Eastwood revisits World War II with Iwo Jima films

Friday, October 20, 2006
Director and actor Clint Eastwood posed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week. Eastwood's latest directorial effort is "Flags of Our Fathers." (Associated Press)

LOS ANGELES -- By 76, most directors have put their heavy lifting behind them, their pace slowing, the quality of their films waning.

Not Clint Eastwood.

For the follow-up to his 2004 Academy Awards champ "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood chose the World War II epic "Flags of Our Fathers," chronicling the Iwo Jima invasion and the convoluted drama behind the legendary photo of troops raising the U.S. flag there.

Shot throughout the United States and at Iwo Jima and Iceland, the film has a scope that might exhaust a director half his age.

The film comes after a remarkable resurgence that began with 2003's morality play "Mystic River," launching Eastwood into the ranks of Hollywood's most revered directors after an early career built on low-budget spaghetti Westerns and the "Dirty Harry" vigilante-cop thrillers.

Why is Eastwood at the top of his game at an age when most directors slow down, lose their edge or simply retire?

"Genetics, I don't know," said Eastwood, whose mother died this year at 97. "My father always said you've got to keep learning, keep expanding or you will decline the other way. I've always adhered to that."

Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" cast -- which includes Ryan Phillippe, Barry Pepper, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford -- said they were amazed at the fitness and stamina of a director 40 years or more their elder.

Pepper said Eastwood was in the hotel gym working out every night after a hard day's shooting in Iceland. Beach recalled Eastwood hauling himself onto a boat with a gymnast's agility, camera slung over his shoulder.

"The guy's not supposed to be that limber. He's like a 30-year-old carrying this big camera like it was nothing," said Beach, who plays Ira Hayes, one of the troops in the flag-raising photo. "I don't think people understand how healthy he is, how strong he is. He's really taken care of himself."

Saying he has no thoughts of retiring, Eastwood hinted at a work-till-you-drop career like that of John Huston, the inspiration for the macho filmmaker Eastwood played in "White Hunter, Black Heart."

"Even though he was in ill health, he was never a physical-training type of guy, he held on, and his last films were quite good," Eastwood said. "'The Dead,' his last film, he was on oxygen bottles and in a wheelchair part of the time. It shows you can do it.

"I'm fortunately, knock on wood, in good health and I feel fine. I know more now than I did 30 years ago, I think. There'll come a day maybe when I forget more now than I did yesterday. But right now, I'm enjoying it, and I'm more patient, and it's more fun for me to watch actors perform and watch younger people come along, and be behind the camera than it was in the past."

Eastwood follows "Flags of Our Fathers" with next year's "Letters From Iwo Jima," the story of the battle from the perspective of Japanese soldiers defending the island. After editing "Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood shot "Letters From Iwo Jima" in a six-week flurry while finishing touches were being applied to the first film.

The two films come after his boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" won best picture, director, actress (Hilary Swank) and supporting actor (Morgan Freeman) at the 2004 Oscars, a year after "Mystic River" had hurtled Eastwood back to Oscar form.

Eastwood seemingly had hit a career high with 1992's Western "Unforgiven," which earned him best-picture and director Oscars, as well as a best-actor nomination. A solid but unremarkable decade followed with such films as the weepy romance "The Bridges of Madison County," the crime thriller "Absolute Power" and the court drama "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

As he turned 70, Eastwood appeared to be fading, directing and starring in the dreary astronaut adventure "Space Cowboys" and the drearier crime tale "Blood Work."

Then came "Mystic River," which won acting Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins and earned best-picture and directing nominations, and "Million Dollar Baby," which set Eastwood among the likes of Billy Wilder, David Lean, Steven Spielberg (a producer on "Flags of Our Fathers") and other directors who have won multiple Oscars.

Eastwood went into acting in the 1950s after an Army stint and some college business classes, his first break coming in a 1955 "Francis the Talking Mule" comedy. In 1959, Eastwood signed on as cattle hand Rowdy Yates in the TV Western "Rawhide," and he shot to stardom in the mid-1960s in such Sergio Leone Westerns as "A Fistful of Dollars" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

As he moved into directing, Eastwood developed an economical, expeditious filmmaking style, multitasking as actor, producer, director and composer, churning films out at a swift pace.

"The way he shoots a film reminds me of his love of jazz," said Phillippe, who plays Navy corpsman John "Doc" Bradley, another troop in the Iwo Jima photo. "It is somewhat improvisational. It is free-flowing, and the day moves and goes by so fast. There's something very musical about the way he works."

He began shooting "Million Dollar Baby" in June 2004 and had the film finished six months later, distributor Warner Bros. releasing it as a last-minute addition to the Oscar race.

Eastwood often gets what he needs in just one or two takes, his "Flags of Our Fathers" cast said. Co-stars Pepper and Bradford said Eastwood wants actors to trust their instincts and that when they press for more direction than he's willing to give, he responds: "We've come this far. Let's not ruin it by thinking."

When Eastwood does speak, he's soft-spoken and to the point -- and everyone listens, his actors said.

"When Clint would talk in that kind of wonderfully gravelly voice of his, all the noise on the set would just diminish," Pepper said. "People would just listen to hear the next move because they knew they would be left in the dust if they didn't. As soon as he was done -- no bullhorns, never raised his voice -- the noise on the set would go back up."

Eastwood does not appear in "Flags of Our Fathers" or "Letters From Iwo Jima," which stars Ken Watanabe as Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who led the Japanese defense of the island. After "Mystic River," in which he also does not appear, Eastwood began thinking he would prefer to remain behind the camera.

"Then all of a sudden, 'Million Dollar Baby' comes along, and there's a great part in it there for a guy my age," said Eastwood, nominated for best actor as a crusty boxing coach. "So I'll never say never, because somebody maybe will come up with a good role someday, but I'm not out looking for it. I'm not out soliciting."

One new role he could not resist was reprising Harry Callahan, providing the voice for an upcoming "Dirty Harry" video game.

"I get to be me as a young guy again," Eastwood said. "Revisit my youth."

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