Eastwood: Flags of our Fathers

It is the most indelible image of the Pacific War a moment in time caught on film of five Marines and one Navy Corpsman raising the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi mere days into the vicious battle for the Japanese garrison of Iwo Jima, a desolate island of black sand beaches and sulfurous caves.

For the men caught in the photo, raising the flag is one small formality in the midst of a grueling battle; but to those back home, the image of these men wordlessly working together to prevail against devastating odds instantly reshapes the notion of a hero. It captivates an American public hungry for hope and weary of a seeming war without end. It gives mothers a reason to believe their sons will come back alive, and meaning to those grieving for sons who wont come back at all.

To capitalize on the wave of sentiment the photo inspires, the surviving Flag Raisers are pulled out of combat and sent back to the States to continue to serve their country not on the battlefield but among crowds of adoring throngs brought together to be close to true heroes and write desperately-needed checks to fund the war effort.

Only three make it back alive John Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy Corpsman; Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), a publicity-shy Native American; and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a wartime messenger who avoided firing his weapon. The three Flag Raisers play the hero role to perfection tirelessly touring the country, shaking the right hands, speaking the right words into microphones as the very power of their image rescues the flagging war effort. But inwardly, they find that along with their friends and brothers felled in combat, a part of their souls will never leave the black soils of Iwo Jima.

Directed by two-time Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers is a powerful exploration of war as observed from afar and experienced by soldiers on the ground. An intimate story of friendship and courage, survival and sacrifice against the vast, chaotic backdrop of the battle of Iwo Jima, the film captures a moment in time as glimpsed through Joe Rosenthals camera and the impact that moment had not only on the country galvanized by it, but on the men captured within the cameras lens.

Many Storylines

Eastwood was initially attracted to the project after reading the best-selling book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley with Ron Powers: There are a lot of storylines and thats what makes the book interesting, and, of course, the famous photograph that was done by Joe Rosenthal of the AP. There was something about the photograph. Nobody knows quite what it is except that its guys doing some work, raising a pole–that may be how the six guys in the picture saw it themselves.”

Complex Set of Emotions

Says Eastwood: “In 1945, it symbolized the war effort. As a counterpoint to one of the bloodiest battles in the war, the picture symbolized what was at stake, what they were fighting for. And then when you find out what happens to the guys and how they are taken out of battle and brought back for bond tours, youre left with a very complex set of emotions, especially for people who are 19, 20, 22 years old.

Collaborating With Spielberg

Eastwood soon discovered that Steven Spielberg had obtained the rights to Bradleys book. It turned out that DreamWorks had bought the property, Eastwood recalls. I mentioned to Steven Spielberg that I liked the property very much, and I just left it hanging in the air like that. Then, a couple of years ago, I ran into Steven at a function and he said, Why dont you come over and do the project You direct it and Ill produce it with you. So I said, OK, Ill do that.

Spileberg on Eastwood

Spielberg, who made a memorable WWII film with Saving Private Ryan, for which he won the Oscar for best director says that Eastwoods remarkable career and filmmaking principles left no question that the film was in good hands. Over the three and a half decades since I first met Clint, it has been wonderful to see the range, confidence, and mastery of his work keep growing, Spielberg says. His body of work in the sheer variety of its themes and moods has no comparisons in the modern movie world. It has been equally wonderful to see the world offer Clint its acclaim and affection for his work and recognize in Clint an artistry that no one has ever heard him claim for himself. Maybe thats the most wonderful thing of all about this story watching Clint remain the same man hes always been; that is to say, totally unimpressed with himself.

Lessness is bestness Clint likes to say–and that applies especially to his own ego and his dependence on trust. Trust in his cast, in his crewreflects Clints own trust in himself, in his own instincts, whether hes casting or choosing material or setting up a shot.

The Japanese Side of Iwo Jima

Eastwood threw himself into researching the battle of Iwo Jima, reading widely on the subject and talking to veterans on both sides of the battle, which remains the deadliest engagement in Marine Corps history and the one for which the most Congressional Medals of Honor were rewarded (27). This research led to not only Flags of Our Fathers, but a parallel project Eastwood began to develop concurrently with his American production –a Japanese language film which would tell the other side of the story entitled Letters From Iwo Jima. In most war pictures I grew up with, there were good guys and bad guys, Eastwood notes. Life is not like that and war is not like that. These movies are not about winning or losing. They are about this wars effects on human beings and those who lose their lives much before their time.

A bunch of skinny kids

These were just a bunch of skinny kids who had just come out of the Depression, and it was not necessarily easy times for a lot of Americans, Eastwood notes. A lot of these guys would join the Marine Corps or were drafted in the Army, but they had a spirit they believed in what they were doing. They believed and they persevered.

Casting 100 speaking roles

Eastwood relied closely on casting director Phyllis Huffman, who passed away while the film was in post-production, to steer the considerable casting efforts for the film. Phyllis was Clints close confidante, says longtime producer Robert Lorenz. With well over 100 speaking roles in Flags of Our Fathers, she had her work cut out for her; she auditioned literally hundreds of actors in New York and Los Angeles and everywhere in between.

Together, they attracted an acclaimed ensemble cast to portray the true life figures caught up in the footprint of Iwo Jima. Neil McDonough portrays the tough, intense Captain Severance; John Benjamin Hickey plays Keyes Beech, the Navy PR officer who joins the Flag Raisers on their myriad personal appearances, first with a handlers indifference before allowing himself to feel compassion for the reluctant spokesmen; Tom Verica plays Lieutenant Pennel; John Slattery plays Bud Gerber; and Stark Sands plays Walter Gust.

At home in the US, the Gold Star Mothers mothers of the Flag Raisers felled on Iwo Jima are played by Myra Turley as Madeline Evelley, Hank Hansens mother; Ann Dowd as Mrs. Strank, mother of Mike Strank; and Connie Ray as Mrs. Sousley, Franklin Sousleys mother. Judith Ivey plays Mrs. Block, who swears its her own son Harlon in the picture when shes told officially its someone elses child, and Christopher Curry plays her husband, Ed. At home, Rene Gagnons mother is played by Beth Grant; Melanie Lynskey plays Renes fiance, Pauline. The cast also includes David Patrick Kelly as President Truman; Brian Kimmet as Sgt. Boots Thomas; and Matt Huffman as Lt. Bell.

Eastwood’s production team

To bring Flags of Our Fathers to life, Eastwood reunited his trusted team of veteran collaborators. Producer Robert Lorenz has overseen all aspects of development, production, post-production, marketing, and distribution for Eastwoods five most recent films. Michael Owens, who first worked with Eastwood on Space Cowboys, took on a central role during the production as visual effects supervisor and second unit director. Also serving on Eastwoods production team were director of photography Tom Stern (5 films with Eastwood as DP, many more with him as chief lighting technician), costume designer Deborah Hopper (5 films with Eastwood as costume designer, 9 more Eastwood films in other roles), editor Joel Cox (20 films with Eastwood), and the late production designer Henry Bumstead (11 films with Eastwood). As a testament not only to their close working relationship but their friendship as well, Eastwood has dedicated the film to
the memory of Huffman and Bumstead.

Visiting the Real Iwo Jim

Early in his preparation to make the film, Eastwood visited the island of Iwo Jima. The government of Japan was gracious enough to allow me to visit Iwo Jima last year in April, he notes. It was a very moving experience to walk on the island, on the site where so many mothers lost their sons on both sides of the war.

Eastwood knew the impact a massive filmmaking army would have on its beaches and did not want to subject such a place to the rigors of shooting the lengthy and destructive battle sequences there. He nonetheless shot footage on location on Iwo Jima, knowing the island itself the sense of history imbedded in its sands is a critical part of the story. Its quite emotional to sit there on the beach, he notes. Theres nobody on the island except a small Japanese military detachment and some U.S. airmen that come in once in a while to run operations. As you sit there on the beaches, you can almost hear the troops coming onto the land and the mayhem.

Shooting in Iceland

For the rigorous invasion itself, the filmmakers located one of the only places in
the world with geology and topography that could double for Iwo Jima Icelands
Reykjanes, the volcanic peninsula southwest of Reykjavik. Its very hard to duplicate the beach at Iwo Jima, very hard to find a place in the world like it, Eastwood comments.

It’s a geothermal volcanic island, much like Iwo is, so its always got little quakes. It’s got pure black sand, like Iwo has. They both have volcanic steam coming up out of the ground. They’re in different meridians, of course, but Iceland in August, while a little cooler, has conditions otherwise similar to Iwo in February.

The way things were

For the scenes of the troops traveling across the sea to Japan, the filmmakers
utilized the S.S. Lane Victory, a fully operational World War II-era cargo ship stationed in Long Beach, which was dressed by Henry Bumsteads team. We just had to put things back to the way they were in World War II, Eastwood explains. They were very exacting, the art department.