I have probably read the book Flags of Our Fathers three or four times. I have lost count. The book starts off by introducing the readers to the six flag raisers, follows the flag raises through boot camp, and to the island of Iwo Jima. The book then focuses on the three remaining flag raisers and their efforts to raise money for the war. After the “war bond” campaign, the book goes into what happened to each surviving flag raiser.
The movie of the same name does very little to focus on the flag raisers. Instead, the movie’s focus is the picture that Joe Rosenthal took that elevated six ordinary men to the status of hero. Two of the three flag raisers are reluctant to be cast into the national spotlight, but do so nonetheless.
The movie starts off by showing John (Doc) Bradley collapsing on some stairs. John Bradley is focused upon in the movie more than any of the other flag raisers. In fact, Bradley’s death led his son — James Bradley — on an epic search for what really happened on Iwo Jima.
The movie spends most of its time going back and forth from the present, to the past, to the battle, to the flag, and back to the present. Getting confused yet? What the movie lacked was focus. The only characterization in the movie was that of the famous photo. To illustrate this point, at the climax of the movie when the six flag raisers were putting up the flag, the movie cut away to Joe Rosenthal taking the photo and showed the final resulting photograph.
The characterization of the six flag raisers was something to be desired. The book did a good job of letting you “know” the flag raisers. The movie, however, focused more on the picture and the three surviving flag raisers. Even then, the movie leaves the question of why certain surviving flag raisers behaved the way they did. Ira Hayes drinks and drinks, yet it isn’t really apparent why his character has to be the drunk when the other two are just fine. Also, when Bradley’s character discovers his best friend Iggy is severely mutilated, it isn’t necessarily apparent what effect this had on Bradley. In the book, it goes into the friendship of Bradley and Iggy in a lot more detail and we finally understand why Bradley never spoke of the war or of his friend. The movie, however, just gives us watered-down characterization that makes “Saving Private Ryan” look like it had some class.
The cheapest part of the movie is when three of the six flag raisers die. In an anti-climatic climbing of an artificial Mt. Suribachi in Soldier Field, the movie flashes back to three of the flag raisers’ deaths. In retrospect, this “flashing back” would have worked if the movie had done a better job at characterization. Instead, the movie leaves the taste of a rushed ending and a “who are they” type feel to the three dead flag raisers. The movie attempts to paint them as heroes, yet the rushed deaths made them seem otherwise. It was almost as if the producers conspired and said, “What’s the fastest, cheapest way to kill off the three flag raisers?”
In conclusion, I suggest you read the book if you want a better picture of what the six flag raisers were like. The movie doesn’t go into the upbringings, the training, and the inner struggles of each flag raiser. The movie should have been about the six flag raisers, not the famous picture. I find this ironic, since the point of the book, “Flags of Our Fathers”, was to take the focus away from the picture and point it towards the men behind the picture.