Flags Of Our Fathers - Clint Eastwood interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
CLINT Eastwood talks about the making of World War II epic Flags Of Our Fathers as well as the comparisons the film has with today’s conflicts.
Why did you choose this subject matter?
A. There’s never been a story on Iwo Jima, although there have been pictures with Iwo Jima in the title. But there has been nothing on the invasion, which is the biggest battle, and the fiercest, in the Marines Corps’ history.
What intrigued me most though was the book itself, which isn’t really a war story. I wasn’t setting out to make a war movie. Really, it’s a study of these people [the surviving flag-raisers] and I’ve always been curious about families who find things out about their relatives long after the fact.
From speaking to the veterans of this campaign and many other campaigns, it seemed to me the ones who really suffered in the frontlines and had been through the most were the quietest when talking about their activity. You can be sure if someone’s being very braggadocio about their experiences in combat, they were probably clerks somewhere in the rear.
It seems there is commonality, in that these kind of people, like John Bradley, came back at a time when there was not a lot of psychiatric evaluation and help. They got home and were told to get on with it… if they didn’t have wives or loved ones to help them they had to either cope on their own, or not cope on their own. So it’s about those experiences, being a young man thrown into the ultimate celebrity, and I hope the picture makes a comment on celebrity, on being treated like a president.
The men were treated as celebrities but they didn’t feel that; they felt these very complex emotions, being there when so many of their companions had been killed in this ferocious battle. And this famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal was taken just four or five days into the battle, not even a quarter of the way through. It signifies what I’m curious about.
Why did you choose to make it a non-linear story?
A. Paul Haggis and I talked a lot about that because it’s a difficult book to translate into a screenplay. He likes to joke and after our first meeting together he said: “I have about an 11 per cent chance of being successful.” I said: “Look, it’ll work out, don’t worry.”
We talked every day on the phone, about philosophies, and he had trouble getting into it. We talked about doing it linear with Iwo Jima as the first act. The trouble is to show the impact on the three soldiers, and their recollections, because it’s a very difficult plot to work with. You go from the present day, which is 1994 in the States, back to another period of time, and then another, then back to the present day.
The only other time I’ve done that is with Bird, years ago, and we had difficulty going into flashback, and then into flashbacks within the flashback, and then having to unwind and come back – it can leave you at least moderately confused. But it seemed like the logical way to do it… James Bradley wrote his book as something like a detective story, going round and talking to people, and it’s a big, sprawling book. You have to have the impact of the battle to show the complexities of the Bond Drive and the guys’ emotions. And I guess Adam Beach’s character sort of sums it up when he’s on the train and says: “We shouldn’t be here.”
Q. Your films are both sensitive and violent. How do you get the balance?
A. They’re all sensitive. I don’t balance anything, I just go along and as I’ve got older I’ve reached out for different stories, things that were appealing to me. Maybe they were appealing to me as a young man, but then the pressure was on to be a young man.
I started out in movies with a lot of action but now I’ve got to this stage of my life where I’m retreating back behind the camera. I just feel that I should address issues that are close to me rather than fantasy characters, who really aren’t me.
Q. How was shooting in Iceland?
A. I loved filming in Iceland – when it was first suggested that we shoot in Iceland I didn’t see how it would work. But then there are a lot of similarities between Iceland in the summer and Iwo Jima in the wintertime.
Iwo Jima is a geothermal island with a lot of volcanic activity, a lot of sulphur, coming out of fissures in the mountains. Iceland is not necessarily that way but it has tremendous black sand beaches, which are very hard to duplicate. We looked at black sand beaches all over the world, such as the Four Seasons in Hawaii, comfortable places [laughs].
But it turned out the only way to do it was to film certain parts on Iwo Jima, that aren’t too sensitive, because it’s considered a shrine and the Japanese do not have tourism there. No one can go there without the Japanese government’s approval; they still regard it as 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 there, which we’d have to do to recreate the invasion, so we went to Iceland.
Q. Can you compare the situation on Iwo Jima with today?
A. If you are comparing WWII with now, all wars have their problems. It was a different time in history; we had been fighting within the European theatre but when it was brought to us in Pearl Harbor it became a reality that if we didn’t fight this one out we might be speaking a different language today.
So it was simple, and most of the young men and women who went to war, giving up their everyday lives, were just skinny kids out of the Depression. The average age was 19-years-old, and you figure they were born in 1927 or ’28 and they all had this spirit. For me, it was important to tell this story for that reason, to tell of a time in our history when there was a lot of spirit. I think the icon itself of the flag-raising, it was a candid shot, a matter-of-fact shot at the time and didn’t have any significance at the moment, because it was the second flag raising, but it was a shot that is very rare. It’s a work of art, because people aren’t looking into the camera, but it shows the unity of people working towards a common cause. The hands reach out, the hands being seen. It was showed at a time when people felt that they had to be victorious in this war.
How it compares to today, I suppose war is war, and if you’re in there on the front line there are various problems that you have to deal with, which are very hard for us to understand, who are in non-combat situations. As this picture shows, there is a commonality that the politicians are still running a certain amount of things. And the men were obviously almost as affected by the Bond Drive as they were by the combat. So the Bond Drive was very strenuous for these young men to be sent out and treated like kings and then have to all of sudden have the rugs pulled from under them, and go back to civilian life where there was nowhere to go – except for John Bradley, who had a profession in mind. They just drifted off into the sunset, so to speak.
Q. How do you think the film will be received in Japan?
A.* I have no idea how the film will be received there, an awful lot of Japanese people who’ve seen it seem to enjoy it. After the war, Japanese history didn’t really deal with the war. It isn’t taught in schools and none of the actors from Letters… knew anything about the battle of Iwo Jima.
The current generation doesn’t know much about that and seem curious. I think it’s important to tell that history, not least for Japan, because these people gave up a lot for their country and, in most cases, made the ultimate sacrifice. But also internationally, it’s important to realise that war is a futile exercise at best and people are trying to kill one another, who, under different circumstances, could be extremely friendly. It doesn’t speak so well for mankind that we keep having wars, but we’ve had them since the beginning of mankind, so I don’t have the answer, but I’m just trying to pass on what little knowledge I have.
Q. How important was it casting lesser known actors?
A. Well, the average age of soldiers sent there was 19, except for some of the officers. I spoke to an officer the other day, he’d retired a general but he was a captain on Iwo Jima and he was 24. So, the oldest was Mike Strank, who was 26, and the other Marines called him the old man.
It’s hard to be viewed as an old man at 26, but because of his leadership qualities he was seen that way. Because of the age we had to use young people, which lent itself towards using lesser known actors. Also, if you have big-name actors coming on the screen, sometimes it takes a little while to adjust to the fact that they’re characters. They have to romance you into thinking he’s playing a character. I remember seeing Rio Bravo years ago and they’d made the decision to cast Ward Bond as a Wagon Master, and have him ride into town and go ‘Wagons ho!’ This was a time that Wagon Train was a very popular show on television, and when he went ‘Wagons ho’ the who audience… it kinda fell apart, and it took another 15mins to get back into the movie.
In the case of Adam Beach, the story of Ira Hayes has been told before – but Adam is a north American Indian, so we don’t have a Caucasian or occidental background. I had seen him do some smaller roles, but he did a reading in tape and it was very good… you could see a lot of possibilities. And he turned out to be even better than I expected, because Ira was a very complex person, a person who was a share-cropping kid from Arizona who all of sudden goes into the Marine Corps and found a family there. He liked it and wanted to stay there.
Everything in this movie is true, and that’s both an advantage and a disadvantage, but everything happened: Ira did threaten Gagnon that he’d kill him if he told people he was in the flag photo; he didn’t want to come back out of combat and return to the States. He then had the problem with alcoholism and everywhere they went people were serving him drinks. So that was not a conducive situation for him, and the Keyes Beach character also had a problem with drink and was assigned to Ira, so that made it worse.
Q. What do you think the audience will get from this film?
A. I wanted the audience to get to know these people and see what they went through and give them a feeling of what it was like at this time. People donating their lives, the feeling of false celebrity, which seems quite common these days. There have been books and broadcasts about the Greatest Generation, so it was good to try and visualise that generation.
Nowadays, we live in a time where things are different; we have a voluntary military and the country’s a lot more comfortable now, economically. Those times came out of rough economic times. Now we’re much more spoilt. The idea that war is more of an inconvenience now, where then it was absolute necessity.
Q. How vital was it to deconstruct the hero myth?
A. That’s very important in this movie, because in the era we’re in now, everyone’s being considered a hero. In the ’40s, heroes were people of extraordinary feats. Americans do heroic deeds all the time; on the news last night was the story of a fireman who jumped out of his car and saved two people who were burning in another car. He was just on his way back from work.
Growing up, I tried to think who’s heroic, and with the war there was Patton and Eisenhower, Derek Cooper and a few movie actors, literally a handful, that were names. Now you have to decipher everything: everyone’s a star, so you have superstars. People are stars just for being heiresses or something now [laughs] – I don’t have an example of that [laughs]... they didn’t have that sort of thing then.
Q. Do you think your kids would ever make a movie about you?
A. No. I don’t feel as though my life is that interesting, maybe that’s why I became an actor. I just feel that I’m lucky enough to work in a profession that I enjoy, and which I still enjoy. I don’t seem to have any ambitions about retiring – if I do then I just haven’t found out about them yet. Maybe I’m just waiting for them to retire me.
Q. What feedback have you had from the families of the flag-raisers?
A. It’s very emotional, the father son relationship; the son finding out about his father and having a moment with him while he’s still alive, and then after he’s gone, there’s just the memory, and finding out what an extraordinary person he was – because John Bradley was extremely well decorated and very highly thought of.
Of the three guys he was the one that had the most recognition in combat as a corpsman and to find that out about your father is emotional. And the end, we just try and show that these guys were really just a bunch of kids sent off to fight for their countries, and as you watch the credits you’ll see that we show the real people. Those 19-years-olds aged to about 45 in that two-week period. We should be appreciative of them doing it, otherwise we’d have had combat on our shores, and that’s something no American would want.
Q. Iggy’s death is horrific. Were you tempted to show it on screen?
A. I just read a medical report on him and it just said that he was obviously tormented in some way. It was quite graphic in fact and nothing I’d want to show on film. But he did disappear and everything happened the way we’ve got it. But we couldn’t show that.
Q. Is propaganda the most valuable weapon in war?
A. I think what we try and do is show the propaganda machine of the period. But growing up, we watched war movies that were always full of propaganda. And most of the servicemen were portrayed by actors in their 30s and 40s even though the majority were in their late teens and early 20s.