Thursday 1 June 2017

Film Review: Flags Of Our Fathers, 2006

Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg collaborated on bringing the book Flags of Our Fathers to the big screen. The book was written by James Bradley (with Ron Powers), son of John 'Doc' Badley, and tells the story of the six men - of whom 'Doc' Bradley was allegedly one (see further on this, below) - immortalised in Joe Rosenthal's famously iconic flag-raising photo, taken atop Mt. Suribachi, on the island of Iwo Jima.

The film, like the book, tells the story of combat and its aftermath, and how society celebrates and comes to terms with war, as much as it tells the story of the action on Iwo Jima itself. As wargamers and the like, it's perhaps this latter that may be of chief interest to us. 

Personally I find the other threads just as fascinating, although I will admit it's the, um... 'war porn' side (sorry, that's a horrible idea/phrase, but it kind of fits), that attracts me to the movie in the first place. But this in itself just goes to show the moral complexities of these fraught issues!

The movie starts, rather oddly - to my ears at least - on first hearing, with Clint Eastwood himself singing, in a ragged, thin, broken voice, partial lyrics to the song 'I'll Walk Alone'. This isn't his only musical contribution; Eastwood not only directed this picture, he also composed the soundtrack!

The initial scenes ...

... show Dreamworks CGI ...

... used to stunning effect.

Spielberg's Dreamworks fingerprints are all over the technical side of this film, which is truly spectacular in its CGI-enhanced depiction of the massive invasion flotilla, and the explosive and bloody combat scenes. And whilst Eastwood and Spielberg both undoubtedly have their own personal political axes to grind, and their views doubtless seep through in their work, it's also clear that this picture aims to be as even-handed and authentic as they could make it. [1]

Rosenthal's celebrated photograph.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the six figures in this iconic image, two of whom are barely visible, have not always been identified consistently. After an investigation in 1947, the Marine Corps themselves settled on the following, L-R: Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, Michael Strank (behind Sousley), John Bradley, Rene Gagnon (behind Bradley), and Harlon Block. Block Was initially identified as Henry Hansen, but the 1947 enquiry decided that it was indeed Block, and not Hansen in the picture. 

Subsequently, more recent amateur investigations suggested that the figure identified as Bradley is in fact Sousley [2]. This eventually lead to a second Marine Corps review board investigation, at which it was decided that Harold Schultz and not Bradley, was in the photograph of the second flag raising, which has become such a famous symbol of the US military at war.

The 1st flag raising.

There were actually two flags raised, with Bradley participating in the securing of the first, and present at, although not pictured in Rosenthal's most famous photo of the second. The first flag was raised by a slightly different group, which did include both Hansen and Bradley, being replaced later the same day (Feb. 23rd, 1945) by the second larger flag.

Harlon Block, above, was initially misidentified as Henry Hansen.

Ira Hayes, the unhappy 'hero'.

Rene Gagnon points himself out.

John 'Doc' Bradley.

Schultz, only identified as a flag-raiser long after his death, in 1995.

As already alluded to above, this movie isn't just a depiction of the fight for Iwo Jima. It uses Rosenthal's famous photograph, the darkroom discovery of which starts the film, and the effect this image has on the war-bond and propaganda drive back home in the U.S, to explore themes of the psychological effects of combat, and how we rationalise war, both for those involved - and in the context of this film that means, primarily, for the three surviving flag-raisers and their combat buddies - and for those at home.

Joe Rosenthal, signing copies of his famous photograph.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, given the Spike Lee imbroglio (see footnote [2], below), Eastwood's decision to start the movie with 'I'll Walk Alone', and the way he focuses on the story of Native American marine Ira Hayes - who some time after the war literally walked alone 1,300 miles to visit the family of a fallen comrade (Harlon Block) - is a clear effort to redress the injustices in a young nation, seen from the European rooted perspective, that is, that has certainly struggled with issues of racism.

Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon, movie style ...

... and the real trio: Gagnon, Bradley, Hayes.

Hayes, along with John Bradley, is one of the core trio, rounded out by PFC Rene Gagnon, who are brought home and fêted as heroes, to be utilised, in conjunction with Rosenthal's iconic image, as means to raise war-bonds.

This is akin - but here as more of a central narrative plank - to the segment of the Hanks/Spielberg Pacific series in which John Basilone, another hero of Iwo Jima, is brought home to help raise war revenues. Basilone, as depicted in that series at any rate, tired of the hero role, requesting that he be sent back to fight (and to die, as it turned out) with his buddies.

Of the three men depicted in Eastwood's movie, it's Ira Heyes who has the greatest struggle adjusting to post-combat life, and in particular the idea of himself as a war hero.

Eastwood directs.

Personally I think Eastwood deals with every aspect of this complex and difficult subject superbly well. The film is by turns exciting, inspiring, harrowing, and always moving. And within this impressive range there's everything from light humour to heavyweight seriousness. Not bad!

Mt Suribachi, Iwo Jima.

Recovering the wounded.

Detritus of the amphibious assault litters the beach.

Having given some of the more sociological and psychological - perhaps even philosophical? - aspects of this superb film some consideration, let's turn now to the depiction of the combat. Well, the first thing to say is that, despite coming in well under budget - according to figures I've seen on't interweb (prob. Wikipedia) [3] - this is a stunning film. The depictions of the invasion fleet, its deployment, and the initial attack on the beaches, are all jaw-droppingly impressive. 

The desaturated colour is near monotone...

... and adds a kind of gritty period feel.

Resulting in a green tinged near black and white look.

The naval bombardment, the use of waves of carrier-borne aircraft, and the huge deployment of landing craft (500 in 10 waves) are all beautifully and very dramatically rendered, with an excellently judicious mix of CGI and 'real' hardware, etc.

The black volcanic sands, and indeed all the terrain, none of which was shot on Iwo Jima itself, are superbly recreated. And the combat scenarios, which focus predominantly on the initial landing and subsequent fate of the 3rd Platoon, Easy co, 2nd Battalion, 28th U.S. Marines, as they attack and eventually reach the summit of mount Suribachi, are brilliantly recreated. 

This film is told expressly from the American side, and as such the Japanese are - perhaps surprisingly, given the situation - a relatively minor presence in the narrative. Mostly they're dug in and sniping, remaining nigh on invisible to both their 'dogface' adversaries and us viewers, except for occasional (and very brutal) moments of hand to hand combat, or when flushed from their defences, or populating the battle-scarred island as corpses.

The Japanese perspective, companion to Flags.

With respect to the Japanese perspective Eastwood shows his credentials for even-handedness not so much in this film itself (although that is indeed visible to the discerning eye), as in its companion piece, Letters From Iwo Jima, which film - made entirely in subtitled Japanese - expressly tells the Japanese side of this momentous and bloody battle. 

But even in Flags of Our Fathers Eastwood doesn't flinch from this balanced position, witness the poignant scene in which 'Doc' Bradley, attending to a wounded American in a dug-out, dispatches a Japanese soldier who attacks them: there's no old-fashioned Hollywood style instant, silent, painless death for the latter. Such scenes force the viewer to face the horror and insanity of the most brutal aspects of war.

A Higgins boat near the landing site.

Men and machines, casualties of war.

Eastwood does everyone involved the best honour anyone could really do, as Bradley junior also set out to do (at least according to the quotes from his work with which this film ends), not by whitewashing the story in a propagandistic style, but by accepting and depicting it all in its unresolved - and perhaps unresolvable? - complexity. 

I'd say this is a really excellent film. It manages to handle complex issues without dumbing down, and at the same time it's a rip-snorting good war movie, that shouldn't fail to entertain and inform lovers of the genre.


[1] This didn't stop Spike Lee wading in with criticism of the movie for what he deemed to be under-representation of African-American troops in the film. Pictured above, three African American soldiers on the beach at Iwo Jima, found here.

[2] For those interested, I found an article here, that delves into this issue!

[3] With a projected budget of $80 million, the film actually only cost $55 million. 


  1. I very much enjoyed Flags but I think it pales a little when compared to Letters From Iwo Jima. The combat in both is suitably brutal but the characters seem more relate-able in Letters. That maybe because Flags is just one more Marine film (though an excellent one) in a very long line of such works while Letters provides a (for the western viewer) a whole new look at the conflict.

    1. Hi Pat. Yes, I agree with you entirely, on all counts. I have a review of Letters in the pipeline. A really great film. And much more combat oriented and intense than Flags, which I also prefer. Best, Seb.