English Title: Flags of Our Fathers
Country of Origin: USA
Studio: DreamWorks SKG, Warner Bros, Amblin Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, Paramount Pictures
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producer(s): Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: William Broyles Jr, Paul Haggis
Cinematographer: Tom Stern
Art Director: Jack G Taylor Jr
Editor: Joel Cox
Runtime: 126 minutes
Starring/Cast: Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, John Benjamin Hickey, Ryan Phillippe
Volume: American - Hollywood
When John ‘Doc’ Bradley falls ill, his son James begins to research Doc’s World War II history. According to the official records, Doc was one of six men who raised the United States flag on Mount Suribachi, an event immortalized in the iconic photograph, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. The image became a clarion call for the US war effort and the inspirational symbol for a fundraising campaign. However, James discovers that the circumstances surrounding the flag-raising are swathed in confusion and controversy. Initially, Doc and fellow survivors Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon are prepared to play their part in The Mighty Seventh bond drive, touring the country and being presented as heroes to adoring crowds. However, over time, guilt gnaws away at the trio. Haunted by memories of their dead companions, they reject their status as heroes. After the war, the men have difficulties adjusting to civilian life, with Doc rarely speaking of his wartime experiences. Yet he recalls one bittersweet moment when his unit enjoyed a respite from battle, briefly forgetting they were soldiers. James reflects: ‘To truly honour these men, we should remember them the way they really were, the way my dad remembered them’.
Clint Eastwood has made no secret of his admiration for the work of director John Ford. So it is fitting that Flags of Our Fathers recalls the infamous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ It is in the chasm between ‘legend’ and ‘fact’ that the three protagonists of Flags find themselves trapped. Torn between their grief and their sense of duty, they are plunged into a whirlwind of publicity with which they are ill-equipped to deal. As Eastwood comments, the bond drive built around the photograph was ‘kind of like the birth of celebrity. It’s making celebrities out of people that don’t really feel like they are celebrities.’
Although known for his westerns and urban cop thrillers, Eastwood has long displayed an interest in the war genre, starting with the over-the-top antics of Where Eagles Dare (1968) and up to his own Heartbreak Ridge (1986), a film that offended the US Marines with its critical depiction of military life. As early as 1970 Eastwood expressed disappointment that the subtle anti-war message in the original script for Kelly’s Heroes (1970) was lost in the final edit.
In Flags, the first part of his Iwo Jima diptych, Eastwood makes amends, presenting a thoughtful meditation on the impact of war. The soldiers are not portrayed as fabled heroes, but merely ordinary men carrying out their duty. The Battle of Iwo Jima was a brutal conflict that saw the combined dead on both sides reach an estimated 25,000. To this end, the film strives to represent the true ferocity and trauma of the battle.
The muted colour palette wielded by cinematographer Tom Stern supports this approach. Eastwood compares his images to sketches, luring the audience into the frame to complete the picture. At times the colours are so drained that the sequences appear almost monochrome. But rather than black and white, the film employs subtle shades of grey. It is a colour scheme that characterizes the confused and chaotic nature of war – this is not a tale of good versus evil but rather the story of a group of individuals simply fighting to survive.
The screenwriters acknowledge the challenge of telling a story with such a large number of characters. As is common in the war genre, with the cast clad in similar military fatigues it is occasionally difficult to follow the action. Admittedly, the fractured narrative – jumping between the battle, the bond drive and James Bradley’s investigation – further complicates matters. However, this is not necessarily a shortcoming. Just as Eastwood’s visual style encourages an active contribution, the splintered narrative requires a little work on the part of the audience.
To assist the audience’s engagement, the film-makers make every effort to achieve a sense of authenticity. Photographs of the era were studied for reference and military advisors were brought in to train the actors. Even the black sand at the Icelandic location was carefully sieved and sculpted to match Iwo Jima.
With this extensive attention to period detail and a budget reported to be in excess of $50 million, the production is of a grander scale than is typical of Eastwood. Yet the primary focus remains on the three survivors, creating what Stern describes as a ‘personal epic’. This is evident in the use of objective camera angles to present events through the eyes of the protagonists. Ultimately, the film succeeds in its attempt to honour the memory of the troops as ordinary men, while inspiring the audience to remember the extraordinary contribution that they made to history.