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Flags of Our Fathers

June 29, 2008

On Feb 23,1945, 5 US Marines and a Navy corpsman, raised the American flag on Mt.Suribachi, on the island of Iwo Jima, in the pacific. The photograph of this event, taken by Joe Rosenthal, an American photographer, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for this, would become an iconic image among American public.This photograph would take its place among other photographs like that of Che Guevera, and the Vietnam War survivor, as one of the most famous 20th century pictures. It became a symbol of American victory during the War. And this photograph would also be the basis for the USMC War Memorial sculpture in Washington DC.

Iwo Jima
an island in the Pacific Ocean, a place of strategic importance to the Japanese. It served as an airfield for Japanese aircraft, to intercept the US bombers, as well as the site of a large radio station, that would warn about incomming aircraft. It was an island which the Japanese fiercely protected. The US Govt knowing well the strategic importance, wanted to capture the island, and use it as a base for attacks on Japan. And that resulted in the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of World War II.

After making movies on reluctant gunfighters( Unforgiven), adultery( Bridges of Madison County), female boxers( Million Dollar Baby) and dark thrillers(Mystic River), actor-director Clint Eastwood,comes up with back to back movies on one of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Flags of Our Fathersdeals with the story of the men who raised the flag, while Letters from Iwo Jima, looks at the battle of Iwo Jima from a Japanese perspective.

Flags of our Fathers based on the same novel by James Bradley( Thomas Mc Carthy), looks at the story of the men behind the flag. The author’s father John “Doc” Bradley( Ryan Phillipe) had been one of the Marines who raised the flag. His father was always reluctant to talk about the eevent, and it was only after his death, did James discover that John Bradley, had been a War hero, and a Navy Cross recipient. While Doc was a Navy Corpsman from Wisconsin, the 5 marines wereMarine Sgt. Mike Strank( Barry Pepper) from Pennsylvania,Marine Cpl. Harlon Block( Benjamin Walker) from Texas.Marine Pfc Ira Hayes( Adam Beach) , a native American Indian from Arizona,Marine Pfc Franklin Sousley(Joseph Cross) from Kentucky and Marine Pfc Rene Gagnon( Jesse Bradford) from New Hampshire.

Batttle of Iwo Jima was crucial, as explained above. But the Japanese were not willing to surrender easily, as this island was a part of Japanese territory. In fact Iwo Jima was the first military invasion on Japanese soil. Though Japan by then, totally weakened, had no hope of defeating the US, they decided to go down, inflicting heavy casualties. And they built a network of tunnels on the island, from where they could launch surprise attacks on the US Army. In fact the same tactics were later used in Vietnam too. On Day 5 of the Battle, the US forces, capturedMt.Suribachi, a key point in the island. While an American flag, was raised first, it was taken down, and again a second flag was raised, during course of which the famous picture was taken. When this photograph was splashed in the US newspapers and magazines, it created a wave of nationalism all around the country, somewhat akin to the photograph of the capture of Tiger Hill during Kargil. A vast majority of the Americans believed that they had won a great victory in the war, but the actual battle raged on for 35 days, and was one of the bloodiest battles. And 3 of the marines were killed, without even knowing that they were famous back in the US.

The War Dept realizes that it has a great propaganda tool on hand, and locating the 3 surviving flag raises, Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon, it begins to use them as a propaganda device to raise the American spirit during the war. The 3 men are shocked and surprised as they see the sacrifice of their mates being cynically exploited for commercial reasons. The 3 men are paraded all around the US, as heroes, while they themselves are not too comfortable with it. Doc in particular who had seen his best friend Iggy, tortured and killed by the Japanese. Doc never considers himself as a hero, as he says “The only heroes are those who never came back”. Watch this movie to see how the 3 men deal with their celebrity status and what happens to their lives.

Flags of Our Fathers
, would rate as one of Eastwood’s, best directorial efforts, and one of the most hard hitting movies on war. Eastwood looks at war from two angles, one the actual battle field where the soldiers fight to survive, and the real world, which seeks to exploit it. Flags is not as much as a war movie, as is more of a dramatic movie, seeking to higlight how the tragedy of war is exploited by Govts and businessmen for commercial interests. And Eastwood spares no punches, while displaying the ugly reality. If the battle scenes are realistic and gritty, the scenes depicting the way the event is exploited, is no less hard hitting.

Watching the movie is like taking a double sucker punch straight in your face. On one hand, you are stunned at the real battle, and on the other hand you are shocked at the way, people exploit it. One such scene is where a replica of Mt.Suribachi is created, and the 3 surviving soldiers are asked to do a mock staging on the flag raising. They are justly shocked, as they had witnessed the deaths of those men with whom they had fought, and now this is being treated as an entertainment spectacle for the public. I guess the same way, many of us sit in front of the TV, watching live coverage of the Gulf or Iraq War, blissfully unaware of the real tragedy. The way a tragedy, is trivialized and commercialized, just for public consumption is brilliantly depicted in that scene.

As also the scene where Ira Hayes, faces racism, due to his American Indian background. The plight of Hayes is the most poignant. He believes that his participation in the War, would help to improve the image of American Indians, but in vain. As after the War, he faces the same discrimination, and ultimately dies a total drunkard. The other survivor, Rene Gagnon, goes along with the circus, hoping that this would help him after the war, to gain some employment. Sadly the same business people, who promised him jobs, ignore him, and he ends up doing a series of odd jobs to stay afloat.

Another brilliant scene, is where Bud Baker, the War Dept bureaucrat, explains to the 3 men, that this tour, is necessary to raise money for the War bonds. The earlier 3 attempts had failed, and the US Govt had to print more dollars, raising inflation. This picture is an excellent opportunity to raise the funds. The movie captures the disgust of the 3 survivors, with the way their tragedy has become a circus, for the general entertainment of the public. The battle scenes are realistically shot too, as is the scene of the Flag raising.


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