood shows in the movie and there is no reason on earth why Clint couldnít have gotten it right. What he shows is certainly less compelling than the truth.

Rosenthal subsequently took a posed photo of the men who raised the flag around it after it was raised. He sent the film back to be developed and received a message asking if it was posed. Thinking the question was referring to the picture he posed, he replied that it was. When he later discovered that it was the one he snapped quickly, he said that that one wasnít posed, but by that time it was too late and the word went out that the famous picture was posed. Iím not sure why Eastwood didnít deal with this more thoroughly. In fact, Rosenthal (Ned Eisenberg) is such a minor character in the movie heís only in a couple of scenes.

But thatís not the worst part of Eastwoodís sins on this film. There were two flags raised on Iwo. Rosenthalís picture was of the second. The story that I have always heard was that the first was replaced because the Colonel in charge, I think his name was Johnson, thought that the first flag was too small, so he ordered a squad to go up and put up another, larger flag, so that everyone could see it, which they did and of which Rosenthal took the picture. Eastwood ignores this fact, however, and charges a selfish general wanted the first flag as a souvenir and he ordered the squad back up the mountain to get it for him, causing, according to Clint, lots of grousing of the men in the squad, having to brave enemy fire to get a souvenir flag for the General. Why Eastwood inserts such negative scenes in the movie is anybodyís guess, but it reflects poorly on the military and that must have been the reason. Shame on you, Clint.

The bulk of the film follows John ďDocĒ Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) as they go on their bond tour. All three actors give admirable performances. Hayes is pictured as a ďdrunken Indian,Ē who is constantly discriminated against, even to the point that a four star marine general orders that he be sent back to Iwo before he disgraces the armed forces further. Because of Eastwoodís questionable story-telling in dealing with the flag-raising, the reason given for Hayes being returned to battle is of dubious credibility. In fact, he apparently consistently requested to be returned to battle. Despite what the picture shows, Hayes actually died in an irrigation ditch where he fell after a night of drinking and card-playing and froze to death, ten weeks after attending the dedication ceremony of the flag-raising statue in Washington, D.C.

The picture shows animosity between Hayes and Gagnon because in the film Hayes asked Gagnon not to tell anyone that he was one of the flag-raisers, but Gagnon told anyway. Bradley is kind of a peacemaker between the two.

Itís too bad that what could have been a good movie, the standard for what happened, and what most people who see it will believe, is burdened by questionable tales that cast doubt on the integrity of the military. This is an entertaining movie, but I was troubled by Eastwood's approach. What's the point of showing the reason for replacing the first flag as a selfish personal desire for a souvenir? Of not showing how Rosenthal's picture was actually taken? Of blaming unfeeling discrimination as the reason for Hayes being returned to battle?