Flags of Our Fathers: Crucial Characters

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.

The famous picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, taken by Associated Press
photographer Joe Rosenthal, actually depicts the second flag-raising on the island. After the invasion on February 19th, the Marine fifth division to which the Flag Raisers belong begins the attempt to capture Mt. Suribachi. By the fifth day, the American forces have suffered devastating casualties, but have also forced the Japanese to retreat into caves on the island. That morning, as a gesture of hope and good will toward the men involved in the effort, a flag is ordered to be raised atop the mountain.

As the story goes, the secretary of the Navy wants that flag as a souvenir for
himself but instead of that flag, which ranking officer Colonel Chandler Johnson (Robert Patrick) wants to preserve for the unit, Marine runner Rene Gagnon is instructed to carry up another, larger flag, to raise in its place.

Gagnon climbs to the top of the mountain, where he finds Marines Michael
Strank, Harlon Block, Ira Hayes, and Franklin Sousley, who have spent the morning
laying a telephone line. They quickly locate an old Japanese water pipe, which requires six men to lift. Navy Corpsman John Bradley lends a hand.

Rosenthal, aware of whats going on, puts down his camera and begins piling rocks to gain a better vantage point. Realizing hes about to miss his shot, he picks up his camera and presses the shutter release. One four-hundredth of a second later, history is made. Rosenthal sends the film to Guam to be developed; AP photo editor John Bodkin sees it and radiophotos it to New York. Seventeen and one-half hours after Rosenthal shot it, the picture is on the AP wire.

Though three of the men captured in the photo are killed in combat after being photographed, the three surviving servicemen Marines Gagnon and Hayes and Navy Corpsman Bradley are brought home. With the government desperate to sell war bonds to fund the USs efforts in World War II, the men are asked to continue serving their country but as fundraisers as part of the Seventh War Loan Drive.

Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe)

plays John Doc Bradley, who as a Navy Corpsman administers first aid to the other soldiers on the ground. John Bradley isnt a complicated man, Phillippe describes. He is honest, simple, and straightforward. Theres a great freedom in playing a man like that. He doesnt lie, doesnt pretend to be something hes not. He was a great man. I felt a strong responsibility to make sure he was portrayed in the most honest and complete manner possible.

In preparing for the role Phillippe spent time with his characters grown son,
“Flags of Our Fathers” author James Bradley. It was strange for me to introduce myself to someone by saying Id be portraying his father, but he was very enthusiastic and thought I was a good choice, says the actor.

Aside from his emotional connection to the role, Phillippes greatest challenge was
to portray accurately the medical procedures that were Docs job as a Corpsman. I
learned how to do tourniquets, pressure bandages, and slings, he recalls. With the
brutality of combat on Iwo Jima, Docs face is the last one many soldiers see. Iggy
(Jamie Bell), a young fellow soldier Doc takes under his wing, is among those who haunt him long after his flight away from Iwo Jima.

My family has a deep military history, says Ryan Philippe. My father was in the Navy during Vietnam, and my uncles served there as well. Both my grandfathers fought during World War II. To be able to pay respect to them is a huge responsibility and an honor.

Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford)

Fate, or perhaps chance, puts Doc into a new smaller unit comprised of the three surviving Flag Raisers with Rene Gagnon, played by Jesse Bradford. As expressive as Bradley is taciturn, as outgoing as Bradley is introverted, Gagnon is the serviceman who cultivates and celebrates the fame that comes with the bond tour before forming a deeper understanding of the sacrifices it represents.

Rene is 19 when all this happens to him, says Bradford. He is something of a mamas boy, maybe not quite cut out for war. On the other hand, he is also a kid trying to make good. He does everything thats asked of him.

As they tour the States, they are given celebrity recognition everywhere, parties
and people showing them a lot of attention, notes Eastwood. It has to be somewhat discombobulating for these young men. Even though theyve seen a lot on Iwo Jima, they know other people have seen a lot more.

Bradford feels that while Gagnons brashness seems a stark contrast to the other characters reluctance to play heroes, his emotions are every bit as complex. I talked a lot with his son about what kind of person he was, notes the actor. He was 19 years old, very much trying to do the right thing; I think he was fallible, but also a hero in his own way. He felt strongly that what they were doing for the war effort was absolutely necessary, and I wanted to portray him in a positive light.

As the three Flag Raisers are led onto a platform in Times Square, which is packed with thousands of people, Gagnon tells the crowd that theyre not the real heroes the real heroes are dead on the island. To become such a public figure, where these people are built up to expectations that are terrifically high, the pressure it puts on these young men is something they had to work really hard to overcome, and some of them didnt, Eastwood says.

Ira Hayes (Adam Beach)

The third Flag Raiser is the complex and enigmatic Ira Hayes, whose difficulty
adjusting to celebrity and regular life drives him to retreat into the bottle. Eastwood
cast Adam Beach (Windtalkers, Smoke Signals), whose emotional response to the role was powerful and immediate. I think Adam succeeded in capturing the essence of Ira Hayes, praises the director.

Ira is a classic war hero, in many respects, says Beach. He was in three of the
bloodiest battles in the South Pacific, and survived them all. All he wants is to be back in the field, with his boys, fighting side-by-side. He cant reconcile being safe while his friends, his brothers, are still fighting the horrors of war. He doesnt know how to deal with that.

As Beach worked to understand his character, he imagined what it would be like to
stand in front of a crowd of thousands, all cheering for him, and just the week before, he was watching his closest friends die, the actor describes. How could he do it I couldnt have but he had a job to do. I think he thought if thats what he had to do, then he was going to do it as best he could. And they raised more money than in any other drive.

Mike Strank (Barry Pepper)

The film also chronicles the fates of the three Flag Raisers who do not survive the battle: Michael Strank, Harlon Block, and Franklin Sousley. Strank, the sergeant and leader of the unit, is played by Barry Pepper. He is the type of guy that inspires other people to dig deeper because of the amount he gives on the field, describes Pepper. In researching the character, Pepper discovered that praise for the sergeant was universal. Every account by the men who served with him says what a great leader he was, he says, a good man who led by example.

Mike Strank was 25 years old when he served on Iwo Jima; the other guys in his
unit were 18 or 19, adds Phillippe. He was the battle-hardened vet. The funny thing
was, when Barry came on to play the role, he took on a similar role with us; hed been in Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers. With his war film experience, he became the leader, teaching us what to do.

To learn to conduct themselves as soldiers, the core cast received intense military
instruction from the films four military advisors rather than undergoing any kind of actor boot camp. I think it was very much Clints idea for us not to have boot camp training, says Pepper. I think he wanted the scenes to be much like life on the battlefield young men thrown into uniform and into confusion. The emotions arise organically out of a situation like that.

Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker)

In early news reports on the photograph, Pfc. Harlon Block is misidentified as another Marine (Hank Hansen, played in the film by Paul Walker). Benjamin Walker, who plays Harlon Block, says, Harlon had been a running back for his high school football team. He was in great shape even before he got to boot camp. Prior to the start of production, Walker underwent an intense physical regimen to get to Blocks level of fitness, an effort, which paid off. There were a couple of times we were working nights, the temperature was five below, and we were on the beach with the wind beating us to death, he says. Id be running as fast as I could through the sand, barely getting anywhere. It was physically trying, but it was still a fantastic experience.

Franklin Sousley (Joseph Cross)

The final Flag Raiser, Franklin Sousley, is played by Joseph Cross. Franklin is a very fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy, says Cross, perhaps a little more nave than the others. He provides a lot of entertainment for his unit. They pick on him a bit, but its all good-natured. He is seen as the younger brother, in a way.

Echoing a sentiment expressed often by his fellow cast-members, Cross says that
working with Eastwood was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. He
wants to see what you can do and with his calm, gentle, quiet nature, he gives you the
freedom to interpret the role in your own way. Because of that, you believe in Clints
vision, and you want to give him the very best that you can.

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.

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.