Sunday, February 14, 2010

Playing native war hero role of a lifetime, needed to fight stereotypes

WINNIPEG — With gangs becoming an epidemic and aboriginal kids struggling just to finish high school, actor Adam Beach thinks there has never been a greater need for a strong native role model.

Manitoba-born Beach, who also starred in Clint Eastwood's wartime epic "Flags of Our Fathers," is hoping his new movie about aboriginal war hero Tommy Prince will provide just that.

"When I see an elder, I think of people like Tommy Prince. Tommy Prince is a hero," Beach said before breaking down into tears. "Growing up, I always wanted to find a hero. My heroes were my parents and they passed away so I didn't have something to look up to."

Rather than dwell on the end of Prince's life, when the wartime spy battled alcoholism and destitution, Beach said the movie will focus on Prince's heroics behind enemy lines during the Second World War.

"You're going to see a human being," said Beach after announcing his starring role at a Winnipeg news conference Thursday. "You're going to see a war hero like you've never seen before. Everybody stresses the after-effects of every veteran that's been to war. What we want to do is celebrate his heroics and show him as that youthful man."

Prince was one of 11 children born on the Brokenhead Ojibwa reserve in Manitoba. He enlisted in the military in 1940 at the age of 24 and eventually joined an elite battalion known to German soldiers as the "Devil's Brigade."

In 1944, Prince was spying on the Germans from an abandoned farmhouse near enemy lines when his communication wires were severed by shelling. He donned civilian clothing and went out in plain view of German soldiers, pretending to tie his shoelace while he repaired the line.

His intelligence led to the destruction of four German positions and earned him the Military Medal. He continued spying behind enemy lines, later earning the Silver Star, an American army decoration for gallantry in action.

Prince went on to serve two tours of duty in the Korean War before being honourably discharged. Later in his life, he battled alcoholism and poverty, selling off his medals to support himself. He died in 1977 and is buried in a military cemetery in Winnipeg.

Although Beach has appeared in "Windtalkers" with Nicolas Cage and has a part in the upcoming big-budget superhero movie "The Green Lantern," Beach called this the most important role of his career.

Gangs are becoming an increasing problem and Beach said he hopes the movie will offer a better image for teens searching for an identity. The challenge now is doing justice to the war hero on screen.

"Having to play someone who was a hero back in that era which we need now, there is a lot riding on me playing this," Beach said.

There is a lot riding on the movie for others as well. Native leaders say they hope the movie will shed some light on the aboriginal military history, as well as the discrimination many faced during that era.

Tommy Prince Jr., Prince's son, said he just wants to see "the truth about the man"

"There was more to the man than just being an alcoholic. He was a strong individual, a loving, caring man," he said. "As we speak, he is looking down on me . . . He'd be honoured with Mr. Beach playing his role. He'd say 'Carry on dude."'

Grand Chief Ron Evans, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he hopes the movie will give aboriginals a sense of pride but also show the obstacles facing those who signed up for military service.

"I hope it starts to create awareness of the importance of correcting the injustices that were done to our people who gave their lives as well for this country," he said.

"It's also important that we recognize some of the racist policies toward our soldiers . . . Despite that history, people like Tommy Prince went back again and again to give the ultimate sacrifice."

Although the movie doesn't appear to have a huge budget, the producers are betting it will be a hit.

"With Adam on board, we believe we have the ingredients to make a great movie and a commercially successfully movie," said Bay Film Studios executive producer Peter Johnson.

"Let's look at the recent triumph of the movie Inglourious Basterds. Clearly there is an appetite for apocolyptic, good-versus-evil movies about WWII. We think we have a better story to tell. And ours is true."

The movie is expected to begin filming later this year with a release date early next year.

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