Wow. What I had hoped would be a sorely-needed, long-awaited Marine Corps version of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers was, instead, the usual, obnoxious, annoying Hollywood fare.
The movie opens to some guy singing acapella and it’s really annoying. It even sounds like Eastwood (reminiscent of another one of my not-so-favorite Eastwood bombs, Honkytonk Man) which makes it even more annoying.
We cut from black to what we can assume is the Island of Iwo Jima and Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) being called off-screen by someone sounding hurt.
Iwo Jima is a tiny island in perfect strategic position between the Marianas Islands and Japan. It was a pivotal stepping stone for General Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific island-hopping campaign. It would allow American bombers to have desperately needed fighter-cover for their runs over Japan and, even more importantly, provide safe haven for crippled aircraft.
By the end of the war, 2,400 bombers carrying 27,000 crewmen had made unscheduled landings on Iwo Jima.
The B-29 “Superfortress” Dinah Might, surrounded by Marines and Sea Bees after ditching on Iwo Jima.
But it came at a heavy price. Japan had a garrison of over 21,000 men posted there with instructions to make the Americans pay dearly as they moved inexorably towards their homeland. Japanese children were born and bread with exceptional single-mindedness for patriotism and loyalty towards authority. Military training was even more vigorous (even vicious)—
For most of the conflict, Japanese troops lived on minimal rations and under conditions that were Spartan, even by the wartime standards. By the late years of the fighting, large numbers of soldiers were on the verge of starvation. Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that guards, commandants and supply officers would have grown to resent the food and supplies spent on caring for enemy prisoners or that they would have taken out this resentment on the prisoners themselves. This sort of resentment was compounded by a general contempt for soldiers who surrendered, a contempt engendered by their military training and indoctrination. Japanese troops were taught that surrender was simply not an option for any but the basest of cowards. The Senjin kun intoned that, “One who knows shame is strong… Do not endure the shame of being made prisoner while alive; die and do not leave behind the sullied name of one who foundered and fell.” To their Japanese guards, then, allied prisoners appeared as nothing less than cowards and moral failures who were consuming food and other supplies that could otherwise be used by fighting troops; hardly an attitude conducive to kind and considerate treatment.
By this late time in the war (the beginning of 1945), the Japanese had put great effort into creating devastating defensive positions and exploiting them using well-honed tactics. It seemed for the Marines that every rock was a trap door from which a fanatical defender would spring out…every knocked out heavy weapon would “magically” come back to life, fed by some unseen tunnel or trench…every mole hill hid a fanatical Japanese defender who wished only to take a Marine with him in death.
A knocked-out Japanese 120mm gun and two exhausted Marines.
The fact that the island was made up of jagged rocks, grey sand and sulfur only added to the nightmare the Marines experienced for what was, in reality a couple of months but seemed to the men on the island to go on forever.
The island is shaped like a giant, desolate pork chop dominated by a single mountain named Mount Suribachi. It was the most important tactical feature because whomever controlled the mountain could rain death down on his opponent.
The climax of this terrible battle was carved into history when men who raised the American flag at Suribachi’s top were captured on film.
A near-perfect recreation of the legendary moment photographed by Joe Rosenthal.
It sounds like the basis for a blockbuster film doesn’t it?
And it’s a Clint Eastwood film! The same guy who brought us Heartbreak Ridge! He couldn’t possibly screw it up…could he?
My answer is a resounding “Yep”.
The quickest and most obvious way to shoot yourself in the foot on this project is have Steven Spielberg disease. Have you heard of it? It’s only known to movie critics like myself but I can summarize it for you: you come across a fantastic story but the fact that it’s a well-known story creates a block in your mental process. You fail to find ways to creatively tell a story many people are familiar with so you find some obscure substory and focus entirely on that, throwing away the substance of the epic you failed to expound upon. The first known case of this disease is showcased in the movie Saving Private Ryan where Spielberg eschewed volumes of epic WWII battles to tell the story of how one soldier needed to be pulled from the war because all of his brothers died. This is the flaw that runs through all of Flags of Our Fathers. The capturing of the island that cost over 7,000 Marine lives (and over 20,000 Japanese) was portrayed only in snippets and flashbacks. The bulk of the movie revolved around the irony of there being 2 separate flag-raisings, and the hero-ifying of the second group of flag-raising survivors (and how they coped with their seemingly undeserved fame back home as they stumped for war bonds).
Don’t get me wrong, it is a heartbreaking story that should be remembered. But that is what you spend millions of dollars making into a film when the last good WWII Marine Corps film was made sixty years ago?!
So back to the opening scenes.
The traumatized “Doc” becomes the octogenarian “Doc” having a flashback nightmare which fades into another elderly man venting to someone (I don’t know who the hell he’s venting to, a shrink or a biographer…who cares)—
Every jackass thinks he knows what war is. Especially those who’ve never been in one. We like things nice and simple, good and evil, heroes and villains. There is always plenty of both. Most of the time, they are not who we think they are.
Wow. So profound! So iconoclastic: “All of you John Waynes out there who love war movies, here’s an old guy who’s really been to war and, you know what? America wasn’t the pure good guy and Japan wasn’t the pure bad guy.”
Given the unbelievable brutality and naked imperialism of Axis Japan, this diatribe is ludicrous to the point of being offensive. Allow me to recap some Japanese WWII highlights from a previous column—
Beheadings, cut throats and being casually shot were the more common and merciful actions — compared to bayonet stabbings, rapes, guttings (disembowelments), numerous rifle butt beatings and a deliberate refusal to allow the prisoners food or water while keeping them continually marching for nearly a week (for the slowest survivors) in tropical heat. Falling down, unable to continue moving was tantamount to a death sentence, as was any degree of protest or expression of displeasure. Route of the death march. Prisoners were attacked for assisting someone failing due to weakness, or for no apparent reason whatsoever. Strings of Japanese trucks were known to drive over anyone who fell. Riders in vehicles would casually stick out a rifle bayonet and cut a string of throats in the lines of men marching along side the road.
For good measure, let’s throw in the two hundred thousand women (mostly Korean) kidnapped and tortured as sex slaves for the Japanese military.
Then there’s the wonderful account of how the Japanese treated the Chinese villagers in Nanking—
…the Japanese killed so many men, women and children with machetes that their arms became tired and they had to rest before they continued. The soldiers also used bayonets, machine guns, live burial and fire. Decapitation was popular, evidenced by dozens of photographs in James Yin Shi Young’s The Rape of Nanking (Innovative Publishing Group, 1996). Chinese heads were fed to the dogs. Women were raped, forced to perform bizarre sexual acts, then killed. Fathers were forced to rape their daughters, and sons, their mothers. Chinese men were forced to rape corpses. Competitions took place among Japanese soldiers to see how many Chinese they could kill in one day.
Three hundred thousand Chinese were slaughtered…
But there are no “villains” in war. You are an ass Eastwood! I’ll make sure to put your Japanese companion to this movie, Letters From Iwo Jima on the top of my “to buy” list because that’s what I lay awake at night worrying about—what the Japanese experienced at the hands of our brave Marines.
Oh, I’m sorry, at the hands of our NOT HEROIC, NOT GOOD representatives of American unfairness.
Then the old actor (whom we are to believe is one of the Mount Suribachi flag-raisers) has a waking flashback that is so overwhelming the guy can’t remember where he is.
What you don’t see are the nightmares of Japanese atrocity survivors. Those that didn’t die horribly.
I’ve invested too much effort into this terd of a movie to stop now so I’m going to pull back a bit and try to be objective again.
The plot conflict—the flag-raisers dealing with the guilt of surviving beyond their buddies—is, in fact, a devastating experience.
Back when Hollywood employed real men who served their country during wartime, it was well known that actor Lee Marvin carried such a burden. Marvin was a young rifleman who was amongst the Marines that took the island of Saipan. When his platoon was ambushed, Marvin received a terrible wound that required 56 stitches to close. He was evacuated from Saipan and from the war but he never forgave himself for surviving when so many of his friends did not.
Another octogenarian Iwo vet tells the same sap that a single photograph can win or lose a war and then goes on to say that the picture of a South Vietnamese execution at point-blank range that was plastered all over America was why we “lost” Vietnam.
It’s a wacky analogy but let’s explore it a bit. Who populated the press corps during WWII? Patriots who knew that all news has “spin” so our “spin” needs to fall on the side of helping American moral stay focused on winning WWII.
Who populated the press corps during Vietnam? A bunch of hippie, traitors who did everything they could to weaken the will of the American people (and they are still in the press corps today).
The movie then skips to an odd scene that I can not verify but I will assume is accurate due to the film being based upon a book of the same name by James Bradley, of the three survivors of the second flag raising—Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and Navy Corpsman John Bradley (Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley and Mike Strank never left Iwo Jima) having to recreate the flag-raising on a goofy construction resembling a dirt hill in the middle of Chicago’s Soldier Field to get Americans to buy war bonds.
Now, later in the movie, the case is made for how “good will” and “war bond” tours by military heroes (either real or propped up) was important to the war effort. But, if there is anything to the scene, I can only imagine how upsetting and humiliating it must’ve been for those men to do that.
Then we skip backwards to “Camp Tarawa, 1944” were we are to assume our future flag-raisers trained for the hell of Iwo Jima.
Enter the gritty, “Get ‘er done” Sgt. Mike Strank (played by Barry Pepper). Now I have to say that I like Barry Pepper for no other reason than he has been blessed to get a couple of good roles that he played well like the Christian sniper in Saving Private Ryan and the skeptic-turned-patriot journalist Joe Galloway in Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers. I pray I find out nothing of the man personally so that the inevitable Leftist drivel that will come out an actor’s mouth doesn’t prematurely sour me on him.
Another actor present in the film that I like strictly from past roles he’s played is Colonel Chandler Johnson (Robert Patrick). Patrick is best known to me as the soulless robotic assassin in Terminator 2.
During the pre-operation brief that the Marines get aboard ship from Colonel Johnson, we also get to see their company commander, Captain Severance (played by the odd-looking Neal McDonough). I guess he made too much of an impression as Lt. Lynn “Buck” Compton on HBO’s Band of Brothers not to be typecast in another war film.
After the brief we are treated to a computer-graphics recreation of the invasion flotilla which is quite impressive but, for me, is quickly eclipsed by the most exhilarating scene of any contemporary movie—that of the outside and inside of a fly-by from multiple Chance-Vought F4U-1 Corsairs.
Lt. Jg. Ira Kepford’s F4U from Navy squadron VF-17. The Jolly Rogers.
The Japanese called her “Whistling Death” because of the unearthly hum that came from her massive 13’4” propellers (made possible even for a carrier-born aircraft by her unique “inverted gull” wings). Again, it is for purely personal reasons that I love this scene so much because the Corsair has always been my favorite WWII fighter plane. To see her so realistically brought to life was almost as exhilarating as the foot to the groin Clint Eastwood gave me to finish the scene with.
Who wouldn’t be pumped up after watching from the outside and inside the cockpit as a flight of these powerful fighters buzz the cargo vessels the Marines are on? It makes you ache to fly one as you watch the actors wave in unrestrained pride.
Are you excited? Do you feel pride in America?? Not so fast.
One actor gets so joyful he waves himself right off the ship and into the water. Everyone laughs as you watch him float into the distance until it is revealed to the audience that the flotilla is much too important to stop for a single man overboard.
Did it happen? It very well could have. But the way it is placed in the movie—as a purposeful maneuver to keep the audience from getting too jingoistic—was typical of the terds in Hollywood. Thanks Clint. I’ll be thanking you again, shortly.
The CG recreation of the Navy bombarding Iwo was also impressive. This did have the effect of driving home the shock and frustration of the Marines at finding so much Japanese resistance left on the tiny island. The scene where General Holland Smith is furious that the Navy has cut short the 10 days of bombardment to 3 is powerful. Actor Gordon Clapp did a good job with the role and I was surprised to see artistic license taken in a softened, positive manner. Clapp is much more slim than “Howlin’ Mad” was at this point of his life and I enjoyed the improvement and Clapp’s portrayal.
The beach assault scenes are realistic. I was only disappointed by having to wait further into the movie to be shown some of the diabolical tunneling the Japanese had done to make it seem like there was an endless number of defenders (in reality, dead defenders were simply replaced invisibly).
The appearance of a single Sherman tank that was knocked out in a matter of seconds was both obnoxious and misleading. The Sherman tank actually fared well in the Pacific theater where it faced Japanese armor that was, at best, only its equal. This was in stark contrast to Europe where German armor vastly outclassed the Sherman with deadly results.
Yes, many Shermans fell in the Pacific to mines and artillery but many more were used very effectively by the Marine Corps.
Don’t know where this Marine tank crew thought they were going with this Japanese Type 94 light tank but they probably intended to decorate something other than their M4 with it back home.
Quickly, the battle is over and we begin to focus on the plight of the second flag-raisers, showcased by Corporal (then Private) Ira Hayes, played by Adam Beach.
Cpl. Hayes seemed to spend the rest of his life struggling with his unwanted fame and his lost friends. He tried to drown his pain in alcohol until one day he was found dead in a ditch covered in vomit and blood. His death wasn’t investigated and was simply attributed to alcoholism and exposure. He was 32 years old.
I have to get a chuckle out of the scene where the 3 remaining second flag-raisers meet Harry Truman because Truman is played by David Kelly, immortalized for my brother and I (much as Robert Patrick was by his movie past) by his small role as “Sully” in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando.
An ice cream sundae shaped like the Suribachi flag-raising (can it get any more stupid???) brings “Doc” back to Iwo Jima after the assault where he looks upon row after row of wounded and dead Marines. Young men cut off in the prime of their life on behalf of their flag, their families and their friends. As stupid and obnoxious as this movie is, it is a most sobering moment.
And how does the Left in this country commemorate their sacrifice? By equating their hysteria over “global warming” to what those brave young men did that day.
I can’t even begin to imagine the level of vapidity and disrespect the media Leftists at “Time” have for this country and for all those who love and sacrifice for her to even consider such a thing. From the moron that came up with the idea to the chief editor who OK’d it, not one took a minute to say, “Hold on, what are we comparing here?”
Why? Because the Left is filled with cowards who only attack where it’s safe to attack. Generation after generation of servicemen in general (and Marines in specific) have quietly bled and died for these narcissistic perverts to be allowed to continue in their licentious idiocy, worrying more about a non-existent threat to the ozone layer than to millions of muslim jihadis who want to blow their arms and legs off and cut their throats. They despise and attack all things American from Christian churches to the blood of Marines on Iwo Jima because those same Marines made it safe for them to do so. Can you remember the last time you heard Michael Moore or Bill Mahr say something blasphemous about Muhammad? Nope. Because they know quite well that fundamentalist Muslims treat blasphemy a little differently than fundamentalist Christians.
The movie does some disjointed jump from after the battle is over to during the battle then back to another “dog-and-pony show” for the flag-raisers. The three go to a benefit where they meet family members of the two other second flag-raising who didn’t survive. When “Ira” meets the mother of the fallen Mike Strank, he begins to sob uncontrollably. This is understandable but, in my opinion, a bit overdone. The movie portrays Corporal Hayes as a walking jumble of emotions and nerves. More likely, he kept most of it inside of him and tried to drink the pain away, but an over-sensitive “Native American” is good movie-making.
Next scene, they take a now-drunk Ira back to their hotel room where he has a flashback to the Japanese counter-attacking Marine positions at night (which was, in fact, a frequent, brutal occurrence throughout offensive operations in the Pacific).
Next we cut to the first flag raising. What is true (according to all accounts) is that it was very emotional but the flag was a little hard to see from the bottom of Suribachi and further out.
I did have some fun realizing that the officer in charge of the first flag-raising detail—Lieutenant Schrier—was played by Jason Gray-Stanford who the wife and I know as Lt. Randall Disher on Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective (one of the very few TV shows I take the time to be entertained by, being a bit of an obsessive-compulsive myself).
I like the casting of Ned Eisenberg as the photographer who took the famous picture, Joe Rosenthal.
After the second flag-raising, we get more embittered moralizing by an octogenarian flag-raiser and we can finally piece together that he’s whining about how “people made up their own minds” on “that picture” apparently to one of the lost Marine’s sons.
Yeah, I got it already Clint. There’s nothing “glorious” about war. Did you put all this moralizing in your Japanese version? I won’t know because I sure as hell am not going to waste my time watching it.
Then we get to the outrageous recreation of Suribachi at Soldier Field. Come on. Were people really that condescending and vapid?
More drunken rage from Private Hayes.
By the way, there wasn’t much coarse language but there sure was plenty of blasphemy (taking JC’s Name in vain). I didn’t appreciate that too much either, Clint. Putz. The frigging movie ended on blasphemy with Bradley an old man in his hospital bed exclaiming the Name of Christ after yet another flashback. Why not? It’s easy to walk all over Jesus. The people who claim to follow Him aren’t nearly as violent as those muslims.
Then we go back to Iwo for another combat snippet where Ira responds to underground explosions. He enters a cave and finds Japanese remains and figures out that some Japanese are killing themselves with grenades—over and over again the explosions thump. This may seem like good movie-making but I think Clint pulled that one entirely out of his ass. The vast majority of Japanese suicides were committed via ritual “Sepukku”—the partaker uses a Tanto blade to slit his stomach open. The longer the cut, the higher the honor. When the participant can no-longer take the pain as his innards spill out, his second cuts his head off with a Daito. I guess Ira finding Japanese gruesomely blown up is better for effect than just finding a Japanese with his intestines spilled out and his head chopped off.
Oh, by the way? A well-kept secret is that those suicides were mostly committed by officers and senior NCOs. The lower ranks were usually forced to kill themselves and, those who escaped and overcame the tremendous “they will suck your blood before killing you” propaganda to surrender were shocked by the charity the Marines showed them.
Back to combat. Another pal lost
Back to the dog-and-pony show. Flashback.
Back to combat. Another pal lost.
Back to Ira being drunk.
General blasphemes the Name of Jesus Christ. Orders him back to his unit on the front.
blah, blah, blah.
Now I did surf a bit to see if Corporal Hayes had his good-will tour cut short because he kept getting drunk but I only found a single reference that said he did return to his unit but no mention of it being some kind of punishment.
The focus now moves to Pharmacists Mate John Bradley and, yes, he really was wounded in combat. Eventually we find out that the octogenarians are talking to Bradley’s son and giving him the material for his book which was to become this movie.
In that context—a son wanting to tell his father’s heroic-but-tragic war experience—it is a moving story.
For a good book.
But, in the hands of Clint Eastwood, and in the midst of a quality Marine Corps story draught, I found it thoroughly obnoxious.
I hope you did too.
UPDATE: You know, I’ve had time to think about this—a sailor and a Marine who raised the second flag on Iwo Jima were soured by what the government made them do afterwards and what they experienced in combat. They want us to rethink our “jingoism” about the legendary Rosenthal picture. They have the bona fides of having raised the very flag in the picture.
With the deepest respect…so what?
Yes, I have respect bordering on awe for the men who fought on Iwo in those early months of 1945. But there is something that transcends even their sacrifices and efforts—what they were sacrificing for: the United States of America.
That picture represents so much more than a moment in time. It represents much more than the personal anguishes of John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and even the tragic life of Ira Hayes.
It represents the sacrifices of all of the Iwo Marines…the sacrifices of all the Marines who’ve ever served…the sacrifices of all who have ever served this great country in uniform…and the sacrifices of any American who loves his/her country.
I’m sorry for your pain.
I’m sorry for your loss.
But if your public statements harm this country, her past or her future, I’d just as soon you keep your sour grapes to yourself.
 Bushidó or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition, Karl F. Friday, InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Mar 2001
 Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne is one of the all-time great films and one of only 8 movies that depicted his character’s death. Of course, it was made in 1949 so it is sanitized of the horrors the Marines experienced. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great movie (and one that played a vital role in memorializing America and the Marine Corps to thousands of youngsters throughout the past several generations). But there certainly was a niche created by movies like Ryan that depicted WWII with realism yet not with cynicism.
By the way, the three surviving flag-raisers played themselves in the movie’s recreation of that iconic moment.
 Bataan Death March, Wikipedia.org
 Activists Seek Apologies For Japanese Wartime Atrocities, Justin Pritchard, Associated Press, RumorMillNews.com
 Breaking the Silence, Ami Chen Mills, metroactive.com
 The problem was, “How do you use a huge propeller on a fighter plane that needs short, stubby, rugged landing gear?” The answer? Drop the wings closer to the deck without moving the centerline of the fuselage, the engine and the prop by using the inverted gull form.