Louis Masur: What a Historian Thinks of Flags of Our Fathers

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[Louis P. Masur is director of the American-studies program at Trinity College, in Connecticut.]

Photographs hold us in their spell. We stare and study and think, So this is what happened. But we know full well that a picture represents only an instant, and that it can misrepresent the event it captures, sometimes even become the event itself. Photographs not only tell stories, but they also have stories. And behind those stories, as Clint Eastwood reminds us in the latest film he has directed, there are other stories. Making and remaking memories is a continuing process.

The story of Joe Rosenthal's picture of six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi, as the battle for Iwo Jima and World War II raged, has been frequently told, most notably by the scholars Karal Ann Marling and John Wetenhall in Iwo Jima: Monuments, Memories, and the American Hero (Harvard University Press, 1991), the historians Parker Bishop Albee and Keller Cushing Freeman in Shadow of Suribachi: Raising the Flags on Iwo Jima (Praeger, 1995), and in Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, the son of one of the flag raisers, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ron Powers (Bantam Books, 2000). Rosenthal's snap of time is the most recognizable and widely reproduced photograph in history.

It is also a visual masterpiece. The six faceless men work in unison, raising a pole that splits the sky as the flag unfurls, their bodies arrayed in near-classical form, bending with effort, maintaining the touch of connection as the last one strains toward the pole, his reach, at that instant, forever exceeding his grasp. The image defined heroism, for Americans fighting the war and ever since. The Pulitzer Prize committee suspended its rules and gave Rosenthal its award that same year, calling it "a frozen flash of history."

In narrating the story of Iwo Jima, the photograph, and the lives and deaths of the six men in the picture, Eastwood's newly released Flags of Our Fathers seeks to demythologize the image. The movie's screenplay, written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, hews closely to its source, Bradley's book, which had been rejected by more than 20 publishers before it shot to the top of best-seller lists. Steven Spielberg bought the rights and is credited as a co-producer of the film.

The battle scenes in Flags are every bit as jarring as those in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), perhaps even more so because Eastwood presents many of them as flashbacks. We are deposited into the chaos of war again and again, just as veterans carry memories of battle their entire lives. However inured we have become to severed limbs and eviscerated bodies in war movies, Flags shocks us anew with the juxtaposition of the horror of battle and the courage of men to keep going. The assault on Iwo Jima left more than 6,000 Americans dead and 19,000 wounded. Easy Company, the flag raisers' unit, suffered 84 percent casualties.

Rosenthal took his photograph on February 23, 1945, five days into the battle that would rage for another month. The film depicts the deaths of three of the men in the picture — Mike Strank, Franklin Sousley, and Harlon Block — who were killed at Iwo Jima and the later lives of John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who, in the photograph, is the last man in line.

As with the book, the movie explains what Rosenthal's picture was — and what it was not. It was a photograph of the second flag raising that morning (Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal wanted the flag from the first one). But it was not posed, and had Rosenthal not gotten the one shot he did, the event would have been largely unnoticed and certainly forgotten. As Eastwood shows, the photograph had a profound impact, offering hope to a nation at war, but shadowing the lives of the three surviving Marines it depicted. Brought home to be feted in a continuing rally of patriotism, they never wanted to be celebrated as heroes.

The heart of Flags is its meditation on the meaning of heroism — how heroes are created and exploited, and how they make sense of their experiences. Eastwood not only brings to life the struggles of Bradley, Gagnon, and Hayes, but he also plumbs the ways the government used and misused them (in, for example, the seventh war-bond drive that put them front and center and raised billions of dollars). The film also quietly and effectively addresses such issues as racism, the mendacity of politicians, and the impact of war on the parents of soldiers.

Hayes had the worst struggle. He despised the bond tour, drank heavily, and died at age 32 in 1955, just months after attending the dedication of the Iwo Jima memorial. Gagnon, who died at age 54, was not yet 20 when he helped raise the flag. He is depicted in the film as someone who initially enjoyed the celebrity, hoped to profit from it, but learned soon enough that yesterday's heroes quickly become today's relics. Bradley, who passed away in 1994, is portrayed in the film, as in his son's book, as the one survivor who managed to have a successful career after the war.

But that is not to say that he did not suffer. It is Bradley's story that frames the opening and closing of the film. After Iwo Jima and the bond tour, Bradley refused to talk about the war — he had his children tell reporters who called that he was away fishing in Canada. Following his death, his son James discovered personal letters written by his father and the Navy Cross awarded for heroism, and he set out to learn all that he could about the flag raisers....

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