By Stuart Kurtz

We’ve come to have certain expectations of World War II films over the years. We expect to see bloodshed, of course. We know there will be sacrifices, as well as displays bravery and heroism. We know we will see men put to the reaches of endurance and conquer their fears. These are givens. World War II films, as opposed to those about Vietnam, have usually conveyed these principles. There are exceptions: George C. Scott barking and slapping his way to immortality in Patton, and the problem of what’s worth sacrificing oneself for in Saving Private Ryan. Clint Eastwood has one of the handful of alternate views of what they call “The Good War.” The film’s tagline, “a single shot can save the war,” signals Eastwood’s intention, as it points up the difference between publicity, one photo, and reality, the actuality of fighting on that island.

Clint Eastwood gives us the form of a classical war drama and then disrupts those complacent assumptions we have by actions and attitudes that do not fit the mold. There is lots of ordinance fired, many assaults, heroic music, loyal men, a patriotic public, rallies, and, of course, flags. He throws us some curves in the form of non-sequitors to keep us thinking. The demand of James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, to keep the flag as a souvenir spoils the alleged sanctity of the first flag-raising and that of the emblem, the flag. Do the event and emblem cease to be icons and degrade into mere images? Consider too the fact that Hank Hansen’s parents are not invited to the dedication of the statue. The image of the men seems more important than the actual men. The hard times two of the leads fall on after the war are also apt. If these men were demigods to the public, why do their countrymen abandon them? A good example of the schism between presentation and reality is the photo op a tourist takes of his family posing with Ira Hayes, one of the marines from the famous picture. The tourist snaps his photo and is elated to have a likeness of a war hero, while ignoring the hard life of picking vegetables Ira then suffers. The press, the collective form of that tourist, beefs up Rene Gagnon’s engagement in its selective presentation of supposed truth. Gagnon, like Hayes, is headed for hard times after the fanfare is over.

Eastwood’s editor presents choppy, disjointed samples of action. There are enough leaps back and forward in time to disorient even Eisenstein, but this may work in the director’s favor. It means our minds will possibly fill in the gaps in narrative and action with the heroic clichés we learned from many years of viewing World War II films. And then, a later scene with very anti-heroic action will dash those presumptions. Such is Mike Strank’s slaughter of three Japanese. Eastwood reshuffles the deck, intentionally or not.

War propaganda relies on simplistic images and slogans that erects a wall between fictions and truths. One of the marines asks what happened to “no man left behind,” when he realizes the convoy will not stop to pick up a man overboard. We should ruminate on whether the incitation to war is based on images, while the reality is unglamorous, murderous chaos. It’s clear that images mean more than visual triggers; they represent things less tangible sometimes. In a war so deeply felt, these images sometimes are elevated to sacred objects. The fact of the two flag-hoistings makes this problematic. Is the second flag as potent as the first? Is it all about the willingness to believe despite contrary evidence? People say non-chalantly they are willing to die for their flags, but can they rely on symbols after all? Eastwood takes these questions to their absurd ends in presenting the marines lifting the flag as ice cream. Icon becomes kitsch.

Repetitive deaths in the film echo repetitive images. They lose meaning over time. How can we say the slaughter one-by-one of some of the marines is heroic? In succession, they become bodies on film. There seems to be no meaning attached to these deaths. The repetition of flagraisings and the repletion of men being picked off are of a kind. Heroic music, composed by the director himself, sounds equally heroically at the two raisings. It is forced and distasteful the second time around. Eastwood demonstrates how music, as well as visuals can be fabricated to evince feelings in the way images manipulate emotions.

Other motives than defending country are what one must consider in a few scenes. Two men stuff business cards in the marines’ hands or pockets. Eastwood often connects business to war. After all, the bonds make the war possible. Eastwood honors the fighters but indicts the public. Heroes need worshipers, but it is necessary to look at the actions of the second. Politicians and businessmen exploit the suffering of the servicemen for war bonds but also for personal gain. The spectacles of the bond drives egg on the crowds to violent collective feelings. The Gold Star Mothers should be devotional and strong according to hero idolatry, yet two of them are bitter toward the three survivors. The negative press the newsmen lavish on Ira’s peccadilloes reveal the reprehensible lengths to which they will go.

Flags of Our Fathers addresses all our images of World War II regarding bravery, sacrifice, and heroism. Sacrifice was there for sure, but bravery and heroism are conceptual terms. Eastwood creates the form of a heroic war film but allows difficult questions to surface. Are wars waged from patriotism and love of countrymen, or are they waged as acceptable forums for aggression? It does not matter whether the second action was staged. What counts is the pain the marines went through to lift those flags.

US, 2006. 132 min., Warner Bros./ Dreamworks/ Amblin/ Malpaso Productions

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