By dramatising what actually happened to anonymous figures in iconic photographs, like the one of six Marines raising a flag on the island of Iwo Jima during the Second World War.
“The biggest obstacle a B-29 pilot faced on his bombing run to Japan was the lethal triple whammy of danger presented by Iwo Jima,” wrote John Bradley in “Flags of Our Fathers” his magnificent history of the battle of Iwo Jima. “Athwart the direct path to Japan, the island was almost exactly halfway between the Marianas and Japan and boasted two airstrips and a radar station. As the Superforts approached Iwo on their way to Japan, the radar station would give mainland defenders a two-hour early warning. The gigantic B-29s, lumbering north on their 2,500 mile round trip flight to attack Japan, made easy targets for the small, quick fighter planes based on Iwo. And lastly, after enduring more anti-craft fire and dogfights over Japan, the B-29s, often damaged, would again be forced to face the Iwo-based fighters on their return trip.”
Iwo Jima had to be taken by the Americans, but it was the nearest thing they had encountered to an impregnable fortress. More than seven hundred pillboxes made of steel-reinforced concrete had been built on the island, so that any Americans landing on its beaches could expect to find themselves under immediate withering machine gunfire from Japanese soldiers who could neither be seen nor reached, unless a marine made it up the slope in the teeth of sustained crossfire to lob a hand-grenade in the letter-box opening of the pillbox.
When the Americans landed, they saw virtually no Japanese soldiers, although 20,000 of them were on the island, concealed in an interlacing of underground tunnels which incorporated three fully equipped hospitals. The fighting would make the Normandy Beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan look mild. The marines, struggling to get to the pill-boxes, died in horrific numbers at the hands of an invisible enemy.
At one point, a stars and stripes flag was raised on a hill on the island called Mount Suribachi. Its raising seems to have coincided with the suicide, in the tunnels far below, of 150 Japanese soldiers. It wasn’t much of a flag, and one of the officers on the island demanded that a much bigger one go up so that it could be seen “by every son of a bitch on this cruddy island”. Someone found a big flag. Someone else found a length of drainage pipe. The flag was attached to the pipe and the group started to hammer it into the ground and get it vertical.
A photographer named Rosenthal, who’d fallen down a hill that morning and wasn’t sure if his camera was still working, snapped a few frames of the event and sent the film off, unseen, for processing and distribution. It wound up on the front page of the New York Times and virtually every newspaper in the United States. Something about the vigour of the faceless helmeted marines in the shot captured a moment for Americans and the picture became a cut-out-and-keep item, eventually appearing on a US mail stamp and on a massive war memorial. The flagraising shot from Iwo Jima became a symbol of American courage, a symbol of the Second World War, a symbol of the Marine Corps.
“It became,” John Bradley wrote, “everything except the salvation of the boys [in it]. Three were killed in the continuing battle. Of the three survivors, two were overtaken and eventually destroyed — dead of drink and heartbreak. Only one of them managed to live in peace into an advanced age. He achieved this peace by willing the past into a cave of silence.”
That last man was the father of the writer of Flags of our Fathers.
Because the father wouldn’t talk about his wartime experiences, the son had no idea what had happened on Iwo Jima. He knew he had a duty, shared with his seven siblings. When media called, as they did every week, looking to talk to his father, they were to say his father (who never fished) was on a fishing trip. Bradley senior didn’t want to talk to journalists about an incident which had no significance for him. He had just pitched in to push a pole into position along with five other marines each of whom went right back to much more important tasks, and some of whom were dead within 24 hours. None of them knew a photograph had been taken. All of them were mystified by the iconic status the picture achieved. The least important event in an eventful day was used to define their lives.
A MOVIE about the lives of the six men who raised the Iwo Jima flag, based on Bradley’s stunning book, has been a hit in the United States, attracting young viewers because of its vivid, violent story telling and because of the hidden issues behind the picture, just one of which was the fact that the man at the back of the shot, whose hand doesn’t quite reach the pole, was a Pima Indian, whose post-factum fame as one of the flagraisers ran counter to his tribe’s deepest values, which rejected self- promotion or the seeking of recognition, and seems to have led to his slow suicide using alcohol.
The movie is one of two on the same topic by the same director. The other film — also hugely successful with the critics and at the box office — tells the story of the battle of Iwo Jima, but from the Japanese point of view.
It’s a phenomenal directorial achievement, but it’s a lot more than that.
It is, to borrow Riefenstahl’s phrase, a triumph of the will. Because to persuade the film-going public to view not just one but TWO movies about a battle about which little was known at the time, too far away to be immediately interesting, and to enthrall them with both sides of a battle involving Americans at a time when the pressure is on Americans to be pro America and nothing else, would be some achievement — even for a young film genius.
Except that the director is a film star who could sit back and live off the money he made from junk adventure movies 40 years ago.
Clint Eastwood is 77. He doesn’t seem to have got the message (so firmly believed in Ireland) that only young people can attract the young market.
Instead, he seems to have copped on to two undervalued truths.
First, that doing what you’re good at, rather than retiring and talking about what you USED to be good at, has a lot going for it.
And second, that great storytelling is the one gift that transcends time, location and even the rampant ageism of the 21st century.