When they first tried out for their leading roles as troubled WWII veterans in Flags of Our Fathers, actors Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, and Jesse Bradford discovered something odd about their director, Clint Eastwood: He wouldn’t be there. It turns out that instead of auditioning people in person, he likes to have them taped running their lines with a casting director. Eastwood then decides who gets which part by sizing up the footage in private.
Why the distancing act? ”It puts me in a position where I don’t have to go in and turn somebody down,” says the 76-year-old living legend. He’s leaning way back on a couch in his production office on the Warner Bros. lot in L.A., his long legs propped up on a wooden coffee table. ”I hate to turn people away,” he confesses. ”I started out as an actor. I got turned down every way you could possibly get turned down. Because of that, I’d probably want to hire everybody I met. Guy comes in and says, ‘Jeez, y’know, my dog just died,’ or, ‘My mother’s sick.’ I’d feel, Oh, you’ve got to hire him. But that has nothing to do with whether the role’s right.”
That Dirty Harry has an unexpected tender side was made clear in the last two movies Eastwood directed, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, and it’s on display again in Flags of Our Fathers, his 26th time in the director’s chair. Adapted from a best-selling nonfiction book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags is an emotionally charged requiem for the men of the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of WWII’s bloodiest engagements. Wave after wave of Marines, some 70,000 in all, landed on the tiny Pacific island starting in February 1945. They successfully wrested control from the Japanese and gained a crucial way station for planes. The human cost, however, was staggering. By most estimates, more than 6,000 Americans died in 36 days of fighting, and all but about 1,000 of the nearly 22,000 Japanese troops who were dug into caves, bunkers, and extensive underground tunnels were either killed or committed suicide. (Eastwood was so intrigued by the nihilistic nature of their elaborate defense that he made a second film about it. Letters From Iwo Jima, told from the Japanese perspective, is due in theaters on Feb. 9.)
Five days into the horrific assault, the invading Americans got an unexpected lift. A group of soldiers ascended Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima’s highest point, to lay a phone line. While they were at it they erected a large American flag, replacing a smaller, scrappier one put up shortly before. Among the six men raising the new Stars and Stripes were Navy corpsman John Bradley (Crash‘s Phillippe), Marine Pfc. Rene Gagnon (Swimfan‘s Bradford), and Marine Pfc. Ira Hayes (Windtalkers‘ Adam Beach).
A photographer named Joe Rosenthal happened to snap a shot of the flag raisers at just the right moment, framing them in a Norman Rockwell-worthy vision of triumph. The photo quickly turned into the most ubiquitous feel-good image of its era. It was plastered all over newspapers and magazines, and came to symbolize an all-for-one spirit that galvanized the American public’s support for the war’s final push.