What is your life? For you are a mist
that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites,
‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your
children know, “Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.” For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God for ever.’
It is not stones but flags that take on symbolic meaning in Clint Eastwood’s latest film. Painting on a larger than ever canvas, Mr. Eastwood explores the effects of war and fame through the quest of a son who is trying to understand his aged father, John “Doc” Bradley, one of the surviving men who raised the flag atop Mt. Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima in February of 1945. As we learn, there were actually two flag raisings on the mountain. The first was ordered by an officer after the Marines had taken enough of the island so that troops could scale the mountain. He thought that the sight of the flag would encourage the troops to carry on the bloody struggle, and he was right, the men cheering loudly. The encouragement was needed, the final subjugation of the stubborn defenders requiring five more weeks of deadly fighting. The Battle for Iwo Jima was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War, with 2000 casualties just on the first day of the invasion.
The original flag was not to fly long over the battle. A superior officer, wanting the flag as a war trophy, sends a runner up with a larger flag to replace the original. Again a group of five Marines, plus a Navy medical corpsman, attach the flag to the heavy pipe serving as a flagpole, and together raise the flag. This time AP photographer Joe Rosenthal is on hand to record the event. He has no idea of the results of his photograph when he asks, “O.K., guys, who wants to be famous?” The photo is wired back to the States, and soon it is on the front page of virtually every newspaper in the nation. According to the film, the public back home was growing war weary and discouraged, as evidenced by the failure of the government’s recent war bond drive, this creating a serious short-fall of cash to pay for the huge amount of equipment still needed to achieve victory. Understanding immediately the significance of the photograph, military and government officials order the flag risers to return home to undertake a grueling campaign to sell war bonds.
But who really raised the flag? The photograph does not show the faces of the men. The three who have survived the bloody battle raised the second flag, and are filled with doubts as to who was involved in the first flag raising—and also feel guilty about leaving their comrades to finish the battle. The three survivors are John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy corpsman, and Marines privates Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach). Despite their protests that they are not heroes, the three are whisked from town to city to town, paraded and lionized as typical of the heroes of “our boys at the front.”
A combination of fatigue, guilt, fueled by their haunted memories of the horror of what they saw and did on the field of battle gradually overtakes them. Ira Hayes (whose story was told in the 1961 film The Outsider) succombs the most to the pressure, turning to drink, so that when the three restage the flagraising atop a paper mache mountain before an adoring crowd that fills Chicago’s giant Soldier’s Field, he is so drunk that afterwards he falls down, eliciting the contempt of an officer who knows nothing of what the three had gobe through in the Pacific..
The film jumps back and forth between the horrific scenes of carnage on the battle field, the various incidents of the war bond tour, and John Bradley’s son trying to piece together his dying father’s story. Bradley had never spoken of his war experiences, nor ever shown the medal which his son discovers among the papers—the things the Marine saw and did were just too terrible to talk about, filling his nights with haunting, searing memories. In his own way, Mr. Eastwood shows some of the horrors of battle, every bit as powerfully as those in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The truth of the Letter of James’ observation about the fragility of life is especially borne out by the battlefield experiences in which men are suddenly blown up or shot next to those who escape unscathed.
A subtheme of the film also is that of the inbred racism that leads to his comrades always calling “Chief” because he was a Pima Indian, never “Ira.” Nor is the irony of the Manhattan bartender’s refusal to serv an “Indian,” regardless of his heroic status, lost on us. Thus there is much to think about and discuss in this memorable film, especially in regard to heroism and the public’s need for heroes, as well as manufactured heroes, pushed by our government.
For Reflection/Thought 1) Based on the scenes of combat depicted in the film, how would you say that the photograph is an appropriate symbol of what took place on Iwo Jima? What effect does it have on the people back in the United States? What other photographs stand out from: the Vietnam War; the Iraqi War; Hurricane Katrina?
2) What do you think of the way in which the government used the three survivors? Does this remind you all of the way in which our government attempted to use the purported heroism of Jessica Lynch?
3) The film reveals that the first flagraisers were not the ones photographed, and thus not among those lionized as heroes. What does this suggest about the need for images in our society? Compare this to a remark made by a TV journalist in the 1983 film Under Fire, to the effect that if it (it being some act in a war) doesn’t appear on camera, it doesn’t exist.
4) The three survivors state that they are not heroes, that the real heroes are the ones who died and who are still fighting: what do you think of this? Why are the three singled out for such adulation? In the film Spider-Man 2 Aunt May talks to her nephew Peter Parker, who has given up his heroic crime-fighting career so he can lead a normal life, about the need for heroes. What do you think of her belief that we, especially children like her neighbor boy, need someone to look up to and emulate?
5) What does the last part of the film tell us about fame? Is Rene Gagnon, who had been give two business cards by entrepeneurs offering him a job after the war, able to take advantage of his fame?