On an early-December afternoon at the offices of Malpaso Productions, Clint Eastwood’s four Academy Awards (the same number that John Ford won) have been placed into thick velvet carrying bags, while that famous poncho — the one Eastwood wore during the entirety of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy — is being carefully loaded into a large shipping box. But that doesn’t mean that Eastwood himself is packing it in. The memorabilia in question are merely being loaned out to the California Museum in Sacramento, where the actor/director has just been inducted into the California Hall of Fame (part of an inaugural class that includes Cesar Chavez, John Muir and Ronald Reagan). “Will I ride off into the sunset? Maybe. Will I be dragged off kicking and screaming? Probably,” he told me back in 2004 when I came here to interview 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 who fought so bravely to defend those eight square miles of volcanic terrain, 20,000 of whom died in the process? Eastwood couldn’t stop thinking about them until he found himself at the helm of a second Iwo Jima movie, this time told from the other side of the frontlines, filmed with an all-Japanese cast, with the dialogue spoken entirely in Japanese. Now, as Letters From Iwo Jima (which was originally slated for a 2007 release) arrives in theaters, Eastwood once again sits on a dark-horse Oscar contender that’s hard to imagine any other American filmmaker (save perhaps for Steven Spielberg, who served as Eastwood’s producer on the movie) managing to get made.

“I just thought it would be good to tell the whole story,” says Eastwood with his trademark nonchalance, adding that he was particularly drawn to the figure of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played in Letters by Ken Watanabe), the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima who traveled extensively throughout the Americas prior to the war, logging time as a military attaché in Washington and as a student at Harvard. Kuribayashi’s lyrical dispatches back to his wife, daughter and son, published in the book Picture Letters From Commander in Chief, provided the connective tissue for the Letters screenplay (by first-time Japanese-American screenwriter Iris Yamashita).

“The book doesn’t say very much — it’s just his letters home and these little sketches he made of himself and the people he saw, his views of America,” Eastwood says. “But you can see that he was a very concerned father, worried about his kids, their academics, their spelling, telling them he’s going to fix certain things when he gets home, that he can’t wait to see them, that he wishes he was there. All the things that a normal husband and father would do, anywhere in the world.”

That humanizing view of “the enemy” is central to Letters, which, like Flags,unfolds from the perspective of the low-ranking conscripts Eastwood calls “young men asked to live a very short lifetime, who probably didn’t know too much about the reasons why they were there. Just as in the American Army, the mentality was: It’s not for you to reason why, it’s just for you to do or die.” As the war in Iraq nears the start of its fifth year amid 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. But with their reciprocal depictions of wartime rhetoric and thoughtless atrocities committed against POWs, Flags and Letters seem less an antiwar statement than a troubled inquiry into the moral relativism of the battlefield. As handily as Unforgiven muddied the mythology of the classical Western, Eastwood’s latest films shatter the clear-cut notions of heroism and villainy ingrained in almost every Hollywood WWII movie, from the patriotic programmers of yesteryear up through and including Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor.

“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 drops his voice a half-register into Harry Callahan’s sinister half-whisper. “Do I feel lucky? Pow! That’s all great fun, but violence hurts, and lives are ended early that shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s just the way I am now, but romantic violence is not interesting to me anymore. Maybe Unforgiven had some romance at the end, but even there, [my character] was being more practical about making his getaway from this town after he’d killed the sheriff, rather than getting on the horse and riding off heroically. He just disappears. He’s reverted back to something he was trying to get over. And I think Letters goes back into that deep, dark place even more so than Flags.”

If moviegoers feel the same way, Letters could face an even chillier box-office reception than 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 doesn’t have anything left to prove to anyone, save for himself. “At some point, you’re through with a picture, and it has to have a fate on its own,” he tells me. “Whatever the fate is, there’s nothing you can do about it. All you can say in the end is, ‘Do I like it?’ Yes. It’s what I intended to do, and because of that, I’m happy.”

Indeed, Eastwood seems content, and with no new projects in development, he 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.”?

LA Weekly