Clint 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 that's what makes the book interesting," says Eastwood. "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 it's guys doing some work, raising a pole - that may be how the six guys in the picture saw it themselves. But 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, you're left with a very complex set of emotions, especially for people who are 19, 20, 22 years old."
Based on James Bradley's best-selling memoir, "Flags of Our Fathers" reveals the battle of Iwo Jima through the eyes of one of the "Flag Raisers" and also tells the story of a son's journey to discover his father's role in the famous AP photograph - and through the photograph, glimpse not only who he was as a man but who he fought with, and who he mourned, sixty years after it was taken. "I never set out to write a book," comments James Bradley, whose book was published in 2000 by Bantam and spent 46 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, six of those weeks at
1. "I set out to find out why my dad was silent. I decided to write the book when I realized that everyone knows the photo, but nobody knows the story."
Eastwood soon discovered that Steven Spielberg had obtained the rights to Bradley's 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 don't you come over and do the project? You direct it and I'll produce it with you.' So I said, 'OK, I'll do that.'"
Spielberg - who made a memorable WWII film with "Saving Private Ryan," for which he won the Oscar for best director - says that Eastwood's 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 that's the most wonderful thing of all about this story - watching Clint remain the same man he's always been; that is to say, totally unimpressed with himself. 'Lessness is bestness' he likes to say-- and that applies especially to his own ego and his dependence on trust. Trust - in his cast, in his crew--reflects Clint's own trust in himself, in his own instincts, whether he's casting or choosing material or setting up a shot."
Once it became his next project, 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 war's effects on human beings and those who lose their lives much before their time."
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 what's going on, puts down his camera and begins piling rocks to gain a better vantage point. Realizing he's 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 US's 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.
Ryan Phillippe ("Crash," "Gosford Park") plays John "Doc" Bradley, who as a Navy Corpsman administers first aid to the other soldiers on the ground. "John Bradley isn't a complicated man," Phillippe describes. "He is honest, simple, and straightforward. There's a great freedom in playing a man like that. He doesn't lie, doesn't pretend to be something he's 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 character's grown son, Flags of Our Fathers author James Bradley. "It was strange for me to introduce myself to someone by saying I'd 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, Phillippe's greatest challenge was to portray accurately the medical procedures that were Doc's job as a Corpsman. "I learned how to do tourniquets, pressure bandages, and slings," he recalls. With the brutality of combat on Iwo Jima, Doc's 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."
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 ("Happy Endings," "Bring It On"). 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 'mama's boy,' maybe not quite cut out for war. On the other hand, he is also a kid trying to make good. He does everything that's 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 they've seen a lot on Iwo Jima, they know other people have seen a lot more."
Bradford feels that while Gagnon's 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 they're 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 didn't," Eastwood says.
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 can't reconcile being safe while his friends, his brothers, are still fighting the horrors of war. He doesn't 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 couldn't have… but he had a job to do. I think he thought if that's 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."
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 ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Green Mile"). "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; he'd 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 film's four military advisors rather than undergoing any kind of actor boot camp. "I think it was very much Clint's 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."
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 Block's 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. "I'd be running as fast as I could through the sand, barely getting anywhere. It was physically trying, but it was still a fantastic experience."
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 naïve than the others. He provides a lot of entertainment for his unit. They pick on him a bit, but it's 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 Clint's 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 Clint's 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 handler's 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 Hansen's mother; Ann Dowd as Mrs. Strank, mother of Mike Strank; and Connie Ray as Mrs. Sousley, Franklin Sousley's mother. Judith Ivey plays Mrs. Block, who swears it's her own son Harlon in the picture when she's told officially it's someone else's child, and Christopher Curry plays her husband, Ed. At home, Rene Gagnon's mother is played by Beth Grant; Melanie Lynskey plays Rene's fiancée, Pauline. The cast also includes David Patrick Kelly as President Truman; Brian Kimmet as Sgt. Boots Thomas; and Matt Huffman as Lt. Bell.
COMRADES IN FILMMAKING
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 Eastwood's 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 Eastwood's 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.
Before his death at the age of 93, Bumstead said, "I still think it's fun to sit down with a blank piece of paper, design a set, and see it built. That's been my whole life; I get a lot of enjoyment from it."
Before passing on, Bumstead completed his work designing the sets for "Letters from Iwo Jima," Eastwood's companion film to "Flags of Our Fathers." "I can't say enough about Clint," he said. "Just the way he puts his camera on the sets shows we work together well: I know the way he likes to direct, how he likes to place the camera; I design the sets for that action, and he puts the camera in that spot. I think he's the best director in the United States."
Tom Stern served Clint Eastwood as chief lighting technician for more than 20 years - since 1982's "Honkytonk Man" - before becoming his cinematographer in 2002. Their long history together serves him well. "I like to call Clint the most articulate non-verbal person I've ever met. I can read him pretty well. I'll start by showing him an image or a book with pictures I've selected, and we'll talk about those. To a large extent, Clint leaves things malleable until the last possible moment. He encourages everyone to be flexible and spontaneous."
With "Flags of Our Fathers," Stern notes, Eastwood's focus never left the human, emotional core of the story in spite of its vast scope. "It's a grand canvas, but it's a very personal story," he says. "There were many visual opportunities to let that out."
In the film, the scenes of battle on Iwo Jima bear a distinct look that reveals the haunting nature of the memories the soldiers carry with them, whereas the ensuing press tour and their lives back in the US are more naturalistic. "The look of the film was to try to represent that emotional content," Stern explains. "This is something Clint and I tried to do on 'Mystic River' and 'Million Dollar Baby,' and both of those turned out okay. We're playing with color, desaturization, and some very, very, very deep, solid blacks, to let that look reflect what's happening with the characters."
Deborah Hopper was responsible for the massive task of designing costumes accurate to the period, including constructing over 500 uniforms for the extras. After locating the right cloth - a rare, authentic twill - Hopper dyed, aged, and constructed the costumes. "The actors have to feel their characters, and a lot of times, that starts with putting on their clothes," Hopper notes. "John Bradley was a conservative guy, so I dressed him in Brooks Brothers in his civilian clothes. Rene is, in a way, the 'movie star' of the group, so he was always neat and tidy, and his clothes reflect that. With Ira's problems, his clothes are aged and dirty, or not as well put-together."
Sgt. Maj. James Dever, who served as the military advisor for "Flags of Our Fathers," researched the historical period with the wardrobe, props, and special effects departments in order to ensure that everything seen onscreen was historically accurate.
As with all of Eastwood's films, music is a critical component. For "Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood himself composed the score, infusing it with nostalgic standards from the era by the likes of Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne and John Philip Sousa. The soundtrack also features original recordings by Dinah Shore and Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five.
Contributing special arrangements to the soundtrack are Kyle Eastwood, the director's son, and his writing partner, Michael Stevens. Lennie Niehaus, whose association with the director dates back to films like "Heartbreak Ridge" and "Bird," arranged and conducted the orchestra.
JAPAN AND ICELAND: IWO JIMA REVISITED
ABOUT THE BATTLE OF IWO JIMA
ABOUT AP PHOTOGRAPHER JOE ROSENTHAL
In 2005, CLINT EASTWOOD (Director/Producer/Composer)
WILLIAM BROYLES, JR. (Screenwriter)
PAUL HAGGIS (screenwriter)