Flags Of “Their� Fathers?

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Perhaps the movie's most glaring omission involves the absence of any African-American soldiers. No Blacks were featured in any of the early war films from the Forties and Fifties, and none were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor

(Imaginary history has no Black heroes).

On the morning of February 19, 1945, in the wake of 74 consecutive days of pounding from the air by B-29 bombers, over 100,000 U.S. soldiers mounted an amphibious assault on Iwo Jima, a tiny Far East island about a third of the size of Manhattan. The Marines who landed there that fateful day encountered mines, booby traps, and much stronger resistance than they had bargained for because the bombardment had failed to soften-up the fortification as anticipated.

The Japanese had carved a honeycomb of concrete-reinforced caves 40-feet deep into the face of Mount Suribachi, the 550-foot extinct volcano towering over the isle's southern tip. So, armed to the teeth, the enemy patiently waited underground, afforded the early advantage offered by a maze of 1500 bunkers interconnected by 16-miles of passageways.

Further complicating the invasion was the fact that when the GI's arrived, they were unable to dig foxholes, because the shore of the hostile terrain was composed of Black sulfuric ash, a loose, shifting soil virtually impossible either to walk on or to dig foxholes in. As a consequence, the Allies ended up stuck like sitting ducks on the beach, suffering more than a casualty per minute for the first 60 hours.

Though America did ultimately prevail in this pivotal battle of the Pacific Theater of Operations, victory would be prematurely celebrated back home due to a "Mission Accomplished" photo-op which transpired on the fifth day of the fighting. That's when AP photographer Joe Rosenthal (who just died in August of this year at the age of 94) snapped the world-renowned shot of a half-dozen soldiers hoisting Old Glory high atop Suribachi which would serve as a morale booster for a populace growing weary of the war's mounting debt and death toll.

Two days later, on February 25th, when the picture appeared in the Sunday edition of newspapers all across the country, most readers were unaware that the bloody engagement wasn't over. But it would continue for almost another month, ultimately taking a total of 6,821 Americans lives (including half the men in the famous print) as well as all but a few hundred of the 22,000 Japanese entrenched on the island.

In addition, the American public didn't know that the too good to be true Kodak moment had been a recreation, not an authentic snapshot of the historic instant when the Stars and Stripes were first raised on the summit. When asked, Rosenthal initially acknowledged that the photo had been staged and that another flag had been planted before he arrived, but he retracted the statement when that admission ignited a nasty backlash.

Nonetheless, the photo won the Pulitzer Prize and spawned a cottage industry of reproductions of the iconic tableau including everything from posters to paperweights to billboards to a commemorative postage stamp to a silver dollar to a national monument to propaganda war newsreels.

With Flags of Our Fathers, one would hope that Clint Eastwood would have some reason to make another Iwo Jima movie besides resurrecting the same sort of patriotic claptrap already dished out ad nauseam in war flicks like John Wayne's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). But regrettably, Eastwood chose neither to clarify the aforementioned photo controversy, nor to edify his audience in any other meaningful way.

Perhaps the movie's most glaring omission involves the absence of any African-American soldiers. No Blacks were featured in any of the early war films from the Forties and Fifties, and none were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in World War II, at least until President Clinton made an overture to correct the glaring oversight during his presidency.

So, excuse me for wondering why Eastwood would opt to perpetuate the myth of Iwo Jima as a virtually lily-white invasion in these presumably more enlightened times. Sadly, Clint's not the only top director guilty as charged, since Steven Spielberg served up a similar historical distortion in Serving Private Ryan, and more recently, Oliver Stone conveniently changed the color of a Marine hero at Ground Zero from Black to white to fit his vision of 9-11 for World Trade Center.

This persisting bias has serious implications for the prospects of the already beleaguered Black male, for a fundamental function of film, ostensibly, is to convey a sense of a culture's social structure. And when the cinematic lens is repeatedly employed to map out microcosms of society marked by African-American marginalization, it is very likely to engender real-life attitudes rationalizing continued ostracism and exclusion.

Truth be told, about 1000 Black soldiers took part in the assault on Iwo Jima, including Sergeant Thomas McPhatter, whose all-Black platoon landed on the first day. McPhatter, 83, who played a critical role in the real flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi, not the re-enactment, is fed up about being ignored again by Flags of Our Fathers.

"This is the last straw," he complained. "I feel like I've been denied, I've been insulted, I've been mistreated. Of all the movies that have been made of Iwo Jima, you never see a Black face. But what can you do? We still have a strong underlying force in my country of rabid racism."

During WWII, the Department of Defense directed embedded cameramen not to film African-American GI's in action. Remember, America's Armed forces were segregated until 1948. So, any newsreel footage accidentally containing Blacks invariably ended up on the cutting room floor. But Blacks were there, and shed blood in almost every major engagement of the war.

So why the reluctance to rectify the deliberately whitewashed version of history disseminated during the shameful days of discriminaton? Who knows? NYU History Professor Yvonne Latty says she even urged Eastwood before he began production to include Black soldiers in the film and sent him a copy of her book about these forever unsung heroes, but to no avail.

The upshot is that Flags of Our Fathers is a 21st Century version of the state-sanctioned, pro-war propaganda designed to instill a sense of patriotism in the Baby Boom Generation back when they were impressionable babies. The violence may no longer be sanitized, but its color-coded depictions of heroism remain unchanged.

The story revolves around a Private Ryan-like mandate to bring back to the States the soldiers who had erected the flag in the suddenly-famous photograph. Why? In order to exploit the vets sudden celebrity to sell government bonds on behalf of the war effort. This tedious timewaster's only tension revolves around a seemingly meaningless controversy, namely, whether one of the deceased soldiers holding the pole might have been misidentified.

With Blacks invisible, Flags of Our Fathers devotes its express ethnic insensitivity in the direction of other ethnic minorities. Thus, Japanese are repeatedly referred to as "Japs," while the token non-white GI, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a Native-American, is presented as an offensive combination of two stereotypes: "The Noble Savage" and "The Drunken Indian."

When not speaking in silly non-sequiturs such as, "Because of this war, white men will understand the Indians a lot better," Ira is portrayed as a lush who never learned how to hold his liquor. Yet, he supposedly somehow embarked by foot and by thumb on a 1300-mile journey from Oklahoma to Texas to inform a grieving mother (Judith Ivey), in person, that her late son had indeed been standing alongside him holding the pole in the famous picture, just as she suspected, as if that could in any way be a comfort for her loss.

His conscience cleansed and his duty to his great white brother honorably performed, Ira subsequently reverts to the true nature of the red man, drinking himself into a stupor till he's found frozen to death in a ditch by the side of a road. The movie's underlying message, a slight variation on an age-old theme, is that wars are still fought by brave white guys for God, mom and apple pie, and that anybody who would dare to disagree must be a cut-and-run coward.

It'll be interesting to see whether Clint tones down his ethnic animus in Letters from Iwo Jima, his upcoming companion piece purporting to present the Japanese perspective of the same battle. What's the point of making a pair of historical epics, if both merely reflect and reinforce deep-seeded racist attitudes rather than attempt to teach tolerance, understanding and an appreciation of our cultural differences?

Fair (1 star).  Rated R for expletives, ethnic slurs, and the graphic depiction of the carnage of war. Running time: 132 minutes. Studio: Dreamworks Pictures

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