I have a volume on my bookshelves at home that is called a “Service Record” of World War II for the veterans of the county in which I was born. There is a photo of my father in this commemoration along with a brief summary of his tour of service. The engagements of his tour of duty are listed in the following pithy statement: “Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Philippines.” I couldn’t place more significance upon these words if it had listed him as a Congressman, CEO or professional baseball player. My father was a gentle, sentimental and sensitive man who was probably an extremely good soldier. I am ashamed that he, like so many others, had to serve while I did not. I say this so that the reader can understand that I have a deep interest in the subject of Flags of Our Father. But I also mention this to emphasize the point that if a movie or book cannot touch me at a meaningful level, the director or author is not doing his job. Every book or movie that has merit must be able to be discussed in personal rather than mere technical terms.
Flags of Our Fathers is a movie based on a book by James Bradley about the second of the two flag raisings at Iwo Jima and the subsequent publicity tour that the three survivors of that flag raising had to endure. John Bradley ("Ryan Phillippe"), the father of the author of Flags of Our Fathers, Ira Hayes ("Adam Beach") and Rene Gagnon ("Jesse Bradford") were the three survivors and can be seen in the famous photograph of the flag raising taken by Joseph Rosenthal. The remaining three members of that photograph were soon after dead – killed in action. If we are to believe the movie, the three survivors were forced to tour the country to raise money for desperately needed war bonds. The three were forced to make appearances and speeches, meet with politicians and celebrities and deal with awkward circumstances (like the meetings of the mothers of the other three flag raisers who did not survive). Because there were two flag raisings, a question put to them was whether the second flag raising was staged so that the newspapers could have a photograph to place on the front page of their papers. This question of course was asked to denigrate the three men’s accomplishments. Ira Hayes, in particular, was uncomfortable with the ceremonies. He felt guilty about all of the attention when so many of his friends had died or were still fighting. His heavy drinking resulted in his being removed from the war bond touring and also in his being returned to his unit in the Pacific. John Bradley quietly endured the publicity of the entire tour but never felt comfortable with it. And even Rene Gagnon, hoping to take advantage of the opportunities that his celebrity status brought with it, found that he could only identify with others who fought in the battles like he did.
The movie is introspective, frequently respectful and often muddled. It shows several flashbacks to the battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of modern times and from the times of the war bond touring, and the viewer sometimes loses track of the chronology of the events of the battle. This is a minor complaint.
However, I do think that the character of Rene Gagnon gets short shrift in both the movie and the book of Flags of Our Fathers and this is a major weakness. Rene is portrayed as a publicity-seeking opportunist, both vain and petty, who is trying to cash in on his unintended appearance in the photograph. This is unfair in several respects. Gagnon was only seventeen years old when he became engaged to the woman he later married and then enlisted in the marines. He was only twenty years old when he was at Iwo Jima. You can barely even see him in the Rosenthal photograph as he is standing behind John Bradley when the photo was taken. What both the author James Bradley and the director Clint Eastwood need to keep in perspective is that they were not there and Rene Gagnon was. He had every right to cash in on his fame because he put his life on the line just like the other flag raisers. And if he was the publicity seeker that the movie and book maintain, he nevertheless had almost no success in obtaining it. His occupation following the war until the time of his death in 1979 was that of a janitor.
Maybe because he was the father of the author, John Bradley receives a more sympathetic treatment. A medical corpsman during the battle, Bradley frequently ran from wounded man to wounded man only to find that his assistance was inadequate to save them. At one point he has to leave a foxhole where his friend Iggy is stationed. Iggy is not at the foxhole when Bradley returns and it happens to be days later before he discovers what happened - Iggy was captured, tortured and killed by the Japanese. Bradley suffered nightmares concerning this incident for the remainder of his life. After his father died in 1994, author James Bradley interviewed many individuals to find all he could about his father’s service. Apparently, his father seldom spoke about the war. Because of all the friends he knew that died on the island, John Bradley was embarrassed about being referred to as a hero. Like Ira Hayes, he felt that the real heroes were the ones who had died. Unlike Ira Hayes, he was able to hold himself together by raising a family and throwing himself back into his community in Wisconsin as a funeral director.
Without question, Ira Hayes is the most interesting character in the entire movie. Ira, a Pima Indian who was raised in Arizona, has been the subject of movies starring Audie Murphy, Tony Curtis and Lee Marvin (and I don’t believe that any of them were Indians), and he was commemorated in a song by Johnny Cash called The Ballad of Ira Hayes. With little subtlety, Eastwood lets us know that Ira was the focus of many snubs and crass references due to his heritage. Also, Ira is haunted by dreams of killing Japanese soldiers and of the death of his fellow flag raiser, Mike Strank. The most moving scene in the entire movie is when Ira learns that he has been removed from the war bond tour and is to return to the Pacific. He is actually grateful to the officer for telling him of this. In tears, Ira speaks about Mike Strank as being the real hero. Mike, Ira maintains, would have never messed up like he did. The officer corrects Ira on this and tells him that if Mike and Ira had changed places, Mike would have been telling him (the officer) the same thing in the very same words.
In actuality, Ira Hayes probably did suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder. He was arrested fifty-one times for drunken or disorderly conduct, so alcoholism undoubtedly was a contributing factor to his unhappiness. How much the war contributed to his alcoholism can never be known. Though most of his arrests follow his leaving of the service, he had been arrested on a couple of occasions prior to his joining the marines. These facts are never brought out in the movie. Eastwood appropriately does not speculate as to whether Ira Hayes died as a direct result of consuming too much alcohol, or as a result of a drunken brawl that supposedly took place on the evening before he died. That’s something that only the coroner can know for sure. Undoubtedly, Ira Hayes was a victim of racial prejudice, but the most damaging effects of the prejudice was probably not as obvious as is seen in the movie. Much of the damage was likely present before he even enlisted. The poverty of his upraising and the alcoholism on the reservation in which he lived also contributed to his problems. And there is virtually no mention in the movie of Ira Hayes prior engagements in World War II before he actually raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Ira Hayes had previously been stationed at Guadalcanal where there was additional carnage. Ira Hayes had seen too many people die. How much the exploitation of his image during the war bond tour could have affected him at most would seem minor compared to all else that had occurred in his life.
The movie loses its focus when it becomes abstract by trying to pin down the definition of what heroism truly is. In the narration towards the end of the movie we are told (as we are told many times by the characters in the movie) that these were men who were forced to endure the circumstances that they did and therefore, without meaning any disrespect, could not be considered real heroes. They were family men and hard workers just like everyone else. The photo of the second flag raising only came about because of an accident of circumstances and because some pompous officer wanted the first flag removed so that the officer could have it as a keepsake. Yet though the movie’s stated purpose is to rid the battle of Iwo Jima of all of its myths, Eastwood is guilty of creating a few myths of his own. The three survivors probably didn’t have to eat a dessert depicting them raising the flags during one of their tours. It’s disingenuous to say that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy and that morale was at an all time low when the battle of Iwo Jima took place. (Morale for the United States could not have been as bad as it was in 1941 following the attack of Pearl Harbor. The United States obviously had more at its disposal as far as wealth and weaponry than their enemies in Asia would have had in 1945. The Japanese could not outlast the allies in men and in supplies. Though unsure how long the battle in Asia would go on, it was obvious that the war in Europe was nearing an end. Plus, there was the fear on the part of Japan that Russia would soon join in on the war effort in the Pacific.) And whether the war bond tour actually exploited the positions of the three survivors is open to question. The war bond tour definitely played an important role and they needed people like the three flag raisers to help out. Perhaps it was Eastwood (and not the people who set up the tour) who is the cynical one by projecting nefarious motives upon the tour organizers to be used as a dramatic plot line in a movie.
Maybe because of my own personal connection and bias, I don’t have a problem calling John Bradley, Rene Gagnon or Ira Hayes heroes. As is mentioned in the book by one the soldiers who did not survive the flag raising, the six men in that photograph were as much raising a bull’s-eye as they were raising a flag. The fact that only three of them came back shows the danger that they had all undergone. Those living at the time of World War II were not the greatest generation. This cliché ignores the many things wrong in our country at the time that the war occurred and it also diminishes the accomplishments of succeeding generations. Still, the men who fought in the war did deserve admiration. Many of them took the same risks that men who fought in other wars also took. Many of them died and many of them never received their just dues for their own heroic efforts. Most of the men who served did not receive any real benefits from the fighting other than a possible dim pride in their own bravery and accomplishments. In the case of Ira Hayes, even this did not suffice.
Though not perfect, Eastwood at least does something extremely admirable in the making of this movie. Unlike Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Eastwood does not paint the picture in black and white. If unsuccessful, he at least tries to go deeper than most movies into the meaning of what made the characters turn out to be like they were. With the exception of his portrayal of Rene Gagnon, he overall treats the memory of these soldiers with dignity and without at the same time turning them into imaginary icons. He reserves his criticism for the petty officers and politicians who tried to profit off the sacrifice of others. This is a movie that should be seen as a revisit to an important historical event. More importantly, it is an attempt to make us look into ourselves and put everything else into perspective.
October 30, 2006
© Robert S. Miller 2006