Director Clint Eastwood Discusses "Flags of Our Fathers"

The Story Behind One of the Most Famous Photos in History

Director Clint Eastwood on the set of
Director Clint Eastwood on the set of "Flags of Our Fathers.". © DreamWorks Pictures

Based on the book by James Bradley (with Ron Powers) and directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers is an in-depth look at how the lives of the men featured in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" photo were affected following the publication of that photograph in newspapers across America. The three surviving flag-raisers were quickly brought from the battlefield on Iwo Jima to the United States and labeled as heroes by the government.

The three men - Navy Corpsman John 'Doc' Bradley and Marines Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon - were paraded around the United States, reluctantly pushed into the position of being celebrity spokesmen for the War Bond effort.

Clint Eastwood on the Appeal of Flags of Our Fathers: “One, there's never been a story on Iwo Jima, even though there have been pictures that have been entitled — using it in the title — but the actual invasion, it was the biggest marine corps invasion in history, the most fierce battle in marine corps history. But what intrigued me about it was the book itself and the fact that it wasn't really a war story. I wasn't setting out to do a war movie. I'd been involved with a few as an actor, but I liked this because it was just a study of these people. I've always been curious about families who find out things about their relatives much after the fact. And the kind of people that [have talked to me] about this campaign and many other campaigns, and the ones who seemed to be the most in the front lines and have been through the most, seem to be the ones who have been the quietest about their activity.

It's a sure thing that if you hear somebody being very braggadocio about all their experiences in combat, sure thing that he was probably a clerk typist somewhere in the rear echelon (laughing).

There seems to be a commonality with these kinds of people, like John Bradley was, that they came back and it was a time in history when you didn't have a lot of psychiatric evaluation and coddling.

When they came back they were just told to go home and get over it. If they didn't have wives or loved ones to help them, they had to adjust on their own - or else they didn't adjust on their own. So it's just those experiences of being a young man thrown into the ultimate celebrity. The picture, I hope, makes a comment on celebrity, of being treated like a president — maybe not always a president, but being treated like a celebrity, and they didn't feel that. They felt very complex about being that, especially when so many of their companions were killed in this ferocious battle. The famous photograph, the Joe Rosenthal photograph, was taken 4 or 5 days into the battle. It was not even a fourth of the way there yet, but it signified a unity that I've always been curious about. So that's it.”

Book to Screenplay – Paul Haggis Tackles Flags of Our Fathers: “…It's a difficult book to translate into a screenplay. Paul likes to joke. After our first meeting he said, ‘I have about an 11% chance of being successful with this.’ And I said, ‘Well, it's going to work out. Don't worry. Just keep things straight ahead.’ We would talk every day or so over the phone and talk about philosophy. It was a way to get started.

He had trouble getting it into it and we talked about doing it [in a linear style] — doing it in various acts. But the trouble is, to show the impact that it has on the three soldiers and their recollection that is very difficult to work with. You'd go from present day, which would be 1994 in this case, and back to one period of time and up to another period of time and back, and then up to the present day. The only other time I've done that — I did it with a picture called Bird years ago and I had difficulty in going into flashback, then a flashback within a flashback, and then having to unwind and come back and keep the audience only moderately confused, to get back to the present day of that particular picture (which) present day was in the ‘40s as well. We finally decided this was the way to do it.

Jim Bradley wrote his book as he was researching, doing literally a detective story, going around and talking to people, so it laid out that way. It just seemed like a logical way to do it. Otherwise it's a very big sprawling book and it covers a lot of chapters on a lot of various items. You have to sit there and figure out, ‘Well, what story do we want to do? Just the bond drive or the battle?’ But you have to have the impact of the battle to show the complexities of the bond drive, of the emotions of the guys. I guess Adam Beach's character sort of sums it up when he's on the train and says, ‘We shouldn't be here.’ There's a lot of little key places that guide you back. That is one of them.”

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Filming Flags of Our Fathers in Iceland: Director Clint Eastwood said he loved filming in Iceland. "When it was first suggested that we work in Iceland, I could not understand how it would work, but really there's a lot of similarities between Iceland in the summer and Iwo Jima in the winter time. Iwo is a geo-thermal island, a lot of volcanic activity, a lot of sulphur minerals coming out of fissures in the mountains and what have you. Iceland is not necessarily that way, but it does have some of that. It has tremendous black beaches, black sand beaches, which are very hard to duplicate. We looked at black sand beaches all over the world — next to the 4 Seasons in Hawaii (laughter) — comfortable places. It turned out the only way to do it was [in Iceland].

Certain parts of [Iwo Jima] are considered a shrine, and the Japanese don't have tourism there. Nobody can go there without the Japanese government's approval and the Japanese government feels it's a sacred place because there are still almost 12,000 of their men unaccounted for on that island. So we couldn't do the pyrotechnics that we would have to do to actually recreate the invasion, so we went to Iceland. Iceland was very cooperative, and then we came back and did the various cities here in the States.”

The Casting Process: “We’re using lesser-known actors because the average age of people sent to Iwo Jima was 19 years-old, except for some of the officers.

I talked to one of the officers who was there the day before yesterday, he retired as a General but he was a Captain then and he was 24. So the oldest in our group, who was Mike Strank, was 26 years old, and the other Marines called him ‘The Old Man’. It’s hard to be called an old man at 26, but because of his leadership qualities, he was sort of viewed that way.

I think because of the age and we had to use young people, it lent itself to using lesser-known actors. And also if you have big name actors coming on the screen in a situation, sometimes it takes a while to adjust and see someone who’s well-known and then adjust to them as a character. It’s up to that actor to romance you over into thinking that he is that character. I remember years ago seeing Rio Bravo in a theater and they made the decision to cast Ward Bond as a wagon master and have him ride into town and go, ‘Wagon’s ho!’ and this was during the time that Wagon Train was on television and a very popular show. When he did that, the whole audience all came apart and it took another 15 minutes to get back into the movie. But just the presence of somebody that’s well known… People are going to the movies to see their favorite actor, in this case, that may be the case in this movie or any other movie, but this time you can kind of accept in a faster fashion the fact that these people are the characters."

The Choice of Adam Beach to Play Ira Hayes: "The story of Ira Hayes has been told before but Adam Beach is a North American Indian, so we don’t have a Caucasian playing it or somebody of occidental background.

I had seen him do some other smaller roles, but he came and he did a reading on tape and it was very good. You could see a lot of possibilities there. I hired him and he turned out to be even better than I expected. Ira Hayes was a complex person, a person who did sharecropping, a kid from Arizona who went to the Marine Corps, suddenly he’s in the Marine Corps and he’s got a uniform and he meets a lot of friends. He found sort of a family in the Marine Corps. He liked it to the point where he wanted to stay there.”

Eastwood continued, “Everything in this picture is true. Sometimes that’s an advantage and sometimes it’s a disadvantage. But everything happened. He did threaten Gagnon that he’d kill him if he told them he was on the flag. He didn’t want to come back to the States after combat and do what they’re doing.

He had a problem with alcoholism and everywhere they went, they were serving him drinks. That could be not conducive to a good situation for a person with his feelings, attraction to alcohol. The Keyes Beech character also had an attraction to alcohol and he was assigned to Ira Hayes, which made it worse because he was the liaison for the three boys. The other boys seemed to be able to handle it. But Rene Gagnon [played by Jesse Bradford] had problems on his own.”

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Clint Eastwood’s Take on Flags of Our Fathers: “I think it’s very emotional, the father/son relationship. The son finding out about his father and having maybe a moment with him while he’s still alive and then after he’s gone, just the memory of his father, finding out what an extraordinary person he was. John Bradley was extremely well decorated, well thought of. Of the three guys, he was the one that had the most recognition in combat. As a corpsman he did some extraordinary things, and to find that out about your father after he’s passed away, I think that’s emotional. I think it’s emotional at the end.

At the end we just try to show that these guys, really what sums it up is these guys are just a bunch of kids who were sent off to fight for their country. And if you watch the ending credits, we tried to show the real people and you realize that those 19-year-olds looked about 45 in a matter of a two week period, a three week period or something. It shows how much you can change a person and how appreciative they are to have made it through. This general I talked to the other day…he didn’t say much about it. He just said, ‘I’m one of the lucky ones.’ And we should be appreciative of them for doing it. If they didn’t do it, we would have had combat on our shores and combat on our shores is something no American would look forward to.

But don’t give up because we have to always be vigilant because such a thing could happen.”

The Heart of Flags of Our Fathers: Eastwood says he told this story because it’s important for the public to understand what these men experienced. “I just wanted them to get to know these people, know what they went through.

Maybe give the audience a feeling of what it was like in that time, what these people dedicated their lives or donated their lives for. The feeling of false celebrity, something that we’re seeing quite common these days. Just in general, just find out these kinds of people. There have been books written about it. Brokaw’s book of course, The Greatest Generation and a lot of people talk about the greatest generation so it was fun to just try to visualize the greatest generation. We live in a time now where it’s different. We have an all voluntary military. The country’s a lot more comfortable now as far as economically. Those times would come out of rough economic times. In fact right now we’re probably a lot more spoiled than we were then, so the idea, war is more of an inconvenience now where then it was an absolute necessity.”

America and World War II: “As far as World War II as compared to [Iraq], all wars have their problems. It was a different time in history, of course. We had been fighting in the European theatre, we were at war. But then when it came — when it was brought to us in Pearl Harbor - it became a reality that if we weren't careful, if we didn't fight this one out, we might be speaking another language today.

So it was sort of simple.

Most of the young men and women who went to war — a lot of the women went to work in factories and had to give up their lives… Most of the men gave up their lives or gave up their everyday life to go, most of them were skinny kids out of the Depression. Most of the kids, the average age was 19 years old. You figured they were probably all born in 1928 or 27 or in the late ‘20s early ‘30s, and they were over there, but they all had the spirit. And it was important to tell this story for that reason. It told of a time in our history when there was a lot of spirit.

I think the icon itself of the flag-raising, a candid shot which was sort of a manufactured shot at the time - it didn't have any significance at the moment because it was a separate flag-raising but it was just a shot that was very rare.

It's a work of art. It's a work of art because it's people not looking into the camera and smiling at their aunt in Des Moines. It shows the unity of people working towards a common cause. The hands reach out, sometimes just hands just being seen, and that itself showed a time when people felt they had to — we had to be victorious in this war.”

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Filming Two Separate Movies on the Battle of Iwo Jima: Clint Eastwood decided not only to tell the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the American point of view, but also from the Japanese viewpoint. Eastwood explained what went into that decision: “Part way into the research for the book and how to do it, I started getting interested in General Kuribayashi. I was kind of wondering what kind of person he was to defend this island in a ferocious way, but also in a very clever way by tunneling the island and putting everything underground - doing it differently than most of the Japanese defenses were at that time. Most of them were beachhead defenses and using a lot of artillery from the sea. You couldn’t do that effectively with this particular battle. This particular battle, by the way, had its intelligence problems as we’ve seen in recent times. They estimated far fewer troops than were on the island so they sent the Navy off, figuring they could take it fairly easily. They thought they could take it in maybe four or five days, and it didn’t quite turn out that way.

I sent to Japan and got a book about General Kuribayashi. It was a book of letters, and the letters were to his wife, his daughter and his son, and a lot of them were mailed from the U.S. when he was here as an envoy in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. He was a very sensitive man, very family-oriented, missing his family very much. In those [letters] you got a feeling for what he was like. Later on, we found out some stories - some fact and some up to a point - and then the island gets lost because there were no survivors that we could find that knew exactly what happened at the end.

General Kuribayashi was a unique guy. He liked America. He thought it was a mistake to go to war with America. He thought America was too big an industrial complex, from a practical point of view. He had a lot of resistance among his own troops about his defense of the island. A lot of his fellow officers thought he was crazy doing this whole tunneling thing.

But he turns out to be an interesting person. And in our research, we found out there were many other interesting people that were there. The young Japanese conscriptees that were on the island were very much like the Americans. They didn’t necessarily want to be in the war. They were sent there being told, ‘Don’t plan on coming back,’ something you could not tell an American with a straight face. That would be a tough sell. Most people go into combat thinking, ‘Yes, it could be dangerous and I could get killed, but I could also make it back and go back to normal.’”

Opening the Tokyo International Film Festival: Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers was selected as the opening film at Tokyo’s annual festival. The acclaimed director admits he has absolutely no idea how it will be received by the audience there. “A lot of Japanese that have seen it seem to enjoy it and seem to be interested in it. After the war, Japanese history was left very still. There wasn’t much talk about the war. It’s not taught in schools. None of the actors in Letters from Iwo Jima knew anything about the battle of Iwo Jima, these Japanese fellows that came over. They were very curious about it. The current generation doesn’t know very much about that.

I thought it was important to tell that history, not only for Japan because these are people that gave up a lot for their country and made the ultimate sacrifice in most cases. I think it’s important internationally because I think it’s important to realize that war is a futile exercise at best. People are trying to kill one another who, under other circumstances, could be extremely friendly. So it doesn’t speak well for mankind that we keep having wars, but we’ve had them since the beginning of mankind. I don’t have the answer but I try to tell what little knowledge I have.”