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Eastwood's 'Flags' Flies High

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Rosenthal's photo, simply titled "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," proved a pivotal asset to the U.S.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

After 51 years in movies, Clint Eastwood hasn't much interest in returning to the roles of his youth, the strong, silent outlaws and gun-toting renegades that made him an American screen legend. At 76, the San Francisco native is still lean and mean, with a piercing stare that recalls Dirty Harry’s in his heyday. These days, though, Eastwood is dedicated to his work as a director, on the lookout for stories he cares about.

In Flags of Our Fathers, the bestseller by James Bradley and Ron Powers, he found one. Inspired by one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the assault on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, the book tells the stories of the six Marines who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi, as captured on film by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. The photo proved an invaluable aid to promoting domestic support for the war. The flag-raisers, only three of whom left Iwo Jima alive, became reluctant celebrities, paraded around the country as living, breathing symbols of American grit.

“As I’ve matured in life – that’s one way of saying aging – I’ve reached out to different sides of stories that were appealing to me,” Eastwood says. “As a young man, I started out in movies with a lot of action. Now I’m retreating to the backside of the camera to tell the stories of characters who are closer to me than some of the fantasy characters I played.”

There had been movies about Iwo Jima before, but nothing like the one he imagined. “This was the biggest, fiercest Marine Corps invasion in history, but what intrigued me most was the book. It wasn’t really a war story, and I wasn’t setting out to do a war movie. This was a study of people. These guys were just a bunch of kids who were sent off to fight for their country.”

Eastwood tried to option the rights to the book in 2001, only to discover that they’d been snapped up by another director with a keen interest in World War II – Steven Spielberg. Unfazed, Eastwood proceeded to make some of the most critically acclaimed films of his career.

“Sometimes I think I’ll take some time off,” he says. “I did Mystic River, and I was going to take some time off after that. Then I read Million Dollar Baby, and said, ‘Boy, I have to do that.’ I had tried to buy Flags of Our Fathers, but DreamWorks had it. I mentioned to Steven that I liked the property very much, and I just left it hanging. Then I ran into him, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come over and direct this film?’ He didn’t have a screenplay he was happy with, so we had to kind of start from scratch.”

With an Oscar-winning screenwriter – Paul Haggis of Crash fame, who had adapted Million Dollar Baby from the novel by F.X. Toole – and a cast including Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach and Barry Pepper, Eastwood set out to make a film that spoke as much to the horrors of war as to the galvanizing power of a simple photograph.

“It was a different time in history,” says Eastwood. “We’d been fighting in the European theater, and we’d been at war, but when it was brought to us at Pearl Harbor, it became a reality that if we didn't fight this one out, we might be speaking another language today, simple as that. So it was important to tell this story.

“The famous Joe Rosenthal photograph was taken four or five days into battle, and the campaign wasn’t even a fifth of the way over. But it signified a unity that I’ve always been curious about. … Everybody has their own idea about what makes the photograph special. On one level, it’s guys doing some work – raising a pole – and that may be how the six guys in the picture saw it themselves. But in 1945, it symbolized the war effort.”

With Flags scheduled for release just before winter, when studios traditionally unveil their Oscar contenders, Eastwood can turn his attention to his next project: Letters From Iwo Jima, a foreign-language companion piece that tells the story from the Japanese perspective. Due in February, Letters will mark the director’s fifth feature since 2002’s Blood Work, and for him there’s no end in sight. Though he has little interest in autobiography, he’s still eager to tell the stories of others.

“I don’t feel my life is that interesting, which is maybe why I became an actor,” Eastwood says, flashing a sly grin. “I just feel like I do a job. I’ve been lucky enough to work in a profession where I enjoy it, and I still enjoy it. If I have any ambitions about retiring, I haven’t found out about them yet. Maybe I’ll just wait until they retire me.”

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