Flags of Our Fathers

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

For the most part, I found Flags of Our Fathers to be an enjoyable if unspectacular war flick. Even though it was well filmed it seemed rather static and cold. But curiously, at the end, I found myself being moved by it. I think it was the story of Ira Hayes that got to me. Without being showy or manipulative it painted a picture of a man who was incredibly uncomfortable with being deemed a ‘hero’ and who was ultimately destroyed by this label.

One of the flag raisers at Iwo Jima, he was roped into the drive to sell War Bonds and was destroyed by the attention he garnered. In particular what I found sad was, near the end of his life, his status as a fifth-rate tourist attraction. There’s a scene near the end when he’s labouring in a field. Suddenly some tourists turn up, have their photo taken with him and scuttle off. The man’s whole life has been reduced to one moment, one photo. That’s the only thing people will remember him for. He’s not even a person anymore; he’s an image.

But what’s a hero anyway? That’s one of the questions the film puts forward. The three flag raisers certainly don’t think they deserve that distinction, and in a conventional sense they probably don’t. The picture was taken a few days into a month long campaign – it wasn’t signalling victory. But an image takes on a life of its own and acquires its own meaning. It becomes less about the people in the photo and more about the person who views it. But even though the photo was a manipulation it helped the war effort. Therefore the self-sacrifice the soldiers made in selling this story and perpetuating this myth could actually be deemed heroic – they helped raise money and helped the allies win the war.

However, there was a price to pay. Ira Hayes paid with his life and the other two soldiers lived in obscurity. We even hear one of them get turned down for a job that was promised him when he was flavour of the month, when his name had currency. But as soon as the war is over the rich businessman who promised this guy the world fails to live up to his promises. Even though it didn’t surprise me, it made me pretty angry. And it was sad to hear that one of the guys had to eek out a living as a janitor. These people fight for their country, loose their friends and sell their souls in some tacky circus sideshow to sell War Bonds, and they get shat on. It makes you wonder why they bothered.

But as one of the characters says, they fought for their friends, not for their country. And, for me, one of the most upsetting things in the film was the image of an old man sitting on the stairs wondering aloud where one of his buddies had gone. It transpires that he’s talking about a young kid in his platoon called Iggy (played by Jamie Bell) who suddenly went missing during a battle. What then happens in the film (the discovery of Iggy’s dead body) isn’t particularly well executed (we never see the corpse) but the real life details, for me, made the story of this battle even stronger. Iggy’s body was found mutilated, and it was suspected that he was tortured by the Japanese for a few days before being bayoneted and clubbed to death. I can sort of understand why these details are left out of the film – it would certainly be hard for a lot of people to feel sympathy for the Japanese in Letters From Iwo Jima if they knew all the grisly details – but I think shrinking away lessens the impact the film would have had. I don’t think a lot of people really understand or appreciate the hardships the soldiers went through. Part of this is because we only get a sanitised view of the war. Pardon the pun, but we never see the full picture.

Of course, having said this, the film does feature some extremely violent battle scenes. But then again it’s become common for war films to feature lots of blood and guts. Anything less would disappoint. And I do have to say that the battle scenes impress. They’re visceral, brutal and full of grisly little details – there’s one bit where a soldier gets hit on the head by a decapitated head. I also like the way that we rarely get to see the Japanese. It’s almost like the Americans are fighting thin air. But although the battle scenes are never anything short of excellent, they’re not the heart of the film. The heart of the film is the picture of the flag.

As we’ve seen in Iraq with the pictures of prisoners being tortured, photographs can do great harm for a war effort. But as Flags of Our Fathers shows they can also have a more positive influence. They can rally people behind a cause. They can simplify a difficult message. And although the film is hardly revolutionary, and although it’s not exactly news that heroism is subjective and that the powerful manipulate the masses, I found that the film eventually hit its mark. Sure it took a while for me to warm to it, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised.

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