The Clint Eastwood/Steven Spielberg production of Flags of Our Fathers is being praised as (yet another) potential Oscar winner, for the gritty truth of the story, and the realism of the reenactment of the Battle of Iwo Jima. During an invasion scene, a Jeep flys off the ramp of a Higgins boat, narrowly misses two Marines who are running for their lives, lands on the sand and then drives off to join the battle.
Look carefully that flying Jeep and you will see that the guy behind the wheel is the same guy who is often behind the counter at Zuma Jay’s surf shop. In August of 2005, Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner spent five and a half weeks earning two credits on the $100 million-plus production of Flags of Our Fathers. Jay earned a Stunt credit for flying that Jeep off the ramp, driving Sherman tanks and other vehicular act, but he was also on the Artillery Unit, responsible for the safe and accurate firing of dozens of pieces of World War II-era artillery – from mortars to 105’s to an eight inch Japanese cannon weighing several tons.
Jay was responsible for both safety and realism in recreating the famous battle on the tropical shores of Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t all work and worry. During his time on the shoot Jay had access to surprisingly good waves along the beach where the invasion was re-created. But if you imagine him surfing perfect tropical waves in the middle of the South Pacific, you need to change that dream, because Jay spent the entire five weeks in Iceland – where almost non-stop swell threatened to swamp some of the invasion scenes, and water temperatures were a consistent 40 degrees.
Clint Eastwood won the Best Picture Oscar in 2003 for Mystic River and again in 2004 for Million Dollar Baby, but didn’t get a Three Peat in 2005 because he was very busy going over the immense production logistics of this movie, which were in many ways no less expensive and intense than the actual invasion.
The production was not allowed to film on the island of Iwo Jima, because it is a national monument consecrated by the blood of thousands of American Marines and even more Japanese defenders. To find a double for Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s longtime location scout Kokayi Ampah was sent forth to find another location with a black, volcanic mountain and a long, wide, flat invasion beach fronted by cliffs.
As one story goes, Ampah was in Hawaii buying gasoline, when the station owner asked him what he was up to. He answered, “searching for black sand beaches,” to which the Hawaiian answered, “Oh just like in Iceland.”