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Men at Arms

These are the first minutes of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, Clint Eastwood's new film about the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. When word came of an Eastwood film on this subject, the blood didn't exactly freeze, but it did become tepid. Did the twenty-first century really need another gung-ho tale of World War II? Eastwood's reply is no. His film is crammed with physical horror and courage in crisis, but the intent is not mere replication of battle. Under the carnage, Eastwood is searching for something deeper than details.

What is collaterally almost as interesting as the film itself is the fact that this searching is going on. This picture about the effects of war, short and long range, comes from an actor-director who earned a large part of his reputation by killing. Yes, he made The Bridges of Madison County and Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby and other exceptions, but the Eastwood persona grew through those Westerns in which his quasi-mystic figure settled people's hashes, as well as through the Dirty Harry series. The man who fixed his Magnum on a crook as he incised the phrase "Make my day" on American fantasy is the man who directed Flags of Our Fathers.

The battle for the island of Iwo Jima is a prime site for Eastwood's concern. One island after another--including Midway and the Solomon Islands--had been secured as stepping-stones toward the invasion of Japan. By February 1945, the United States Army Air Forces argued that Iwo Jima, only eight square miles in size but situated just760 miles from Tokyo, was essential as a refueling station for bombers. Well aware of this, the Japanese forces fought even more fiercely. There were 22,000 Japanese soldiers on this little patch of ground-- which, as the film says, was considered part of Japan itself and therefore holy- -and they had been ordered to die rather than surrender. In a month of intense fighting, 18,000Japanese and 6,000 Americans were killed. Out of this massive slaughter arose an incident that Eastwood uses as a speculum for moral inquiry. But before he gets to it, he gives us the invasion itself.

The picture is spectacular. The assault on Iwo Jima was shot in Iceland, which has black sand similar to the Japanese island's. The naval approach, the dozens of troopships and warships stretching oceanwide, the waves of landing craft--all are of course available now by digital means, but even digital means can overwhelm. The combat scenes give us shivering clarity about the Iraq-worn term"embedded." And the long battle is braided with numerous sequences back home, at various points in time.

All this vast imperium was under the hand of a man who is now seventy-six. The co-producer was Steven Spielberg, who made the unforgettable D-day opening of Saving Private Ryan; presumably Spielberg could and did advise. But there is no reason to think that Eastwood did not shoot every frame and construct the picture as he chose.

The screenplay, by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, is based on a book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Bradley is the son of one of the men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima--we see the son, a grown man, from time to time interviewing people. The film is centered on the famous photograph of the six servicemen raising the flag on the summit of a mountain, then moves from it to America then and America now, and then back to Iwo Jima. The screenplay does not skimp the staginess of the flag-raising (it was done twice for a photographer), but there is no touch of cynicism toward the men who did it, only a steady view of the incident as part of the flow of history. The Eastwood masculinity is now seen in this context. That makes it both stronger and more proportionate.

Three of the men involved in the photograph are sent back to the States in 1945 to help in a bond drive. Under the steely hand of a government manager, they are put through vaudeville paces at a number of rallies, each more brassy than the last. At one banquet,each diner is served an ice-cream mold in the shape of the photograph. ("Chocolate or strawberry?" asks the waiter.) Bereaved relatives also appear, naturally quite different in tone. One of the three soldiers is an Indian, as they were still called, named Ira Hayes, who is constantly being teased about squaws and the reservation, and who has a berserk episode when a bar refuses to serve him. (In 1961 Tony Curtis gave a grim performance as Hayes in The Outsider, which detailed the fate of the veteran who had the bad luck not to be Caucasian.)

Eastwood, with his editor, Joel Cox, has woven a texture of reciprocal lights and glints. Throughout the film Eastwood slams the factuality of combat against attitudes toward it, even among those who think they are sympathetic. In order to deal with this gigantic event, to package and handle it, the government and the public put the word "hero" in play. The soldiers and marines who were there were courageous past belief, but heroism was not on their minds. They fought and survived or didn't. One of them says, "I just kept trying not to get killed," which he knows is insufficient yet is all he can say. Beneath all the action and attitudes is an implied recognition of war as ingrained in human genes. Eastwood seems to be saying that, before and during and after war, it is a constant referent.

Adam Beach, to put it practically, has the best role as Ira Hayes and fulfills it. None of the other characters is deeply developed,but Ryan Phillippe and Jesse Bradford tell some truth. The cinematographer, Tom Stern, has mastered what has become a new palette: the battle scenes could almost be in black and white,except that they are not. And the civilian clothes of 1945,especially the women's, are touched with only enough color to keep them from being parodic.

We must wonder why Eastwood (and Spielberg) decided to make this film in the midst of a war that, for many of us, is savagely satirizing war even as it murders along. Flags of Our Fathers could not have been intended to dramatize a just war, World War II, in comparison with Iraq: the political background in 1945 is never mentioned. Perhaps it was to remind us, ultimately, that a film about combat is, even at its most veristic, only a film, which we watch in comfort.

Eastwood and his questions are not finished. Simultaneously with this film he shot a film about Iwo Jima from the Japanese point of view. (Two films at the same time--by a director in his seventies.)It arrives next year, not a moment too soon.