“I was 10 years old when the war ended. I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarianism. I still think so.

“I remain a hero worshiper. Over the years, I’ve interviewed thousands of the veterans. It is a privilege to hear their stories, then write them up.”

This quote, from historian Stephen Ambrose, is cited at the top of the acknowledgements section at the end of the book Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima by James Bradley and Michael Finch.

It’s a sentiment that contrasts strikingly with an assessment of heroism expressed in the opening and closing voiceovers of the film adaptation from Million Dollar Baby collaborators Clint Eastwood and Paul Haggis, who could not claim the book’s subtitle for their film, except as irony.

“We like things nice and simple,” muses the narrator at the start of the film. “Good and evil. Heroes and villains. Most of the time, they’re not who we think they are.” By the film’s end, the narrator concludes, “Maybe there’s no such thing as heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It’s a way for us to understand something so incomprehensible.”

And what is that incomprehensible something? The sacrifices soldiers make for their comrades. “They may have fought for their country, but they died for their brothers.”

That’s as succinct an articulation of the reigning Hollywood orthodoxy of war movies — other examples include Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and K-19: The Widowmaker — as you’re likely to find. War, it seems, is not about politics or patriotism, much less national security, but rather loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers on the battlefield. It’s an ethic that allows no room for such wide-eyed ideals as “saving the world from barbarianism.”

Tendentious voiceovers aside, Flags of Our Fathers fairly captures some of the tensions and ironies of the cult of heroism. Marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) could be speaking for countless heroes when he protests, “All I did was try not to get shot.” Of course, the very fact that Hayes was in a position to be shot in the first place, and that he did his best under those circumstances, is more than enough to qualify him to be honored as a hero.

On another score, though, Hayes has a point. He and two fellow soldiers, Navy corpsman John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Marine runner Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), are being feted across the country as “the heroes of Iwo Jima” in an effort to promote sales of war bonds.

Why these three? Because they’re the surviving soldiers from Joe Rosenthal’s iconic, Pulitzer-winning photograph of the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima, which has re-galvanized the war-weary American people for the final push in the Pacific.

Even today, the famous photograph retains an extraordinary power. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, it tells a story, creates a mood, evokes an ethos and elicits a metaphorical or allegorical response, all at the same time. The image of a half dozen anonymous men in uniform straining together to raise Old Glory on the battlefield readily invites a number of interrelated morals. Unity, commitment and self-sacrifice for a cause are all embodied in the forms on those six young men, along with the heritage and values of the flag waving over their heads.

Although in many ways the world of that photograph is simpler and more innocent than our own, the film reminds us that it was not as credulous or lacking in media savvy as we might suppose. From the start there are questions about the authenticity of the photograph. Rumors and reports swirl claiming the scene was staged.

It wasn’t, but the story behind the photo wasn’t as simple as it might have seemed, either. The Old Glory in the photograph was the second flag raised that day on Iwo Jima. Battalion Commander Chandler Johnson ordered the original replaced in order to thwart the wish of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who wanted to make a personal souvenir of the original flag. Johnston felt it belonged to the battalion.

Such background trivia, though interesting and ironic, hardly seems to blunt the essential power of the image itself. Even the controversy over the misidentification of one of the fallen soldiers in the picture seems a footnote, if a crucial one to the families of the soldiers in question.

Flags of Our Fathers raises these questions, but the real issue behind them is the exploitation of the three surviving men in the picture — and the image itself — as a much-needed PR windfall by a cash-strapped government.

Though the film is somewhat iconoclastic, it is not as cynical as some critics seem to regard it. The country did, after all, need the money — and the support of its citizens — to win a war against a brutal and determined enemy. Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum praises the “noble undertaking” of a film that underscores how the photo was “mendaciously exploited to sell war bonds.”

Meanwhile, from a different end of the political spectrum, New York Post critic Lou Lumenick describes how the film “dissects how that heroism was cynically packaged for public consumption.” Sometimes cynicism may be in the eye of the beholder, at least partly.

Less open to interpretation is the sad irony of the less-than-glorious futures that await the heroes of the hour. It is a cruel truth that society has a treacherously short memory for gratitude, and men who in great adversity are capable of rising to heroism may be less able to cope with the honor or even the indifference of the world.

Flags of Our Fathers commemorates the heroes of Iwo Jima, and deplores the painful realities of their lives. Like real life, not to mention nearly all films nowadays, there are no heroes without feet of clay. The spin of the closing voiceover notwithstanding, that’s not the same thing as saying there are no heroes.

Content advisory: Horrifying graphic battlefield violence and extreme gore; recurring profane and obscene language; some drunkenness.

Steven D. Greydanus

is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.