There might have been a time when folks regarded Clint Eastwood as merely the spaghetti Western/”Dirty Harry” star who dabbled in directing — but to think of him now as anything but a director first and foremost might be anachronistic.

Eastwood helmed his first film, “Play Misty for Me,” back in 1971 and has directed 27 features in the intervening 35 years, including a half-dozen since his 70th birthday. Three of his films garnered both director and picture Oscar noms, with “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) each triumphing in the two categories.

Recently, Eastwood embraced his most ambitious effort to date. To deconstruct an iconic image of WWII heroism in “Flags of Our Fathers,” Eastwood integrated prodigious Iwo Jima battle re-creations with intimate character moments — and in doing so found the inspiration to create a companion feature, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” from a Japanese point of view.

“Letters” recently moved to a December release, immediately giving Eastwood two major 2006 Oscar contenders.

GENESIS: After reading the “Flags of Our Fathers” book, Eastwood recalls, he inquired into the film rights but found that DreamWorks already owned them. Later, Steven Spielberg approached Eastwood backstage at the Oscars and asked if he’d be interested in taking on the project.

“Letters” then materialized during script meetings on “Flags,” as Eastwood became fascinated with Japanese Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi and the letters he would write to his family.

VISION: “I started to get to thinking about both of these movies as sort of a tribute to the common man,” Eastwood says. “It came to be not so much about who won or lost the war, it came to be about the people who fought it and, (when) fate put them in their position, how they acted.”

CHALLENGES: “We were trying to figure a way to re-enact the invasion right there on Iwo Jima. It is quite isolated out there, and we realized if we get going on this thing and (the Japanese) decide it is going to be too much mayhem,” the shoot could be in trouble.

“The Japanese are very spiritual about the island –they lost 21,000 men there. So I just had a hunch they weren’t really going to want to see an invasion on the beaches with the magnitude it would take to duplicate what was done in 1945. We were looking at other places as alternatives. We were looking at Hawaii, among other places. My associate, Rob Lorenz, went down to a convention in Los Angeles where different countries were coming in and making proposals. Iceland came down and (the person) said, ‘I know it seems far-fetched …’ ”

MAGIC: “When we got to Iceland, Jack Taylor, our art director, had plowed up some of the sand into berms about the exact same height as the Iwo Jima berms and duplicated them quite well. I think the magic point was when we got there and we had all these tractors and amphibious landing craft and Higgins boats and all that stuff … and I thought, ‘This is it, we’re here now, we’re going.’ ”

NEXT: “I’m not looking for a project right now. I’ll just sit for a while. I’ve got several things that I’m (mulling), but I’m not anxious to step right in.”