Clint Eastwood looks back at reluctant heroes who figured in war scene

Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press
Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), left, John `Doc' Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), center, and Rene Gagnon (Jessie Bradford) are greeted as the heroes who lifted the flag on Iwo Jima,upon returning home from the war in "Flags of Our Fathers."

Right before Clint Eastwood started shooting "Flags of Our Fathers," a drama about the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 and the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of six soldiers raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, he attended a 60th anniversary commemoration in San Francisco, and talked to surviving veterans. When he finished his film, which opens nationwide Friday, he showed it to some of those who had shared their Iwo Jima experiences with him and his crew.

One was retired Marine Maj. Gen. Fred Haynes, who had fought there as a 24-year-old captain. After the film, he told Eastwood how impressed he was at how the film used old combat footage to make it more realistic.

"I told him that we hadn't used any newsreel footage, that we had shot all that ourselves with the actors," Eastwood says. "And I told him it was the highest compliment anyone had ever given me."

Eastwood has won Academy Awards as a director ("Million Dollar Baby" and "Unforgiven"), he's an American Film Institute honoree, a three-time winner of the Cannes Film Festival's highest jury prize and recipient of countless other accolades. But his sincere reaction to Haynes' response, he says, came from the two goals he had in making "Flags of Our Fathers."

"I've made a few war movies, and I've acted in a lot more, and it was really important to me to make the most realistic picture I could of what happened on that island, in one of the most significant and grueling battles ever fought for the United States.

"And the second thing was, I wanted to do justice to those guys who fought it, for the courage of guys like Gen. Haynes and the sacrifice of all those that didn't make it."

Almost 7,000 American soldiers were killed in a battle that lasted little more than a month. More than 20,000 Japanese troops died.

"It's almost impossible to comprehend," he says.

If "Flags" is to the Pacific theater of war what Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" was to the European campaign, it's not altogether coincidental. Eastwood, who served in the Army during the Korean War, says he reads a lot of books about World War II, but was especially moved by the James Bradley book on which his film is based, "because it resonated on so many levels."

"Well, everybody has seen Joe Rosenthal's photograph, but not a lot of people know the story about how it was made, and how it was exploited by the Defense Department," says Eastwood.

"They needed to sell a lot of bonds to keep the war going, and so they sent the three guys in the picture who survived the battle on this big publicity tour as national heroes. And one of them was John (Doc) Bradley, a Navy corpsman. After he came back and started a family, he never talked about the war. His son James knew he was in the photograph, but that was all.

"So when Doc died, James set out to find out what happened to his dad at Iwo Jima, and that led to him eventually writing the book. So it's also this story of a man connecting with his father after his death."

Eastwood inquired about the rights, only to learn they had been purchased by Spielberg's DreamWorks; Spielberg had briefly considered directing the film himself. Eastwood, who had directed an episode of Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" TV series, mentioned to Spielberg how much he liked the book, and two years later got a call.

Spielberg had commissioned a script by Vietnam veteran William Broyles Jr., but Eastwood brought in "Million Dollar Baby" screenwriter Paul Haggis "to see if he could come up with a structure that could bring together all the threads of the book - a son's search to learn about his father, the battle itself, and the photograph and the fame and complications it brought to these guys' lives."

After Haggis found "the way in," Eastwood assembled his longtime crew, including casting director Phyllis Hoffman, who had worked with Eastwood on 21 films; director of photography Tom Stern (five films as cinematographer, many others as chief lighting technician); production designer Henry Bumstead (11-film veteran); and editor Joel Cox (20 films). These jobs were especially critical, because the film uses three different visual designs to help the viewer follow as it moves backward and forward in time.

"After all these years, we tend to talk in shorthand, like a family," says Cox, who won an editing Oscar for "Unforgiven." "Clint pretty much trusts us all to do our jobs right, so there's not a lot of debate when we get going. We work pretty fast."

It would be the last time Eastwood would work with Bumstead, who died in May at age 93, and Hoffman, 61, who died in March.

Eastwood had wanted all the soldiers to be played by actors the same age: "What always floors people is that the average age of these guys was 19. You look at the World War II films made when I was coming up, they starred Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Robert Taylor - all these guys were in their late 30s and 40s. The oldest guy in the photograph, Mike Strank, the sergeant, he was 26. All the guys in his unit called him the Old Man."

Strank is played in the film by Barry Pepper, who also wore dog tags in "Saving Private Ryan." Ryan Phillippe, who plays Bradley, says that because Pepper had war movie experience, "he became the leader, teaching the rest of us what to do."

Realizing the three principles had emotionally difficult roles to play, Eastwood cast Phillippe, 32, as 21-year-old Bradley; Adam Beach, 33, as 22-year-old Ira Hayes, the alcoholic American Indian who inspired a famous ballad; and Jesse Bradford, 27, as 19-year-old Rene Gagnon.

"I needed guys who had experience, but in my defense, we made `em all look younger," says Eastwood, laughing. "And believe me, you see pictures of these guys after the war, and they all looked a lot older than they actually were."

Eastwood, an incredible 76, says he is "starting to feel a little mortal." Along with his longtime friends, his mother, Francesca, also died this year at 97. And he says he was going to call Iwo Jima photographer Rosenthal to arrange to show him "Flags" when he "picked up the paper to see his obituary" in August.

"I'm going to cool my heels a little bit, I think," he says. "I've had a really good run for the last few years. The more mature you get, the more you learn as a filmmaker, and I'm not looking to make any movies just to be making them. But you know, I get a good story in my head and I can't shake it, I'm out there doing it again."





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