Flags of Our Fathers
For my money, this one is better than the other Clint Eastwood film, Letters From Iwo Jima, the one that made the Oscar ballot. It’s a shame they couldn’t have made an exception and considered the two films as one, as they clearly are. But I guess that wouldn’t have been fair to the other nominees.
Going into WWII we knew of shell shock, which we were then calling battle fatigue. (George Carlin has a brilliant monologue about this.) It wasn’t until after Vietnam that the inelegantly named “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” was recognized. Of course, it had been happening all along, in spite of what psychopaths like George Patton maintained. The men who survived the flag raising on Iwo all suffered from it, and from the stresses of being hailed as heroes. The fact is, most of our “heroes” don’t feel that way about themselves. They hardly ever talk about it. They feel they were only doing what they had to do to survive, and feel guilt that they did survive, while their buddies didn’t.
In A Few Good Men, Kiefer Sutherland has a chilling speech in which he defines his loyalties: “Unit, Corps, God, country. In that order. Sir.” At the time that struck me as seriously fucked-up … but contemplating brutal films like this and Saving Private Ryan, films that take me deeper into a place I’ve never been—the heart of darkness, combat—and am not at all comfortable about seeing, even simulated, I’ve begun to see the logic of it. When you’re in a shitstorm like that, you don’t think about your goddam country. You may pray, but you’re not really thinking about God, either. Or the goddam Corps. You’re thinking about the guy next to you, and the guy next to him, and knowing you’d do anything to save their lives because you’re hoping they’d do the same. And in a good unit, all of you will.
Eastwood does a wonderful job of illustrating PTSD by flashing from the ridiculous and soul-destroying adulation the three survivors got after the wholly random circumstance of raising the flag—which didn’t mean a damn thing to them at the time—back to the battle, and showing how inglorious the whole thing was … and how real acts of heroism were done, some by them, and some by their dead friends. In many ways, the aftermath of the battle was harder on these men than the battle itself. It killed Ira Hayes, that and racism, when Iwo Jima couldn’t. It left Rene Gagnon poor and embittered after the hundreds of job offers he got while he was a hero didn’t materialize. And to his dying day, John “Doc” Bradley, the Navy corpsman, suffered bad nights over the death of his best friend Iggy, who, from Wikipedia: “had been tortured in the cave by the Japanese for three days, during which time they also cut out his eyes, cut off his ears, smashed in his teeth, and cut off his genitalia and stuffed them into his mouth.” My only complaint about this duo of films is that Eastwood chose not to show that little bit of fun in Letters From Iwo Jima.