Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood has captured one of America's bloodiest battles in his latest work, writes Jo Walker
Clint Eastwood knows more than most about the making of heroes.
In a career spanning over five decades, he’s constructed the quintessential movie tough guy – the straight-talkin’, shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners renegade who always gets his man.
But now, in outing number 27 as director, Clint has turned his attention to the real life heroics of the battle for Iwo Jima – America’s single bloodiest engagement of the Second World War – for new film Flags Of Our Fathers.
Based around the photo that would become America’s iconic picture of the Second World War – six unknown marines hoisting the stars and stripes atop Mount Suribachi – the film charts the lives of the picture’s protagonists and their uneasy relationship with the word ‘hero’.
"There was something about the photograph," says Clint. "Nobody knows quite what it is except that it’s guys doing some work, raising a pole – that may be how the six guys in the picture saw it themselves.
"But in 1945, it symbolised the war effort. As a counterpoint to one of the bloodiest battles in the war, the picture symbolised what was at stake, what they were fighting for.
"And then when you find out what happens to the guys and how they are taken out of battle and brought back for bond tours, you’re left with a very complex set of emotions, especially for people who are 19, 20, 22 years old."
Forced into propaganda work back in the States, spearheading the last great fundraising drive of the war, three of the photo’s subjects are practically deified for their symbolic bravery while back in the Pacific their comrades die in the thousands. One eventually breaks down: "I can’t
take them calling me a hero," he says. "All I did was try not to get shot."
But were they heroes? Clint’s take may place question marks over individual credits, but he can’t talk highly enough of the collective – those who’ve become known as the Greatest Generation.
"These were just a bunch of skinny kids who had just come out of the Depression, and it was not necessarily easy times for a lot of Americans," he says.
"A lot of these guys would join the Marine Corps or were drafted in the Army, but they had a spirit – they believed in what they were doing. They believed and they persevered.
"This is a story about a whole generation of people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and how that affects them."
Before filming, Clint threw himself into researching the island battle, reading widely on the subject and talking to veterans on both sides of the combat.
"I went to the 60th anniversary up in San Francisco, spent a lot of time with veterans up there," Clint recalls. "They told a lot of stories.
"And there was a fellow who is mentioned in the book, a guy named Danny Thomas. He was a Corpsman also, sort of a counterpoint to (central character) John Bradley. He had never spoken about Iwo Jima, much like John Bradley. He had never spoken about the war. He came back and just lived his life. And when he got older, he decided it was all right to talk about it.
"I spent a couple of hours talking to him, and he talked about it very emotionally, of what his feelings were at the time. It was an amazing group of people."
While most of the film was shot in Iceland – the country’s volcanic beaches making almost perfect doubles for Japan – some footage was taken on location on Iwo Jima.
Clint feels the battlefield spoke to him: "It’s quite emotional to sit there on the beach," he says. "There’s nobody on the island except a small Japanese military detachment and some US airmen that come in once in a while to run operations. As you sit there on the beaches, you can almost hear the troops coming onto the land and the mayhem."
As Clint promised in his 2004 Oscar acceptance speech, "I’ve got a lot of stuff to do yet". And if his track record is anything to go by, whatever happens next will turn our previous expectations of the veteran director on their head.
"There’s a rebel lying deep in my soul," he says. "Any time anybody tells me the trend is such and such, I go the opposite direction."
And this is the work he’s proudest of: "Most people who’ll remember me, if at all, will remember me as an action guy, which is okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there will be a certain group which will remember me for the other films, the ones where I took a few chances. At least, I like to think so."
* Flags Of Our Fathers opens on Friday December 22.