Flags of Our Fathers

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(2006) ★★★★★

Sky Movies Select: Monday 9 November, 1.15pm and 11.35pm

One photo played a major role in turning things around for the US troops stuck on Iwo Jima, a silt-and-sulphur island occupied by the entrenched Japanese. And they were not going to leave quietly. The planting of Old Glory by six Marines on an Iwo Jima hilltop was captured in an iconic photograph that quickly became a beacon of hope and victory back home. Yet the photo is a sham. It was taken five days into a 35-day battle. America’s war machine is almost bankrupt and civilians are sick and tired of the war.

In a desperate attempt to rally round the flag, three of the six soldiers in the photo are flown home to sell bonds for the war effort on a whistle-stop tour of the States. (The other three were killed in action within a fortnight of the picture being taken – and one of them was wrongly identified.) Navy Corps medic Ryan Phillippe is bemused by the fuss, while the two Marines are starkly at odds: Jesse Bradford laps up the attention, Adam Beach wants nothing to do with it. Beach is playing Ira Hayes, the Arizona Pima Indian whose unhappy story has been told twice on film, in 1960’s The American and in 1961’s The Outsider (with Tony Curtis as Hayes – he was pretty good, actually) and it’s his scenes, along with the increasingly impressive Phillippe, which give this imposing epic an intimate focus.

Beautifully designed and carefully directed by Clint Eastwood (who again provides a discreet music score), this is a dignified picture which makes no bones about the unhappy alliance of commerce and collateral damage in the ugly business of war. “Smile, boys,” says a news photographer, “give ’em their money’s worth.” Yet heroism plays a part, too. Flags honours the fallen by remembering the way it really was. Absurdly, Eastwood’s magnificent companion piece to Letters from Iwo Jima was criticised by revisionists for ignoring the role of black soldiers in WWII. What they’re ignoring is the fact that the US Navy – and thus the Marine Corps – was strictly segregated at that time.

Spike Lee’s public criticisms in particular might’ve been easier to stomach if he hadn’t made such a mess of his own WWII picture, the corny and terribly sentimental ‘magic realist’ yarn, Miracle at St Anna. A film at times so phoney and broad it could pass as outtakes from Inglourious Basterds. Turns out, when it comes to WWII movies, it was Spike Lee rewriting history, not Clint Eastwood.

Certificate: 15
Duration: 132min

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