“Sergeant York” was one of the first movies about war that Clint Eastwood ever saw.
“I was very young when my dad took me to see that — Howard Hawks, wasn’t it?” Eastwood asks, referring to the 1941 pic’s director, rather than to its lean, lanky star, Gary Cooper, to whom he’s sometimes compared.
“At that time there weren’t too many war pictures being made,” he notes. “There were a lot later on, all the sort of propagandist World War II movies with everybody from John Wayne to Robert Taylor, Lloyd Nolan and all those folks.”
Of course, Eastwood was in his action-hero prime during the tail end of that post-WWII cinematic era. Still, the couple of World War II movies he starred in, 1969’s “Where Eagles Dare” and 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes” — both directed by Brian G. Hutton — were “not in the serious vein. They were just adventure stories.” Meanwhile, a helming career that spans 35 years and 25 pics features only a few works that deal specifically with war.
But now at 75, Eastwood — the DGA’s honoree for lifetime achievement this year — is helming “a true story” about World War II. “Flags of Our Fathers” is based on James Bradley and Ron Powers’ book about Bradley’s father and the five other men featured in the famous photograph of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.
“It’s a story that has a lot of aspects to it, I think, that are important besides the violence of war,” says Eastwood, whose attraction to the project was typically instinctive and immediate.
“I just liked the book. It’s an interesting story because (the government) decided after they had that famous photograph, which became the most famous photograph of World War II, to grab as many of the flag raisers that were alive and send them on a bond tour. It’s sort of the exploitation of making celebrities of people who didn’t feel they deserved to be celebrities.
“In other words, these guys came back and did the best they could, but they had tremendous guilt feelings about the loss of life over there. They felt those guys were the real heroes. So it’s a story that has a lot of conflict that way. … It’s just not a war picture out and out, though we do have some of the fighting quite prominently shown,” says Eastwood.
A two-time Oscar-winning director — and a two-time winner of the DGA’s top helming prize — Eastwood has taken iconoclastic and revisionist looks at other established genres such as the Western (“Unforgiven”) and the fight film (“Million Dollar Baby”). He’s doing so again, not just with “Flags of Our Fathers,” but with a second movie, currently titled “Red Sun, Black Sand,” a Japanese film he’s making about the same battle as seen from the Japanese viewpoint.
Under two flags
“During the whole process of going back into history and reading every piece of material I could on Iwo Jima, I started reading material on General Kuribayashi, defender of the island,” Eastwood says. “He had a very interesting existence, and he was given a job that was a futile job. The Americans went over there knowing it was very dangerous, but they were all hoping to come home. The other side went over there being told that they weren’t coming home. But there are certain similarities — lots of young people who are taken out of their lives, and lives cut short.”
Casting on the Japanese movie is not yet firmed up, but shooting starts in March, while “Flags of Our Fathers” continues in post-production.
Iwo Jima is now a memorial site, so filming on the island is a sensitive issue, but both movies will include scenes shot there. “Flags” (scripted by Paul Haggis, who also wrote “Million Dollar Baby,”) also filmed in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles and Iceland.
The 58-day shooting schedule was a little longer than is traditional for a director known for his speed.
“I only like moving fast because I like to feel I’m going somewhere,” Eastwood explains. “I don’t like to feel I’m just running in place, but by the same token, whatever it takes to get it. I don’t feel I leave something before I’m done with it.”
He doesn’t know what he’ll do after the Iwo Jima movies are completed.
“It all depends on the material,” Eastwood says. “When you’re younger you will do a lot of material to keep moving. But at this stage I want to do only things I think I can really bring something special to, and not do anything for the sake of just being out there.”
When it comes to honors, like the Oscars or the DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he says, “I never envisioned anything. I just kept going ahead. I’ve never sat and daydreamed much about awards … but I guess one day you wake up and you are on a list with John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock and William Wyler, etc., the list goes on and on, and you say, ‘Gee, I watched these guys’ films when I was a kid with my knees up on the seat in front at the matinees…’ It’s nice to be on a list with these fellas.”