The flag-raising on Iwo Jima is an icon: a photograph instantly recognizable and forever associated with World War II. A new film by Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood tells the stories of the men in that image and what happened to them afterward. Alan Silverman has a look at Flags of Our Fathers.
Few moments frozen in time have the lasting emotional impact of the image snapped by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945. It was atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, the Pacific island where a pitched battle had begun a few days earlier when thousands of U.S. Marines stormed ashore to face highly trained and well-dug-in Japanese soldiers.
By the battle's fifth day the Americans had taken Suribachi and a small U.S. flag was hoisted on the island's highest point, a mere 166 meters above the beachhead. The command post sent a larger flag to the windswept hilltop and the job of raising it fell to five Marines and a Navy corpsman who happened to be there at the moment. They fastened it to a length of water pipe and, struggling together against the wind and weight, they lifted the pipe up and planted it in the rocky soil. Just before the pipe was vertical, with the banner flapping in the breeze, Rosenthal took the picture that became an indelible symbol of wartime determination.
Flags of Our Fathers tells the stories of the three of those flag-raisers who survived what turned out to be the most vicious battle of the war in the Pacific: Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and John Bradley (whose son, James Bradley, wrote the book on which the film is based):
When Washington saw the public response to the photo, officials brought the men home and sent them on a cross-country publicity tour to raise money through the purchase of war bonds. They were paraded out at town squares, sports stadiums and formal receptions, but through it all, the men rejected the "hero" label.
Director and producer Clint Eastwood says his goal was to portray what really happened to the men on Iwo Jima and afterward:
"I wasn't setting out to do a war movie. I've been involved in a few as an actor, but I liked this because it was just a study of these people," said Mr. Eastwood. "I've always been curious about families who find out things about their relatives much after the fact [and] I've talked to many vets of this campaign and many others and the ones who've seemed to be the most in the front lines and have been through the most are the ones who are the quietest about their activity."
Corpsman John Bradley - "Doc," to the Marines on the island - was one of those who rarely spoke, even to his family, about the battle or the flag-raising. Ryan Phillipe plays Bradley in the film and calls it the best experience of his acting career.
"There are so many things about it that will stay with me forever as far as the physical making of the movie and the production of it," he noted. "But also just the opportunity it gave me to pay tribute to the men of that generation and to my grandfathers who fought in this war. Very rarely do you get to do something that has such personal meaning to you and feels that important."
Jesse Bradford plays Rene Gagnon and Adam Beach co-stars as Ira Hayes, the Marine holding the base of the flagpole in the photo. He was a Native American, a Pima Indian from Arizona and Beach, a Canadian-born member of the Ojibwa Nation, says he knew of the real man long before he was cast in the role.
"Growing up, I think everybody knows about Ira Hayes," he said. "In America regarding World War II there are two iconic images: the code-talkers and Ira Hayes, the flag-raiser. Those are the two images."
In the 2002 film "Windtalkers," Beach played one of the Navaho whose language proved to be an unbreakable code during World War II, and like that part, the actor says Ira Hayes was much more than just another role to him.
"I was at a youth conference and I came upon a painting and it had the code-talkers and Ira and the flag and I thought 'oh my God. I represent those images.' There is a huge responsibility it that... to be a part of what our people look up to as an honor of making what America is today," he added. "For me, playing Ira was a meaningful relationship, trying to find out how he thought and felt.
Film maker Eastwood is following "Flags of Our Fathers" with a second film to be released in 2007: "Letters from Iwo Jima," depicting the battle and its aftermath from the Japanese perspective. "Flags of Our Fathers" features Barry Pepper as Sergeant Mike Strank, Joseph Cross as Franklin Sousley and Benjamin Walker plays Harlon Block, the three flag-raisers who did not survive Iwo Jima.