News

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."

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.