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Emotion in ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ floors actor

He plays Pima Indian who fell into despair after battle

SHARE Emotion in ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ floors actor
Adam Beach plays Ira Hayes, one of the Marines who hoisted the flag on Iwo Jima, in 'Flags.'

Adam Beach plays Ira Hayes, one of the Marines who hoisted the flag on Iwo Jima, in ‘Flags.’

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Absolutely floored and numb.

That's how Adam Beach felt after watching "Flags of Our Fathers," in which he plays the late Ira Hayes, a U.S. Marine and Pima Indian who hoisted the American flag atop Iwo Jima in a photograph seen 'round the world.

Moviegoers likely will feel that way, too, and heartsick, as Hayes spirals into alcoholism and despair before dying at age 32.

He had been haunted by what he witnessed on Iwo Jima, once asking, "How can I feel like a hero when I hit the beach with 250 buddies and only 27 of us walked off alive?" Those statistics were part of the Johnny Cash song, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," which opens and closes with the mournful strains of "Taps."

Hayes, who came from an Indian culture in Arizona where it was not proper to seek recognition, was shipped back to the United States so he could be hailed as a hero and promote war bonds with another Marine and a Navy corpsman also in the famous picture.

When the military bosses tired of Hayes' drinking, they ordered him back overseas. By the time he was discharged, at age 22 in late 1945, Hayes had spent 39 months as a Marine, the book "Flags of Our Fathers" reports.

"I think when a lot of Native Americans see this, they'll have a personal reflection and they'll understand his sorrows and how heavy he carried those emotions to the end and struggled with it, because there's this huge history of our people," Beach, 33, said, by phone from Los Angeles.

Part of that history is how the government and churches attempted to "civilize" the Indians by shunting them to reservations and trying to strip them of their traditional values and culture. In other words, "Let's make them who we think they should be," Beach says, "and I think a lot of that is still heavy on the hearts of our people.

"So there's definitely a connection that I share with Ira because of our history, but going through what Ira must have gone through, oh my (gosh), it just puts it to a higher plateau of emotions to carry because I couldn't imagine watching all those people die — close friends, disappearing each step you take on that battlefield."

Beach, a native of Manitoba, Canada, made his first TV appearance a decade and a half ago but broke through with "Smoke Signals." A 1998 Sundance Film Festival favorite, it delivered an original take on Indian culture, comedy and sensibility.

His more recent credits include a notable turn opposite Nicolas Cage in "Windtalkers," and he seems poised on the precipice of even bigger things. In January, he will follow in the footsteps of Terrence Howard, Scarlett Johansson and Bryce Dallas Howard and receive the Rising Star Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

More invitations have been coming his way, and Beach says, "People are definitely showing support, so I have a feeling this film will definitely move me in the next direction. Where it is, I don't know."

He will play Charles Eastman in HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and will be seen in a CBS prequel to "Lonesome Dove" called "Comanche Moon." Next year, in another step toward taking his career into his own hands, he will produce and star in a film in which he plays a hitman.

Although the dialogue is improving, Beach says writers are finding it hard to let go of "the old-school Hollywood Indian."

Even more pressing: the lack of authentic faces on screen, let alone Academy Award nominations beyond Chief Dan George from "Little Big Man" and Graham Greene from "Dances With Wolves." Both were nominated for supporting actor and lost.

"The most difficult of all is the percentage of the Indian actors out there working. It's so low, it's like we're .02 percent, which is below 'Others' on the graph. We're not even in the minority group, and that's what we're trying to change in Hollywood, because we're not accepted in that field. Yet.

"That's why I think we, as a people, have to now start making our own movies and taking steps into producing and creating these stories, because it is limited in Hollywood."

Beach could have no better role model than "Flags" director Clint Eastwood, an actor with a fistful of awards for "Million Dollar Baby" and "Unforgiven" and almost universal admiration from his cast and crew. Eastwood trusts his actors and lets them "breathe," says Beach, long a fan and mindful of how Eastwood cast and co-starred with Native Americans.

"It's amazing how, after two weeks, that trust he gives you just brings out the most confidence and courageous persona you could bring and you just want to give him everything. He's a remarkable man and then, when you talk to him in person, he treats you like his best friend."

Beach didn't do extensive research on other characters in "Flags," explaining, "I went in there to join the boys that I was working with and make them my history," just as Hayes had.

Beach shares many of his scenes with co-stars Ryan Phillippe and Jesse Bradford, who play John "Doc" Bradley and Rene Gagnon. The three were the only survivors of the six in the famous picture snapped on Feb. 23, 1945, by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal atop Mount Suribachi.

They were actually raising a replacement flag, not the Stars and Stripes that first fluttered over the tiny Pacific island. Still, even shooting that scene proved thrilling.

"That was so awesome," Beach says. "That was the moment where you felt like you are one of the guys, like this is how they felt and then, when you see that flag go up and you're part of it, you have this sigh of just, of honor. Wow."

E-mail: bvancher@post-gazette.com