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You Can’t Make This Up: James Bradley on Flags of Our Fathers

Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize winning photo as reenacted in "Flags of Our Fathers."
by Dan Lybarger

The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is a gross understatement when describing Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 picture of five Marines and one Navy corpsman planting a flag on top of Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima.

It not only won a Pulitzer Prize, but it may be the most reproduced photograph of all time. It became the centerpiece of a bond drive that raised $26.3 billion, which was desperately needed to win the war in the Pacific.

Nonetheless, the story behind the simple image is remarkably complex. For example, the photo was actually taken on the fifth day of a 36-day battle. By the time, the rest of the world saw the image, half the men in the photo had died in combat.

One of the surviving flag-raisers was a sailor named John “Doc” Bradley, who earned a Navy Cross for his participation in the battle but said little about his wartime experience in the years that followed.

His son, James Bradley,
teamed up with Ron Powers to write a book about the flag-raising and his father’s role in it. Flags of Our Fathers not only contained fresh information about an already well-documented subject but also topped the New York Times bestseller list.

It’s the basis for the new movie of the same title by Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood and producer Steven Spielberg. Contacted by telephone from Honolulu, the younger Bradley explained how his quest to understand his father unearthed an even more fascinating story.

Dan Lybarger: What are you doing in Hawaii?

James Bradley: My third book (The Imperial Cruise),the third chapter, ends in Hawaii. And I'm writing my third book, which is about a cruise that took place in 1905 that was called the imperial cruise.

DL: Getting back your first book, both the book and the movie for flags of our fathers reveal how complicated. The story behind the Joe Rosenthal photo was. I thought that was very interesting, because everyone is familiar with that simple image, but it takes you 500 pages (in the paperback edition) to explain how we got it.

JB: The book to me was about a photo, and in the photo if there were three cows in the farmyard, I would have figured out those cows. But with six humans, what struck me was everyone knows the photo, but because of the circumstances—one of the circumstances is my father didn't talk about it. (It was) the most reproduced photo. Everyone's looking at those six humans, and nobody knows anything about those humans.

I just thought I'd fill in the blanks.

DL: that was a pretty Herculean task.

JB: For me? No. It was a Herculean task to get those guys on the island and to beat the Japanese. It was a massacre.

All I did was...See, I never set out to write a book.
I just set out to find out why my dad didn't talk. So I'm just making phone calls to figure out why was my dad so silent and what was he so silent about.

Once I started getting the stories down, just for my personal use to give to family members, I realized that you a reporter could never get these ideas because the families won’t talk to you. So, I thought I should write them down. And that’s the genesis of the book.

DL: How closely did Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Haggis (the co-screenwriter) consult with you during the making of the film?

JB: You know, Clint Eastwood consulted himself. He’s the real leader of this thing. Yes, I looked at the script and made comments. And I was on-site, and yes, Paul Haggis wrote something, and the cameraman made suggestions, but this is really Clint Eastwood, the brilliant director, here, in terms of the result. You know what I mean?

Hundreds contributed, but he is just an amazing guy. You just look at the music, “Music by Clint Eastwood,” well this is his fifth or sixth. He’s scored a number of movies. I mean, he's an actor. He's a director. He scores. He can do it. He's just a creative genius.

DL: You’ve been to both Iceland and Iwo Jima. How does the terrain compare?

JB: I walked out on the “Iwo Jima” beach in Iceland. And I just looked at how they had sculpted it just like Iwo Jima. And I said, “Wow!” I said no one's going to be able to tell the difference.

DL: There were a couple of incidents in the film that I couldn’t trace back to the book, and I’d like to know if these had any relation to what actually happened. Like there’s the scene where Ira Hayes is denied service at the restaurant.

JB: You know, I'm not going to comment on individual, “where is that source or is this exact?”

The answer is of course, yes. He was an Indian. The reason he was arrested for drinking outside so much was because you couldn't serve the Indians inside. “OK well, I want a drink.” That's not so abnormal. “But we can't serve you.” “OK.”

So I pay you to go in the bar and get me a drink now, I'm drinking it outside. Guess what? I'm drunk and disorderly. I'm drinking a beer
outside. Well, it's illegal to drink a beer outside. I'll go inside. We don't serve Indians. “OK, so what am I supposed to do?”

That was just the law in many places. After we killed most of the Indians, we were going to help them by not serving them liquor. That’s just the way it was.

I don't want to say yes, there was this isolated case where Ira was not served.

DL: One of the things I enjoyed about both the book in the movie is how fleshed out. Ira Hayes is. There have been about two movies made about him already, one with Lee Marvin and one with Tony Curtis. In this one he seems more like a person.

JB: Yeah, you know, time goes on. And we have a better perspective. Also, a lot of want I put in the book was unknown outside of a few people. That trek across the United States was almost totally unknown. I don't know if you went to his mother while she was still alive and told her, “Did you know he hitched across the country to see the (Harlon) Block family.” She’d say, “No.”

The Hayeses didn’t talk. They were just completely silent.

DL: The real story is much more fascinating.

JB: Yeah, I guess you'd say that. With any story, instead of the generalizations and the overview, the actual details can be more interesting. I mean, my second book, Flyboys, eight guys got their heads cut off on the island right next to Iwo Jima, and those eight mothers of those eight guys, they never knew what happened. The families never knew what happened until I wrote a book about.

It was highly classified. And eight guys got their heads cut off and one guy gets away. His name is George Bush, and he doesn't know what happened to the other guys. Until I tell him. You can't make it up.

DL: Wow! When I was doing my research on you, I found out that one of the speeches you've been doing is about how people on both sides the debate about the Iraq war have been using World War II images and stuff like that. And that sounded really intriguing.

JB: You know, World War II has been used as an analogy for quite a bit. Is kind of like, I don't know how to make an analogy, but I could take your elbow and make an analogy for any type of situation whether you represent that situation or not.

DL: And you’d be straining to do it.

JB: Yeah.

DL: As I said before, I'm fond of both the book and the movie. In the book, you describe the horrible thing that happened to Ralph Ignatowski (played by Jamie Bell), but in the movie, it's only implied. And, yet, you can still guess that something awful and inhuman had still happened to him.

JB: I was there in Iceland, and I was staring right above that cave when they shot that scene, along with my two kids. That’s the genius of the movie. People say, “Are you going to write screenplays and tell movie directors what to do? What did you tell Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood to do, Mr. Bradley?”

As an author, I have to detail what happened to Iggy and put it down in words. And Clint Eastwood, with that genius, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination. Now, whether they imagine that exact, accurate thing, that’s not the point. It’s the emotional accuracy that I’m after.

People ask me, “Is the movie accurate to the book?” You’ve got to make a 20-hour movie to make it accurate to the book. Is the emotional accuracy there? That’s my question. Is the emotional accuracy there between the book and the movie? My answer is yes.

DL: One of things I noticed as I started pouring through your book is how many
of the actors in the film resembled the characters they were playing. Even the actor who played Joe Rosenthal (Ned Eisenberg) was a dead ringer.

JB: I was in Iceland. This guy turns around, and I said, “Oh, my God! You’re Joe Rosenthal. I can’t believe it.” What can I say?

Phyllis Huffman was the casting director. She died during the filmmaking, and the movie is dedicated to her and “Bummy,” Henry Bumstead, who also died during production.

DL: How did you feel when you were looking at the scenes where you were portrayed (by Tom McCarthy)?

JB: You know, I should have a good answer for that. My focus was on these six flag raisers. It always has been. I didn’t want to be in the book I just thought these guys did great things, and I shouldn’t be in the book.

But I was needed in the book to be a transition figure to help the reader get into the story. So, I saw my role in the film in a similar manner.

DL: It must be gratifying that the book and movie have been received so well, when the book had initially been rejected 27 times.

JB: It had been turned down by 27 publishers over 25 months. The thing is I didn’t think about it as my book. I just knew that people were interested in the flag raising photo. I knew when they found out the facts behind the photo, they’d be interested in reading a book. So, it was the, not predetermined, but historically determined photo that I knew would drive the book and the movie.

And I’m just gratified that Clint Eastwood has brought these guys back to life in the high-quality way that he has.

Click here to read an interview with Flags of Our Fathers actor Barry Pepper.

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originally posted: 11/07/06 17:24:57
last updated: 03/08/09 03:40:46
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