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Aiming for the Truth: Barry Pepper on "Flags of Our Fathers"

Barry Pepper in “Flags of Our Fathers”
by Dan Lybarger

Since his breakout performance as a devoutly religious sharp shooter in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” Canadian actor Barry Pepper has almost made appearing in war films a specialty. He played real-life Vietnam combat reporter Joe Galloway in “We Were Soldiers.” He even battled hostile space aliens in the universally derided L. Ron Hubbard adaptation “Battlefield Earth.”

Thanks to a memorable turn in Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” and a pair of TV sports biopics (“3: The Dale Earnhardt Story” and “61*,” in which he played baseball great Roger Maris), he’s demonstrated that he doesn’t worry about typecasting.

Nonetheless, Pepper seems enthusiastic about returning to his most recognized genre in director Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of James Bradley and Ron Powers’ Flags of Our Fathers. In the current film, Pepper plays one of the United States Marines who raised the American flag over Mt. Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

Sgt. Michael Strank was Slovakian-born Marine who immortalized in Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-wining photo. But he was killed in what may have been a friendly fire incident shortly after the picture was taken. Strank fought in tough battles like Bougainville, and his subordinates all looked to him as a leader.

Pepper was reached by telephone in Los Angeles and described the challenges in making a larger than life figure like Mike Strank convincingly human.

DL: Since you’re originally from British Columbia, did the Iwo Jima photograph have the same resonance it did here in the States?

BP: I graduated from high school from Canada and college as well. So the American history wasn’t as prevalent, obviously. But the photograph is such an iconic image, I was definitely aware of what it represented and the battle that it was captured from.

But I didn’t know the history behind it. Like most people, that had fallen through the cracks of time.

DL: A lot of your best known roles are Roger Maris and Dale Earnhardt. Was it different to play somebody like Mike Strank who was just as real but wasn’t as documented?

BP: Oh, he’s very well-documented. I think for whatever reason, it’s just escaped people. There’s a tremendous amount of books on Iwo Jima, the James Bradley book of the same title, Flags of Our Fathers was a tremendous source material for us.

There are some excellent documentaries, just a tremendous amount of archival footage and photographs. So there was a mountain of research that I was able to do on him.

Unfortunately, these kind of statistics just kind of end up as a footnote in the history books. And you really kind of have to be looking for them to educate yourself.

It’s hard to believe that there was 21,000 Japanese killed on Iwo Jima in 36 days, almost 7,000 Marines killed. Something, like 26,000 (American) casualties, in 36 days. The statistics are staggering. You could go on and on and on. But what’s even more staggering to me is that they’re so little well-known.

It’s amazing when you think of all of the battles in World War II. I think that more than a quarter of the Medals of Honor were awarded to men who fought on Iwo Jima alone. It’s really staggering when you start to unveil some of the history behind this battle.

DL: Unlike the other flag-raisers, he was about five or six years older than they were.

BP: And still just a kid. He was 24 years old. I think the reason that they called him “The Old Man” or sort of looked up to him was that he was a veteran of some brutal campaigns in the Pacific previous to Iwo Jima, like Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.

And so when he landed on Iwo Jima, leading these 19, 20 year old boys, he was a seasoned veteran, and yet just a boy himself, really when you think about yourself at 24 years old what you were up to. It’s hard to believe that you could be a leader of men in such a horrific situation.

But they had this really unique sort of familial bond. I think it was because of their youth. That’s what really compelled me to the character. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it in other war films. The sergeant is usually sort of barking expletives and chomping on a cigar.

And yet this was a very different portrait. I thought that was unique, and I was very captured by it.

DL: It was interesting to find out that he didn’t speak English until he came to the States.

BP: Yeah, he was born in Czechoslovakia. He emigrated when he was two or three years old. He volunteered to the Marine Corps in ’39 before the U.S. was even engaged.

DL: While I had read a lot of justifiably glowing pictures of him, I had interviewed Jeff Daniels, and he had said that when he was trying to play civil war soldier Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in “Gettysburg”, he said that he had a tough time because history has such a glowing picture of him. He said it was tough to play somebody who didn’t have any apparent flaws.

BP: It wasn’t something I concerned myself with, and you immediately fall into line with that thought process when you step on to a Clint Eastwood film set. He shoots so fast, and there’s no rehearsal. There was no boot camp. The average was one, maybe two takes.

So you don’t spend a lot of time pontificating about character motivation and backstory. And you are just caught up in the electricity of that film style. And so everything is constantly moving forward.

I think that was a conscious design by Eastwood to capture really visceral, organic, frantic, chaotic performances because he knew that there was no staging in battle, that these young kids would not have had any chance to prepare themselves for what they were about to experience.

DL: What was it like to be running around on that volcanic ash surface on Iceland?

BP: It’s like running in a wheat bin. You just take one step forward and three steps back. What was great about shooting in Iceland was it was identical to what they must have experienced on Iwo Jima. They couldn’t build fox holes and dig trenches.

They did eventually, but it was very difficult to build them because the volcanic ash would just keep filling back in on what they had dug. They were very exposed for the entire battle, and the Japanese were hidden in these 16 miles of concrete reinforced subterranean tunnels.

And they had the Marines in their sites for the entire battle. It was the only place in the world in my opinion that we could have shot this film. There’s only four other places I think that have black sand: New Zealand, Hawaii, and Iwo Jima, of course, and Iceland. Logistically, it just made sense to Clint to shoot it there, and it was truly emblematic of Iwo Jima. It looked so much like it in the terrain because, of course, Iwo Jima is a volcanic island as well.

Click here for an interview with Flags of Our Fathers author James Bradley.

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originally posted: 11/08/06 00:15:41
last updated: 11/12/06 09:37:31
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