A Heroic Effort


It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers has been hailed as a masterpiece. Both the subject matter and the theme wrested from it are stirring and important. On the fifth day of the nearly month-long battle of Iwo Jima, some soldiers raise the Stars and Stripes on the island’s Mt. Suri¬bachi and the sight cheers the troops. When the flag is claimed by a bigwig as a souvenir, a second flag is put up by a different group of soldiers; this raising, ignored by the troops but captured in a classic photo, becomes an instant icon of American patriotism. To reinvigorate the public’s enthusiasm for the war, and to encourage the buying of war bonds, the three surviving men of the second group are sent home on a promotional tour.

Two of the three-Native American Ira Hayes and John “Doc” Bradley (whose son wrote the book on which the movie is based)-are suffering from what we now call “survivor’s guilt”: the loss of their comrades is aggravated by their realization that mere chance has placed them in a heroic spotlight. The third, Rene Gagnon, a messenger who never actually saw combat, is portrayed as something of an opportunist intending to use his new status to land a good postwar job; yet he too chafes under the inauthenticity of his putative heroism. The theme becomes clear before the movie is halfway through, but is summed up near the end by the narrator (Bradley’s son): if we really want to honor...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.