Clint Eastwood's new Iwo Jima film goes beyond the icon
It was a picture worth a thousand words, not to mention $26 billion in war bonds. The classic, inspirational shot of the five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the flag at Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945, the subject of Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," opening Friday, didn't merely galvanize America like few photos before or since.
It also demonstrated, stunningly, the power of image to sell a government product -- in this case, World War II.
"People fell in love with the photo," says author James Bradley, whose account of his father, John "Doc" Bradley, one of the six flag-raising servicemen in the photo, was the basis for Eastwood's film.
But if people were to take "Flags of Our Fathers" as some sort of covert attack on the modern government spin machine, with its "Mission Accomplished" photos and Jessica Lynch theatrics, they would be barking up the wrong war, Bradley says.
What's really striking, he says, is what the Iwo Jima photo and more recent, dubious efforts at war propaganda do not have in common.
"The government did not make up the photo at Iwo Jima," Bradley says. "The AP offered the photo to newspapers across the country, who picked it up. Everyone fell in love with the photo. It was a little like Beatlemania."
The $90 million film, the first installment of Eastwood's ambitious two-part project to chronicle Iwo Jima ("Letters From Iwo Jima," telling the same story from the Japanese point of view, comes out Feb. 9), is being talked of as an Oscar shoo-in for its ambitious, bloody battle scenes and its bittersweet story -- intercut with the war footage -- of the three surviving flag-raising Marines (played by Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach) who were yanked out of action to reenact their flag-raising to cheering, bond-buying U.S. crowds.
"They were being treated as celebrities, and they didn't feel that," Eastwood said in a press conference last week. "They felt very complex about it, especially since they had so many companions who had been killed in the ferocious battle."
These days, of course, most people who have forgotten the battle (6,821 Americans died on Iwo Jima) still remember the photo.
It's been reprinted, parodied and turned into postage stamps, tiny statuettes and mighty monuments like the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va. And it reverberates to this day: The famous 2001 photo by The Record's Thomas E. Franklin of the three firefighters hoisting the flag over the 9/11 ruins of the World Trade Center, drew part of its power from its uncanny echoes of the Iwo Jima image.
"Flags of Our Fathers" offers a tribute to the faceless men whose all-for-one spirit was captured for that fleeting, memorable second on film: "Doc" Bradley (Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Bradford) and the alcoholic, tormented Native American Ira Hayes (Beach), the most complex and tragic of the trio.
Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes knew several of them.
"What struck me immediately was the similarity between the characters on the screen and the men who survived that flag-raising," said Haynes (he saw the film in preview), who was at Mount Suribachi on that day 61 years ago, when that second flag went up.
OK, this may be news to old-movie fans. But the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising didn't happen the way it was shown in the gung-ho 1949 hit "The Sands of Iwo Jima" -- with tough sergeant John Wayne heroically taking a sniper bullet while his boys hoist the flag into the wind and "From the Halls of Montezuma" swells on the soundtrack.
Eastwood, in "Flags of Our Fathers," shows it the way history records it and Haynes remembers it. Two flags.
"In the case of the first flag, I was about 200 meters from the base of Suribachi, and I could see it," Haynes says.
Mount Suribachi was the strategic high ground on the strategic island of Iwo Jima -- a tiny volcanic moonscape off the Japanese coast that was key to the U.S. military because of its position (a much-needed refueling spot for U.S. bombers headed to and from Japan) and its importance to the Japanese as an advance lookout for Tokyo-bound U.S. forces.
On Feb. 19, 1945, a force of 30,000 Marines landed to take the island, struggling across the beach and up the mountain against massive fire from Japanese entrenched in bunkers and caves dotting the slope. When they got to the top, four days later, they hoisted the first flag.
That was the one that mattered to the Marines, Haynes says.
"The first flag-raising had a huge effect on the morale of the troops, because you could see that little flag from the top of the hill, and the ships could see it," Haynes recalls. "There was a great deal of cheering; ships were blowing their whistles, and so on."
Then somebody demanded that it be taken down and another flag substituted.
Possibly it was Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who wanted the original as a souvenir; possibly it was Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner of the flagship U.S.S. El Dorado, who thought it was too small.
"It looked like a postage stamp on a flagpole," recalls Eugene Foley, who saw it flapping from the far-off deck of the El Dorado, where he was serving as signalman. "(Turner) turned around after 15 seconds and told an officer, `Get a ship's flag, and have it put over there.'"
Whoever ordered it, the first flag was quietly taken down -- and a second, larger flag was erected on the same spot a few hours later.
This was the flag-raising that the late Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal (he died in August) happened to snap on the fly -- and that became a sensation on the home front five days later when it was published in newspapers worldwide.
At a time when home-front morale was low, and bond sales were bottoming out, the U.S. government seized on the flag photo as a potential gold mine. "That flag-raising affected the morale in America as a whole," Haynes says.
Exploitation? Hardly, says Bradley, who points out that World War II was a subscription war, paid for with bonds -- democratic in a way that a modern, tax-funded war could never be. Bond sales were essential, and no one saw anything wrong in capitalizing on the Iwo Jima image for cash. Quite the reverse. "The government was swept along on this tide of everyone falling in love with the photo," Bradley says.
Following the lead of the gritty, gruesome "Saving Private Ryan" ("Flags" was co-produced by "Ryan's" Steven Spielberg), Eastwood's film doesn't mince words or images about Iwo Jima.
"It's no exaggeration, what he shows," says Haynes, 85. "On the beach I remember seeing a leg with legging and a boot. One of my clerk runners had picked this up and said, `Captain, what should I do with this?' I said, `Take it over to Dr. McCarthy, and maybe he can match it up.'"
Despite such horrific memories, Haynes -- for one -- is not sorry that Eastwood is going to tell the Japanese side of the story in "Letters From Iwo Jima."
"I think it's OK. I'm glad that he's doing it," Haynes says. "Time changes a lot of things."
"Flags of Our Fathers" isn't Hollywood's first -- or last -- excursion to Iwo Jima.
"To the Shores of Iwo Jima" (1945). Documentary of the Iwo Jima campaign produced by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
"The Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949). John Wayne, as tough-guy Sgt. Stryker, orders John Agar, Forrest Tucker, Richard Jaeckel and the rest of his men to "saddle up" to meet their rendezvous with destiny. John "Doc" Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes briefly appear as themselves during the climactic flag-raising scene.
"The Outsider" (1961). Tony Curtis in the story of Ira Hayes, the Native American whose Iwo Jima fame was short-lived and whose problems with alcohol, homelessness and prejudice were long-term (he died in 1955 of exposure).
"Letters From Iwo Jima" (2007). Clint Eastwood's follow-up to "Flags of Our Fathers," telling the saga from the point of view of Lt. Gen.Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe).