After being appalled by the nihilism of “Million Dollar Baby,” which won an Oscar for Best Picture for Clint Eastwood, I wasn’t enthusiastic about going to Clint’s new movie, “Flags of Our Fathers.” But I did see it over the weekend. Flags is a mediocre film, with some good scenes. Its agenda is debunking the very notion of heroism. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

The American flag in the famous picture of the Marines raising it at Iwo Jima is the flag of the title. It’s flags in the plural because the picture, snapped by photographer Joe Rosenthal, was taken twice–once when the flag first went up and again when, apparently because some Marine officer wanted to save the original for posterity, a second time after the original was taken down and another put in its place. This has given rise to controversy over who the real flag raisers were and whether the picture was doctored. The movie chronicles the effect of the famous episode on the Marines who were photographed (either first or second time). 

We all know the picture, of course; one of the characters described it as having “won the war” for the United States. He goes on to compare it to another iconic Vietnam photo, one which, he says, lost that war us.  My immediate reaction was to think about some Iraqi War photographers. We know that photos from this war have been doctored in a way that is intended to make the public turn against the war. Not leaping to the Iraq analogy, the American Thinker challenges takes on the Vietnam comparison:  

“Right off the bat, viewers endure a clumsy and historically inaccurate attempt to weave in a comparison to the Vietnam War.  During the first interview, Dave Severance, played by Harve Presnell (who portrayed Gen. George C. Marshall in Saving Private Ryan), says that from the moment the photo was published of a Vietnamese officer shooting a VC in the head, that the war was lost, and that ‘we just pretended otherwise’ until our withdrawal from Southeast Asia.  Likewise, he says, the Joe Rosenthal picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi won the war for the US.

“This is simply propagandizing to a new generation of Americans without providing context or any modicum of historical accuracy.  That the shooter was the town’s sheriff, who was understandably enraged that the VC he executed was part of a unit that had kidnapped and brutally murdered the sheriff’s family is never mentioned.

“It is odd then, that a movie ostensibly concerned with debunking myths and legends concerning the flag-raising on Iwo Jima would perpetuate a favorite myth of the 60s-era anti-war left without an iota of skepticism.  But it’s maybe not so strange, when one of the screen writers turns out to be William Broyles, Jr., who also wrote the screenplay for Jarhead, another horribly inaccurate war movie that focused on the selfish needs of a lone, dysfunctional Marine.”

The Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima are pulled out of combat, as happened in real life, to come home and try to sell bonds for the war effort. (There is some confusion as to whether they tapped the right Marines, or whether Marines from the second raising replaced ones from the first. The exposition is confusing here, so I guess one will have to resort to the historical record to resolve this.) Truman, the new president, and the Treasury official put in charge of the Marines are portrayed as hucksters of the worst sort, even though they were trying to win a war.

Quite expectedly, the Marines feel guilt that they are safe at home, while their buddies still are fighting. They graciously describe their dead friends as “the real heroes.” No hero thinks of himself as a hero. But the movie’s point is to say that there is no such thing as heroism, a cynical, modern notion. There is also no such thing as a cause greater than oneself and those around you-the narrator, the son of “Doc” Bradley, one of the flag raisers, says that Marines fought not for a cause but for “their buddies.”

No doubt this is true-as far as it goes. But without a larger cause, there is no way to redeem the carnage. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The attitude that soldiers fight “only” for their buddies veers close to E. M. Foster’s famous remark: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” It takes more guts to fight for your country, E.M.

Oddly enough, there are a few scenes of genuine beauty-and one is the raising of the flag. The scene from the top of Suribachi is a beautiful panorama of the U.S. Navy arrayed around the hard-fought-for coast.  The ships ring bells and the soldiers cheer when they see their flag up on the mountain-they know that they are fighting for something larger than themselves. The battle scenes are scary and have a strange kind of beauty, even if they were fought digitally. This is reminiscent of  Troy, another mediocre anti-war movie with beautiful war scenes. The ships reminded me particularly of the ships in Troy.

A few more observations about the movie:

1. This was war without chaplains. A chaplain was a stock figure in many World War I and II movies. Not here. These men die in a more 2006 manner. No, make that Hollywood manner. No prayers in foxholes in this movie. 

2. War is no place for women. Despite my criticisms of this movie, I think it should be required viewing for the National Organization for Women and other armchair Valkyrior.

3. America the Prejudiced: Sorry, but this was probably accurate for the time. Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian, one of the flag raisers, suffers intensely from prejudice. But it was alcoholism-not prejudice-that killed Hayes. He was a genuine hero, however. The movie implies that, unless you go onto econimic success, which Hayes did not, being a hero is a bummer.   

4. No matter what Hollywood says, heroism on the battlefield still matters. In the movie, Harlan Block’s mother finds meaning in Harlan’s having been one of the flag raisers before he was killed. But there is an anti-war touch: Harlan’s parents end up divorced because she is angry that her husband “let” Harlan go to war. This is probably another blurring of the historical record. Every young man went to war then-something that could not happen today, when we are unable to recognize heroism and fight for causes larger than ourselves.