The Burden of Heroes

10 minute read
Richard Schickel

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers adapts James Bradley and Ron Powers’ book recounting the story of the three survivors of the flag raising on Iwo Jima during World War II. The event produced the most famous photographic image of the war, and the men were returned home to lead a war-bond tour, during which they were heroically–and, in their view, erroneously–lionized. Almost simultaneously with Flags, Eastwood, 76, made another film, Letters from Iwo Jima, that tells the story of the battle from the Japanese point of view. To be released Feb. 9, it’s a horrifying account of men forced into a suicidal defense of the island by an imperial state. Its leading figures are two soldiers who question such fanaticism. The two films constitute a meditation on the nature of heroism, and the director sat down with TIME’s Richard Schickel (a longtime friend) to reflect further on the topic.

What drew you to the book?

To begin with, I just liked the idea of telling a kind of detective story where the son finds out about his father after he passed away. The father didn’t want to talk about the war. I was reading his last interview the other night, and the reporter was asking him tough questions, but the father just kind of said, “Oh, I don’t want to comment on that.” It gave you a good picture of what kind of man he must have been–very reserved. He didn’t want to revisit the flag raising, much less the war.

But obviously the son knew he was one of the six guys who raised the flag?

Sure, he knew that. That’s the start of the whole story. Why did this man seek anonymity to such a great degree even with his own family? Here is a man who won the Navy Cross–the second highest decoration you can get–but they didn’t even know he’d won it until after he died.

When you read the book the first time, did you start thinking of what constitutes heroism and what doesn’t?

Yeah, I did. The thing that I liked about it is there were no stories of people bashing down walls and running through doors. It was just the common man–skinny kids out of the Depression getting out of high school and going right into the war. And then getting into battle that just was more than they could fathom. Their average age was 19. What that must have done to the brain of a young kid. And then going home–but not normally, like most kids. The government put them out on this war-bond drive. They came back to a million people at Times Square and climbing these papier-mâché mountains, all this Hollywood kind of stuff. In fact, we’re talking about the propaganda machine. The propaganda machine is our subject matter.

That’s to me the most interesting aspect of the movie. These were just six guys who were standing around with a pipe and a flag.

And you don’t see their faces. You could put anybody on those papier-mâché mountains and say, “These are the guys who raised the flag.” Who was to know?

Does the very anonymity of Joe Rosenthal’s photo make them seem more heroic?

Rosenthal always claimed that if he’d composed it, he would have ruined it, because he would have said, “I can’t see your faces.” It symbolized the whole country being heroic rather than an individual Medal of Honor winner.

Isn’t the essence of heroism–as we understand it in the U.S., at least–dutifulness?

I think so.

And also shutting up about what you did later?

It’s something like you’re holding your soul in. You’re just not baring it. It’s something that is private, and if you brought it out, you might bring out a lot of bad stuff with it. Ira Hayes, in the scene on the train says, in effect, Wouldn’t it be great if the other guys–meaning the other three compadres who are dead–could be here on this train eating with silverware and all these niceties? Hayes is in a drunken stupor, and he just says, “We shouldn’t be here.” And that sort of sums the whole thing up. They were beginning to realize that maybe they should either be back with their units or home.

Sinking back into anonymity.

Which had its costs. The idea of post-traumatic stress wasn’t around in those days. It used to be called shell shock, and they were told, “Go home, and get over it.” I met with a lot of vets. I went to a 60th anniversary [of the war] in San Francisco, and there was a panel of vets. All of them, to a man, said that they’d only come out in the last couple of years. One guy I talked to was Danny Thomas, who was a corpsman like Bradley–same decorations and everything. He said it took him 55 years before he could talk about it even in passing. And he had never married, and he never had children. He said, “I missed a lot of life because I could never adjust.”

In light of stories like that, do you think WW II permanently changed our definition of heroism, especially battlefield heroism?

I think so. If you go back and think of the romance of WW I, you think of the pilots flying these Spads, and if they shot a guy down–and he’d be in a parachute–instead of shooting him, they’d salute him, you know. There was a certain gallantry, a certain code. I remember my dad took me to see Sergeant York when I was a kid, and I was taken by the fact that it was a story about a guy who was a conscientious objector but was a great shot with a rifle. But in the end, he just goes out and gets the job done. He too sort of represented the character of America at that time.

And now?

You know, heroism is so much different now. I think everyone is looking for who’s the hero that is going to get us out of what we’re in now. I heard somebody on the radio the other day–one of these talk shows–saying, “Oh, where’s the new General Patton? Where’s the guy who says, ‘I don’t give a s___ what the politicians want–this is what we should do.'” Well, that era’s gone.

The military is so bureaucratized now. It’s hard for a guy to assert that kind of will. He’s going to end up a major on a base in New Mexico. He’s not going to be a Colin Powell.

No, no–Powell’s always been a person who likes to take the conservative way. He certainly isn’t militant military. At least we don’t picture him that way. Whether he could do the Pattonesque thing, I don’t know.

Modern war almost in its nature negates the possibility of heroism as it was traditionally understood.

Absolutely. It almost takes that out of the equation. It puts us in the horrible position where in order to defend against cowardly deeds, you have to behave in what has always been seen as a cowardly way yourself. You’re at some checkpoint, and you see a bunch of women in a vehicle, and then all of a sudden, some guy’s there with a rifle shooting away, or he blows the whole vehicle up. So what do you do? What do you do? I was never one of those who were excited about going into Iraq. But you’re there, so how the hell do you work your way out of it?

Let me change the subject a little bit. You’ve played a lot of heroes in movies. But can you name anywhere you played an entirely unambiguous hero?


Why not?

Several reasons. Mostly because I felt that heroes a lot of times are disturbed people. But I think a lot of people who do extraordinary heroic things sometimes have got some sort of a little insanity thing. So I’ve always played heroic people as slightly flawed, slightly haunted by something else. In Unforgiven, William Munny is definitely a flawed guy, and he only becomes heroic at the end because he’s just kind of gone crazy.

Does Dirty Harry go crazy?

The background of that story was he was a lonely person–very lost, very lonely. His wife was killed in an accident, and his hate for the bureaucracy made him a renegade. But he truly was obsessed with the plight of the victim, which was his noble side. So, within a story like that, it was easy in those days for people who didn’t want to think too much about it to say, “Oh, that’s just a guy that’s a crazy.” But, you know, I just felt there are people like that.

You’re really a postwar movie star.

I think you’re right–we’re looking at a postwar mentality and maybe just a different generation. It’s not like High Noon, where the guy’s a wonderful sheriff. Everybody loved him. He had saved the town. And the town deserts him when he needs them. I love that picture–but that hero does not exist in me. I don’t see heroes that way.

So is there any conceivable possibility in the modern world for the assertion of conventional heroism?

I don’t see it right now. I certainly don’t see any politician that’s a hero in any party anywhere. I think John McCain did something that I don’t know if I could do and I don’t think many men can look in the mirror and say they’d do: give up a chance to get out of prison because his dad was an admiral and the Vietnamese were going to let him go. I mean that took cojones, donating another 3 1/2 to four years of his life to stay in prison rather than be the one guy who gets to walk away: “Hey, fellas. I’ll say hello to everybody.” Pat Tillman, giving up his NFL career to fight–and die–for his country is like that for me too. But most of the political structure I get so disappointed at. We’re reduced to a society that is sitting here arguing about who used the N word 30 years ago. You see grown men doing this stuff in order to get into a power position, and it’s really kind of disgraceful.

But all that said, is there a hunger among Americans for heroic behavior? I think there is a hunger. I think that most people would love to see a heroic figure step forward. I can almost sound like one of those Christian-right guys: Where is the Messiah? •

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