FF54 - Flags of our Fathers

Intro by John Roderick

Last time on Friendly Fire we discussed a really good movie that Clint Eastwood made about the Battle of Iwo Jima: Letters from Iwo Jima, but that film came out just a couple of months after a different Clint Eastwood film about the battle of Iwo Jima, this one: Flags of Our Fathers, and the first one, this one, was not very good and probably sapped energy from that one at the box office and that's a bummer because here on Friendly Fire we like what we like when we like something, we want the world to see it. We don't care about all the other garbage, unless by ”we” you mean ”Adam”.

Eastwood's premise was to make two films: One from the American perspective and one the Japanese, which is a cool idea with lots of potential, full of shots of the same moment in the battle, seen from both sides. The two enemies each convinced the other is a faceless devil when really they have more in common than they realize. Two soldiers on opposite sides, both of whom love Louis Prima and Kabuki theater. They bayonet each other only to realize as they lay dying that both have the same Roadrunner tattoo.

The potential for mesmerizing puzzles woven through the two movies was an opportunity to create a pair of cult classics that would make Apocalypse Now look like Red Dawn 2. But sadly, weirdly, Eastwood made his American film about some homefront horse hockey. Spoiler alert! The iconic photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, the one that inspired the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, the one that is the first thing that comes to mind when someone says ”Marines raising flag on Iwo Jima”, you know the one, well that one was kind of not what it purported to be, and bear with me!

You see, once upon a time people cared about journalism and truth and accuracy and had an expectation that the big institutions of government, media, churches, universities and major corporations would all conduct themselves with integrity. I know. Weird, right? And maybe those institutions were serving Steak-umms and calling it French Ribeye, but notions of integrity, even fake integrity, governed the society to such a degree that at one time a president of the United States resigned because he was caught lying.

Now we can argue all day whether people lied in the past, but we don't need to. They did! But there was a pervading sense then that there was a reality that happened and that reality could be perceived simultaneously by multiple people who would not disagree too much about what they'd seen, and that you could draw conclusions or make judgments about events according to a shared system of Judeo-Christian values and belief in American enterprise and love of apples and pigtails and swimming holes and every damn dog spot in this whole great Amber Waves of Grain-loving USA. Now this belief was mostly a fraud if you want to unpack everything, but at least Russian intelligence wasn't blackmailing the president of the United States with a videotape of him getting peed on by Ukrainian sex workers in a Moscow hotel while he said Barack Obama over and over in a stage whisper.

The flag raising over Iwo Jima happened like this: Some Marines hooked a little battle flag to a pipe and they stuck it in a hole in the top of Mount Suribachi. No one else was up there except these guys that kind of fought their way to the top. Everybody cheered when they saw the flag, but there were a lot of Navy guys who couldn't see it, so some officers said to some runner: ”Here, take this big flag up there!” and the runner took the big flag up to the top and some other guys tied it to a bigger pipe and they stuck that pipe in a bigger hole. Now, a photographer and a movie camera guy were there for that one and they took pictures and it looked really cool and dramatic and rad, and you have to admit: It's a rad picture. If you study the picture it is not entirely clear why all those dudes need to be there, but they are Marines and they're used to working as a team.

So the world loved the picture and everyone wanted to know who this flag-raising guys were and somebody made a list and it had some guys who raised the first flag on it and it had some guys from the second flag. In the meantime some of those guys from both lists had died in the subsequent battles because, kind of like George Bush in his flight suit declaring Mission Accomplished!, there was still a little bit of war that happened after the flag went up. Now, neither one of these flag raisings happened under machine gun fire and neither were staged and all the Marines involved were all in on the same action, but the people of the world wanted the picture to be true, that is: The true idea that it represented, which was the first flag raised by some heroic guys immediately after the battle, not the bigger flag raised by some other guys so the guys in the Navy could see it from far away.

Anyway, this is what passed for a scandal in 1942. And that's understandable because The Andrews Sisters were considered really swinging music in 1942 and movies cost a nickel ($0.05). But what is surprising is that Eastwood thought this was the more interesting topic for a movie than the American perspective of the battle of Iwo Jima contrasted with their Japanese adversaries. Sure, there's a story here about three American servicemen who go back to the states to sell war bonds with the photograph as a powerful motivating symbol of hope, and the ghosts of the other men in the photo follow them, and they find themselves telling lies to comfort grieving mothers, and they feel conflicted and dishonest, and the guy from Mad Men makes them feel dirty, and they get drunk, and they fist fight. Doesn’t this sound like a blockbuster?

There is an interesting movie in the center of this boring movie and it is about Ira Hayes, a member of the Pima people of Arizona who was part of the flag raising squad, one or the other, and actually made a cameo in a movie we've watched already: Sands of Iwo Jima from 1949. He suffered from alcoholism and found himself the token Native American for an entire war effort, exploited and discriminated against and ultimately abandoned. There is a great movie yet to be made about Ira Hayes and in this movie Adam Beach does a tremendous job playing him, but that movie won't need a companion movie all in Japanese that has nothing to do with it.

I love having the benefit of hindsight here because I do these intros a long time after we record the shows, long enough that half the time I forget whether we liked it or not, so I don't really benefit much from the hindsight, but in this case we wish Eastwood had done something differently because we needed a different movie from him than the one we got. You present each mother with a flag. They say a few words. People will shit money. It'll be so moving. Today on Friendly Fire: Flags of Our Fathers.

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