- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Months after wrapping his latest film, Canadian actor Adam Beach is still trying to shake off the last vestiges of playing Ira Hayes in “Flags of Our Fathers.”

“Every time you do a film, it takes months to get rid of the guys,” Mr. Beach, 33, explains. “There’s a lot you take upon yourself.”

The Saulteaux Indian actor has taken on plenty in his accomplished career. He landed his first movie role in 1993’s “Spirit Rider” and since then has snagged leads in such acclaimed films as “Smoke Signals” and “Windtalkers,” establishing himself as one of the premiere North American Indian actors in the industry.

Playing Ira Hayes, though, was different. Haunting.

A humble Pima Indian from Arizona, Mr. Hayes enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 and fought in several campaigns before eventually landing on Iwo Jima in February of 1945. Four days after his arrival, AP photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a photo of him, four Marine comrades and a Navy corpsman raising a flag over bloodied Mount Suribachi. By the end of the week, the men depicted were nationwide heroes and celebrities.

When he returned home from the war, Mr. Hayes battled other enemies: his newfound fame, racism, the specters of war, and alcoholism. He died at age 32, drunk and alone. His life represents the painful dichotomy of the North American Indian’s devotion to his country and his country’s relative indifference to him.

Like many, Mr. Beach was familiar with the tragic story — immortalized in the 1961 Tony Curtis film “The Outsider” and the 1964 Johnny Cash hit “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” — before landing the part.

“I knew that this role as Ira Hayes would take me on a roller coaster of emotions,” Mr. Beach says, adding that he didn’t know the character’s true depth until he immersed himself in the “Flags” script. Mr. Hayes’ story accounts for a major portion of the movie’s plot, which — like the James Bradley book that inspired it — examines the events surrounding that fated one-400th of a second when the flag-raising photo was taken.

In re-creating Mr. Hayes, Mr. Beach doesn’t just go for a ride; he takes audiences along with him as he deftly crafts his way through scenes dictating quiet restraint, passionate defiance and crippling anguish.

In one of the movie’s most powerful and disquieting scenes, the corporal meets the mother of his slain squad leader, Mike Strank. It is a moment that pulls back the ideological curtains to reveal the fallacy inherent in creating heroes. In the end, they’re mortal men, born to mothers just like Mrs. Strank. Upon seeing her, Mr. Hayes is overcome by the burden of the sergeant’s death, and he grips her so tightly and for so long that one senses he might fall off the face of the earth if he let go.

When asked about his thoughts during the scene, Mr. Beach says, “It’s crying. It’s remembering. It’s letting go. It’s healing. It’s almost like a child wanting his own mother. There’s so much.”

A performer who brings much of himself to his characters, Mr. Beach knows something of this ache inasmuch as he lost his own parents as a young boy. Perhaps this is what he’s referring to when he says he made his foray into acting “at a time when I needed to escape myself.”

These days, however, his many movie credits — “Flags” included — seem to draw on rather than obscure his background and cultural heritage. Mr. Beach has an impressive list of credits, many of them in Indian roles. He says these parts have come to him steadily — and from an audience’s point of view, this is more out of proficiency than typecasting.

The performer explains that when playing roles that aren’t specifically Indian, he stays “true to form … I have something to offer that other people don’t” — an earthy groundedness, for example, that is certainly enhanced by his un-Hollywood home life in Ottawa with his wife and two children.

The actor seems especially proud of his roles as Ira Hayes and as Ben Yahzee, the World War II Navajo code talker in “Windtalkers.” These two stories, he explains, “really represent the American Indian.”

“No matter how much the American government tried to get rid of [them] and put them in these little reservations and tried to diminish their spirit — in the end, they will stand up for this country. They will be there as a people to represent [it] because it is their land, too.”

Mr. Beach hopes his new film will earn respect for Iwo Jima’s veterans — and it no doubt will. But it will also restore a quiet dignity and resounding honor to the ghost of Ira Hayes and, in turn, to the oft-overlooked firstAmericans.

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