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Flags Of Our Fathers: Review

Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers.

28 January 2007




Flags of our Fathers, Clint Eastwood's epic on the horror of war and its impact on its participants has just hit the screens in India. On its opening day at Mumbai's Metro Adlabs, the critically acclaimed movie played just one show, and even that did not have even a quarter of the seats filled. Salam-e-ishq was house-full on the first day and so was Guru in its third week, showing four times a day.

Flags Of Our Fathers narrates the war for Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest stages in the Pacific theatre of World War-II. Controlled by Japan, the uninhabited volcanic Island of Iwo Jima lay in a direct line between the US and Japan. The Iwo Jima island served as an early warning post to the Japanese, who would inform stations in mainland Japan of approaching B-70 bombers from the American side of the Pacific. In quick response, the Japanese side would stack up the skies with airplanes so high that the US planes would be either shot down or forced to turn back. The American bombing raids met with considerable failure due to Japanese presence in Iwo Jima. Controlling the wasteland of Iwo Jima turned super-critical for the US if it was to win the war in the Pacific. The Japanese soldiers dug into the sulphur sands and caves of Iwo Jima, determined to keep American bombers off the mainland. The island was defended by 22,000 Japanese soldiers, burrowed into caves and nests.

After days of pounding from the air, the US battleships finally disgorged their men and machines at the beaches of Iwo Jima, beginning the invasion. Clint Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers kicks off from here.

As the battleships - hundreds of them - near Iwo Jima, we see the protagonists of the movie as ordinary Joes on the ship, playing cards, joking and talking of things at home. Clint Eastwood has deliberately kept the identity of the three actors a bit confusing, and it is difficult to tell who is who from the ship scenes.

The morning breaks with booming gunshots and in no time, the soldiers find themselves in the fuming volcanic beaches of Iwo Jima, which resembles an art movie landscape with its deep greys, blues and blacks. There is hardly a blade of grass in sight. The soldiers advance, and there is no enemy in sight. It is almost as if the Japanese have vanished from the island of Iwo Jima.

All of a sudden, gunfire erupt from beneath bushes and fortified machine-gun nests from the hillside. The Japanese have dug into the hillside so well that none of the imperialist fighters are visible to the advancing marines, though the marines themselves are on the crosshairs of hiding Japanese fighters.

Flags Of Our Fathers portrays the brutality of the war, in a manner reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg, who directed Saving Private Ryan, was the co-producer of Flags Of Our Fathers along with Clint Eastwood. However unlike Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers have no loveable heroes. In hand-to-hand combats, grenade lobs and fire guns, the marines take on the well-entrenched Japanese. However, the US is at a major disadvantage since Iwo Jima's defenders have laid the best traps for the marines to walk into.

The battle rages on in Iwo Jima. There are poignant shots where Japanese lies dying next to a marine and where a squad of marine searching a cave comes across dead Japanese soldiers who have killed themselves rather than surrendering to the enemy. Some marines are kidnapped and tortured to death in caves. The battle for Iwo Jima claimed 22,000 Japanese soldiers and 7000 American soldiers. The brutality and sacrifice of the battle here can be assessed from the fact that of all the World War II medals given out by the US, one-fourth went to those who fought the Japanese in Iwo Jima.

On the fifth day of fighting in the battle for Iwo Jima, Flags Of Our Fathers shows six men erecting the American Flag on top of Mount Suribachi, which is clicked by Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer, which strikes a chord with the war-weary American public and boosts their morale enough to part with their savings for financing the War.

The Flag hoisted at Iwo Jima's tallest peak and clicked by Joe Rosenthal was not the first American flag to be there. The first flag was taken down the same day and five marines and a navy corpsman were asked to put up another one. This second flag-hoisting was captured and immortalised by the AP photograph.

The Mount Suribachi flag raising and the events that followed had a profound impact on the flag-raisers. In Flags Of Our Fathers, Pima native American Indian Ira Hayes, navy man John Bradley and Rene Gagnon raise the Suribachi flag, along with three others. The others donít survive Iwo Jima, just like sprightly sergeant Mike Strank, the leader of the boys.

Within weeks of raising the Flag at Iwo Jima, the three young men who did it are flown back to the US. They are pitch forked into the middle of a high-voltage government-sponsored public relations campaign to raise funds for the war effort. For bombs, bombers and machine guns, the government needs to gather an additional 14 billion dollars. The "heroes" of Mount Suribachi are the ideal candidates. Through the movie, all the three are haunted by the knowledge that they are not heroes, but mere puppets in the hands of the government. The real heroes, they protest, died in the island. However, their "minders" and the government are in no mood to listen. The Rosenthal photograph has lifted the flagging spirits of the nation, and time is ripe to milk $14 billion from the public with some help from the Suribachi stars.

Bradley, Gagnon and Ira Hayes find themselves in the middle of a war campaign tour to raise money. They are made to attend fund-raising banquets and make fools of themselves by running up a papier mache hill and plant a flag there in a reconstruction of the events of Iwo Jima. Huge crowds of patriotic Americans cheer, as flashes from Iwo Jima run in their mind.

The war campaign successfully raises the money for the ongoing war, which the Allies win. However, Iwo Jima's threesome are shattered. They all feel guilty that they survived when their colleagues did not. Bradley never speaks a word about the War even to his family and becomes a recluse. He hides from everyone the fact he won a medal for it. In his nightmares, he still searches for his friend "Iggy" who went missing in the Iwo Jima. Even in his old age, Bradley wakes up in a cold sweat with the chatter of gunfire from the sulphur island still reverberating in his ears. Rene Gagnon manages to take the adulation in his stride, to some extent. Meanwhile, Hayes who leaves the services becomes a drunken man, plods through life and goes into oblivion.

Of all actors in Flags of Our Fathers, Ira Hayes (played by Adam Beach) is the most touching: throughout his military career, he is the subject of racist barbs: "Goddamn Indian!" says a military officer seeing him drunk. Many of them call him "Chief," hinting at his background. Another officer tries to make conversation with him in his native language, which he can't make out since he left the Reservation a long time ago. He is hurt and humiliated when he is called a "hero", since he believes that real heroes like Mark lie rotting in the volcanic rock of Iwo Jima.

Flags of Our Fathers is several notches above other war movies I have seen recently, because Clint Eastwood conveys a larger message through his movie without being preachy and self-important. It points to the inevitability of combat, and the futility of war. There are no heroes in war; only victims. It exposes the cynicism of the Administration which uses its traumatized soldiers in "national interest", even after realizing that one of the characters in the photo was not there when the American flag was raised at Mount Suribachi.

Throughout the movie, Eastwood inter-cuts between the present and the past. Scenes from Iwo Jima, the war campaign tour and the present are mixed together, giving the feel that the war is always under way. In the minds of Iwo Jima's veterans, the war is never over - it replays in their nightmares and haunts them till death.


Paramount Pictures
DreamWorks and Warner Bros. Pictures present a Malpaso Prods./Amblin Entertainment production
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriters: William Broyles Jr., Paul Haggis
Based on the book by: James Bradley with Ron Powers
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Henry Bumstead
Music: Clint Eastwood
Co-producer: Tim Moore
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editor: Joel Cox
John Bradley: Ryan Phillippe
Rene Gagnon: Jesse Bradford
Ira Hayes: Adam Beach
Keyes Beech: John Benjamin Hickey
Bud Gerber: John Slattery
Mike Strank: Barry Pepper
Ralph Ignatowski: Jamie Bell
Hank Hansen: Paul Walker
Running time -- 132 minutes
MPAA rating: R


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