An American war film adapted by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis from the book of the same title by James Bradley and Ron Powers (2000), Flags of Our Fathers recounts the story of the five Marines and one Navy Corpsman who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. Directed, co-produced, and scored by Clint Eastwood, the film examines how the event changed the lives of the surviving flag raisers.
On 23 February 1945 Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took a hasty snapshot of five U.S. Marines and a sailor raising the American flag on the summit of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, signaling a key moment in wresting the island from the Japanese (though the flag-raising photographed by Rosenthal was actually the second one with a larger flag, not the first, and the Battle of Iwo Jima would rage on for another 31 days). Published in the New York Times two days later and then picked up by hundreds of U.S. newspapers, the photograph won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize and quickly became, for Americans, the most iconic image of World War II—reproduced on 150 million 3¢ postage stamps, 1.2 million war bond drive posters, and 5,000 billboards in 1945 and later immortalized by the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington Ridge Park, Virginia: a colossal sculpture by Felix de Weldon dedicated in 1954 that features bronze figures of the six flag raisers 32 feet tall. Almost 49 years after the battle, James Bradley, son of John “Doc” Bradley (1923–1994), a medic on Iwo Jima, discovered a letter postmarked 26 February 1945 that his father wrote mentioning his own involvement in the flag raising: a startling revelation that inspired Bradley to co-author, with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers (Bantam, 2000), a compelling account of the battle and how the three surviving flag raisers fared afterwards. The book spent 46 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, 6 weeks at the number-one spot. A month after its publication, Steven Spielberg acquired the option on the film rights for DreamWorks Pictures and hired screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (Jarhead) to write a screen adaptation. Actor-director Clint Eastwood read the book in 2003, liked it, and wanted to make a movie version. On 26 February 2004, at the Academy Awards Governors Ball, Eastwood and Spielberg conversed with each other about Flags of Our Fathers and Spielberg suggested that he produce and Eastwood direct, an arrangement formalized that July. Thereafter, Eastwood brought in Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) to do a rewrite that was completed in late October 2004. Reading about the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective—especially that of the island’s garrison commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi—Eastwood decided to film Letters from Iwo Jima, a companion film shot entirely in Japanese.
Jared Leto was originally cast as Rene Gagnon but dropped out due to scheduling issues. With the exception of Barry Pepper, Paul Walker, and Harve Presnell, the large cast—nearly 100 speaking parts—was composed of unknowns. Filming took place over a 58-day period in far-flung locations in the winter of 2005–2006. Eastwood made a scouting trip to Iwo Jima in April 2005 but determined it was too remote for a large-scale film production. Instead, the battle scenes were shot on Reykjanes, a volcanic peninsula in Iceland that featured black sand beaches and craters almost identical in appearance to Iwo Jima. A couple of scenes were shot at Universal Studios’ backlot, but most of the stateside scenes were shot at various locations in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Chicago, and at the USMC War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. A bond drive scene supposedly taking place at Soldier Field in Chicago was actually filmed at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, using lots of computer-generated imagery (CGI) (though exterior shots of the real stadium were also used). Shooting ended early in 2006. The shoot for the movie’s companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, began in March 2006.
The three surviving US servicemen who were the flag raisers at Iwo Jima—Marine Pfcs. Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Navy Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe)—are celebrated as heroes in a U.S. war bond drive. They reflect on their experiences during and after the war via a series of flashbacks. After training at Camp Tarawa in Hawaii (October 1944), the 28th Marine Regiment (5th Marine Division) joins an invading armada headed for Iwo Jima, a small island off Japan’s mainland. To soften Japanese resistance, the Navy shells Iwo Jima for three days. Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper) is put in charge of Second Platoon. On the fourth day of the battle—19 February 1945—the Marines land on Iwo Jima in Higgins boats. They meet no immediate resistance but then, all at once, Japanese heavy artillery and machine guns open fire on the advancing Marines. The beaches are secured, but casualties are heavy. After two days of fierce fighting, the Marines mount an assault on Mount Suribachi. Doc saves the lives of several Marines under fire, earning the Navy Cross in the process. After a dogged fight, the mountain is secured. On 23 February Sgt. Hank Hansen (Paul Walker) is ordered to scale Mount Suribachi. His squad reaches the summit and hoists the American flag atop Suribachi. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal (Michael Cumpsty) sees the flag as he reaches the beach and asks to keep the flag himself. However, Col. Chandler Johnson (Robert Patrick) counters that his own 2nd Battalion is more deserving of the flag than Forrestal. Rene Gagnon is sent up with Second Platoon to replace the first (smaller) flag with a second one intended for Forrestal. Mike, Doc, Ira, Rene, and two other marines—Cpl. Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker) and Pfc. Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross) are photographed by Joe Rosenthal as they send up the second flag. On 1 March Mike is hit by “friendly fire” and dies from his wounds. Later that day Hank and Harlon are also killed in action. Two nights later (4 March), while Doc tends to an injured soldier, Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski (Jamie Bell) is kidnapped by the Japanese and pulled through an underground tunnel. Doc finds his mutilated body a few days later. On 21 March a mortally wounded Franklin Sousley dies in Ira Hayes’ arms. Three squad members remain: Doc Bradley, Ira Hayes, and Rene Gagnon. A few days after Sousley’s death, Doc is injured and returns home. On 26 March the Battle of Iwo Jima ends in American victory (but at a grave price: 6,700 dead and 19,000 wounded). Joe Rosenthal’s photograph appears in newspapers throughout the country. Rene Gagnon is asked to name the six men in the photo: he identifies himself, Mike Strank, Doc Bradley, and Franklin Sousley, but misidentifies Harlon Block as Hank Hansen. Gagnon identifies Ira Hayes as the final man in the photograph, but Hayes says that it isn’t him, but Harlon Block in the photo. Gagnon asks Hayes to re-evaluate, mentioning that, as flag raisers, this denial will send them both home, but Gagnon refuses to give in and threatens Gagnon’s life if he dares to name Hayes in the photograph. Gagnon does eventually name Ira Hayes as the sixth man in the photograph. Bradley, Hayes, and Gagnon are then sent stateside to raise money for the war effort. Hayes calls the bond drive a joke, but Bud Gerber (John Slattery) of the Treasury Department disciplines them and admits that the U.S. government is nearly bankrupt; if the bond drive fails, the United States will be forced to abandon the Pacific and all their sacrifices will be in vain. The three agree not to tell anyone that Hank Hansen was not in the photograph. As the trio is sent around the country on their fundraising tour, Ira Hayes suffers from survivor’s guilt and the lingering effects of battle fatigue and also faces blatant bigotry as a Pima Indian. In the throes of alcoholism, Hayes vomits one night in front of Gen. Vandegrift (Chris Bauer), commandant of the Marine Corps; Vandegrift orders him sent back to his unit. After the war, the three survivors return home. Ira Hayes hitchhikes to Texas to see Harlon Block’s family and tell Harlon’s father that his son was indeed in the famous photograph. At the dedication of the USMC War Memorial in 1954 the three surviving flag raisers see each other one last time. The next year Ira Hayes dies of exposure after a night of heavy drinking. That same year Doc Bradley visits Iggy Ignatowski’s mother to tell her how her son died. Rene Gagnon attempts to begin a professional life in the business sector, but finds that the offers he received during the bond drive have been rescinded and spends the rest of his life as a janitor. Doc, however, finds success as the owner and director of a funeral home. In 1994, close to death, Doc relays his vivid tale to his son, James.
Released 20 October 2006, Flags of Our Fathers ran for eight weeks (widest release: 1,876 theaters) and earned $33.6 million in gross domestic box office receipts. Exhibition in foreign markets (November 2006–March 2007) earned another $32.3 million, for a grand total of $65.9 million: disappointing results but probably inevitable because (a) the film lacked star power and (b) it presented a dishearteningly revisionist depiction of “The Good War,” showing the U.S. government cynically exploiting military heroism for propaganda and fundraising purposes. After theaters took their percentage of the gross and P&A (promotion and advertising) expenses were deducted, both co-producing studios—Paramount and DreamWorks—ended up in the red. Originally budgeted at $80 million, Flags would have lost far more money had Clint Eastwood not completed the film well ahead of schedule and under budget, bringing it in for only $55 million. Though it flopped at the box office, Flags enjoyed strong sales on the U.S. home video market, grossing $45 million. Reviews were mostly affirmative, some adulatory. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and praised Eastwood’s two-film project as “one of the most visionary of all efforts to depict the reality and meaning of battle. The battle scenes, alternating between close-up combat and awesome aerial shots of the bombardment and landing, are lean, violent, horrifying. His cinematographer, Tom Stern, wisely bleeds his palette of bright colors and creates a dry, hot, desolate feeling; there should be nothing scenic about the film’s look” (Ebert, 2007). Philip French found Flags of Our Fathers to be “touched by greatness. It argues that soldiers may go into battle for country and glory but they always end up fighting for the survival of themselves and their comrades” (French, 2006).
Reel History Versus Real History
Historians concur that Bradley and Powers’ book is a well-researched and accurate rendition of the Battle of Iwo Jima; the 7th War Loan Drive (aka “Iwo Jima Tour,” May–July 1945); and the postwar lives of Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and Doc Bradley. Likewise, Eastwood’s film version is a faithful adaptation of its source material. Interviewed by Robert Siegel on National Public Radio on 19 October 2006 regarding the film’s historical accuracy, Charles D. “Chuck” Melson, Chief Historian of the U.S. Marine Corps, found the film to be quite true to life, describing the war bond drive, the ships coming to Iwo Jima, the beachside invasion and resulting chaos, and the flag raising. Asked by Siegel if the movie was accurate or exaggerating when it dramatized Rosenthal’s photograph as “the very fulcrum on which public support for the war effort in 1945 rested,” Melson answered, “I think it would take a social historian to really pin that one down” (Siegel, 2006). Melson’s judicious answer notwithstanding, the movie does exaggerate the importance of the Rosenthal photograph in winning the war in the Pacific. The United States would have prosecuted the war to its conclusion, whatever the success or failure of the 7th War Loan Drive. Fortunately, the Drive far exceeded expectations by raising over $26 billion ($353 billion in 2017 dollars)—an astonishing sum of money.