‘Will I ride off into the sunset? Maybe. Will I be dragged off kicking and screaming? Probably.” That’s what Clint Eastwood told me back in 2004, when I interviewed him just prior to the release of Million Dollar Baby. And in the full spirit of those words, he’s spent much of the intervening two years devoted to the biggest, most ambitious project of his six-decade career.
That project was to have been a single film, Flags of Our Fathers, about the American soldiers who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima—one of the bloodiest in all of World War II—and how they later became unwitting cogs in the war effort’s well-oiled propaganda machine. Then, during pre-production, Eastwood had a thought: What about the Japanese troops? Soon he found himself at the helm of a second Iwo Jima movie, this time told from the other side of the front lines.
“I just thought it would be good to tell the whole story,” says Eastwood with his trademark nonchalance.
As the war in Iraq nears the start of its fifth year amidst talk of a renewed military draft, Eastwood, who tends to be terse with regard to his films’ thematic implications, says the contemporary parallels aren’t lost on him. As handily as Unforgiven muddied (literally and figuratively) the mythology of the classical western, Eastwood’s latest films shatter the clear-cut notions of heroism and villainy ingrained in almost every Hollywood war movie, up through and including Saving Private Ryan. “At some point, you have to get real about things,” Eastwood says. “That may not be appealing to audiences who want a kind of escapism, but these pictures aren’t necessarily for the escapist.” He’s right: The audience did not embrace Flags, which has performed well below Eastwood’s usually robust business since its release in mid October.
Eastwood admits he’s disappointed, but says he’s only interested in making films that ignite his passions as fully as the Iwo Jima saga. “When you’re younger and things first start happening to you—for me, it was the 1960s—you say yes to a lot of things. Your agent says, ‘Do this—play in this picture because you’re in it with Richard Burton.’ Then someone asks Richard, ‘Why are you in the picture?’ And he says, ‘Well, because I’m in it with Clint.’ But why are we here? I did a lot of pictures like that—you could go through a whole list of them. People lean on you, and like all actors, you think every job’s going to be your last job. At that age, you don’t wait for the perfect thing that may or may not come along in 10 years. But now, if this is the last picture I do, that’s fine.”