'Flags': The Story Behind an Iconic Image of WWII Flags Of Our Fathers is Clint Eastwood's look at the World War II battle of Iwo Jima, which was symbolized around the country by the photo of six faceless Marines raising the flag over Mount Suribachi.
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'Flags': The Story Behind an Iconic Image of WWII

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'Flags': The Story Behind an Iconic Image of WWII

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Arts & Life

'Flags': The Story Behind an Iconic Image of WWII

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

When you hear the name of the Pacific island Iwo Jima, you probably picture servicemen raising a flag. The image comes from a photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945 of the second flag-raising there. It's now the subject of a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. We'll put a historic lens on the film in a few minutes. But first, critic Bob Mondello says Flags of Our Fathers explores how that famous photograph came to be and what it came to mean.

BOB MONDELLO: The battle scenes are harrowing even before a shot is fired, troops landing on volcanic black sand beaches, hundreds of ships behind, seemingly no resistance ahead. But your nerves jangle because you can see what the soldiers can't: gun barrels hidden in the brush, tracking them as they advance.

(Soundbite of movie, “Flags of Our Fathers”)

Unidentified Man #1: (As character in movie) There's why they ain't shooting.

Unidentified Man #2: (As character in movie) Maybe they're all dead.

MONDELLO: When violence explodes - heads then helmets flying separately through the air - death comes as unexpectedly and as realistically as it ever has in a war film. So it's odd when something feels a little off the first time you see these same servicemen struggling up a hill to hoist Old Glory. There's no wind, not enough men, explosions getting drowned out by - cheers?

And just as you're registering that something's wrong, the camera rises over the crest of the hill to show you why. This flag is being raised on a papier-mâché mountain, surrounding by fireworks. It's part of a cross-country tour by the three surviving flag raisers to sell war bonds.

(Soundbite of movie, “Flags of Our Fathers”)

Unidentified Man #3: Right behind me, here, the heroes of Iwo Jima: Private First Class Rene Gagnon, Private First Class Ira Hayes, and Navy Corpsman John Doc Bradley.

(Soundbite of cheers)

MONDELLO: As the film cuts back and forth from battlefield shelling to war bond shilling, you understand that the home front is also taking a toll on these men. One of them, Ira Hayes played by Adam Beach, is so distressed at the disconnect between the flag-raising - which was arguably the least dangerous thing he did on Iwo Jima - and the way it's being used at home, that he begs to be returned to his unit.

(Soundbite of movie, “Flags of Our Fathers”)

Mr. ADAM BEACH (Actor): (As Ira Hayes) I can't take them calling me a hero. All I did was try not to get shot. Some of the things I saw done, things I did, they weren't things to be proud of, you know.

MONDELLO: As a director, Clint Eastwood has made a late career specialty of matters of conscience. And though he's filming on a grand scale here, it is internal conflicts that are his focus. Working from a best seller by the son of one of the flag-raisers, Eastwood bumps that iconic photo's reality up against the broader reality of troops under fire and the calculated unreality of wartime morale-boosting.

Audiences will doubtless hear echoes in this story, of more recent efforts to market an unpopular war, but Eastwood doesn't lean on them. Rather, he offers Flags of Our Fathers as a kind of eulogy for the passing of innocence, with even the films look - majestic but drained of color - suggesting how lives get sapped by combat and by myths.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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