What makes a hero? Is it dying in the name of your country, or is it inspiring hope in the hearts of the civilians for whom you’re supposedly fighting? In what ways are soldiers sacrificed to serve the greater good? In the 2006 film Flags of Our Fathers, director Clint Eastwood attempts to answer to these questions in his exploration of the mythos behind the soldiers of the Marine Corps War Memorial. In so doing, he shows how the United States ran its own war propaganda campaigns during the 1940s and how relative a term as lofty as “hero” truly is.
The film follows the group of soldiers depicted in the Marine Corps War Memorial, focusing on the three men (John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes) who were sent home to embark on a nationwide fund-raising tour after the photograph had gained popularity with the public. The three men each react to the news differently: Bradley seems relieved; Gagnon is delighted to escape the front lines; and Hayes fights tooth-and-nail to stay and fight. Although each man has his differences, all three eventually grow to resent their status as war heroes, choosing to credit their fallen comrades instead of claim any of the fame for themselves. After all, they merely replaced a flag on the fifth day of a thirty-five day battle. Their brothers-in-arms sacrificed their lives for their country.
What the men fail to realize is that the photo means more to the war effort than any number of fallen soldiers; a photo like Rosenthal‘s was enough to bolster the public’s waning confidence in an enduring conflict against a seemingly insurmountable enemy. Inspired by the photo, the public opened their pocketbooks once again and donated their time and money to the government, which in turn helped the United States and the rest of the Allies continue the fight. Had the men died like heroes on the battlefield, perhaps the public’s reaction to the photo would have been far more cynical. Instead, Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes were there to put faces to the faceless figures of the photo, even though they were initially overwhelmed by their new status as national heroes.
Noteworthy also is the scene where Hayes shows the rest of the squad some photographs depicting Japanese torture techniques. With those images seared in their memories, the men are ready to take on an enemy who remains faceless for much of the gruesome first assault on the shores of Iwo Jima. That epic battle scene, rife with sweeping copter shots of warships firing from the sea and POV shots from the cockpits of fighter jets, rivals Spielberg’s depiction of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps this is not a coincidence; Spielberg produced Flags of Our Fathers. The few other battlefield sequences appear mostly in flashbacks experienced by Bradley (played by Ryan Phillipe) and Hayes (played by Adam Beach).
Beach’s performance as the Akimel O’odham soldier is noteworthy; I felt a lump in my throat as he wept with Mrs. Strank, the mother of one of the other men in the photograph, at a war bond benefit dinner. As an American Indian, Hayes had to struggle against racism, both personal and institutionalized, within American society. Although many regarded him as a hero, they still refused to serve him in restaurants and bars. Beach effectively captures the frustration Hayes must have felt. The rest of the performances in the film were reserved; Eastwood underscores the film’s themes on the utilitarian nature of the military and wartime government by limiting the characterization in the film. The actors, like the soldiers they play, simply fill their role without much embellishment.
Flags of Our Fathers, while not the most impressive film I’ve ever seen, helps animate the bronze figures of the Iwo Jima memorial, showing how
our national heroes can be constructed and how quickly they can be
destroyed. It raises some important questions on the nature of heroism, propaganda, and the “greater good.” I look forward to Eastwood’s companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima, which depicts the battle from the Japanese perspective.