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Film

Acting for his people, completing a journey

Adam Beach draws on personal tragedy and desire to fight stereotypes to play Ira Hayes.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published October 19, 2006


The most compelling figure in Flags of Our Fathers is Marine Pvt. Ira Hayes, whose participation in a historic moment was the beginning of a tragic end.

Hayes was one of six who raised the American flag over Iwo Jima in a 1945 photograph that remains a symbol of national pride. Hayes served with distinction, and his country didn't return the favor.

He became an alcoholic, haunted by battle memories and survivor's guilt. As Clint Eastwood's film shows, prejudice toward his Pima Indian heritage and the demands of celebrity foisted upon him compounded his problems.

Hayes died of exposure and alcoholism in 1955, his body discovered near his Gila River Reservation home in Arizona. He was 32.

Adam Beach, 33, who portrays Hayes in the film, is no stranger to alcoholism. His father drank hard after Beach's mother was killed by a drunken driver in 1981 and died in a drowning accident soon after.

Beach drew on his personal tragedies to craft one of the year's best performances, a strong Oscar contender.

"How it came out emotionally is part of how I grew up: feeling abandoned with the loss of my parents and having to tough it out," Beach said Tuesday from Phoenix before introducing the film to an American Indian audience. "You have the conflict of American Indians throughout the last 100 years, fighting to maintain our culture and destiny. You put all that together with the images and horrors of war, and you can't help feeling this honest emotional outpouring."

Beach, who grew up on a Saulteaux reservation in Manitoba, said Hayes' part in a seminal American moment makes him a role model.

"It's hard to find any images of our people in the 1940s era that represent us as heroes," Beach said. "We're very proud of him.

"I believe there was a reason why Ira Hayes was there at that particular moment, just like this film is going to do justice to our people now. How his character is portrayed in this film will allow a lot of Indian people to really take an honest look at themselves and say: 'Am I going in the right direction?' "

Beach has a history of presenting positive images of his people: as a rebellious youth realizing the strengths of his heritage in Smoke Signals, as a Navaho code interpreter during World War II in Windtalkers, and, in a trio of PBS mysteries based on novels by Tony Hillerman, as Navaho detective Jim Chee.

"I always had this dream, starting in this industry, to change the images of our people," Beach said, "to have a moment of being able to show our people with true human emotions and not be stereotyped the Hollywood way. For me, I've completed a journey with this film."

[Last modified October 18, 2006, 11:07:35]


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