Clint Eastwood on Heroism

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Director Clint Eastwood at the premiere of Flags of our Fathers

Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers is an adaptation of James Bradley and Ron Powers's book, recounting the story of the three survivors of the flag raising on Iwo Jima during World War II. The event produced the most famous photographic image of the war, and the men were returned home to lead a war-bond tour during which they were heroically lionized. None felt they had done anything exceptional, and Eastwood's film (one of two he has made about Iwo Jima, the other from the Japanese point of view) becomes a meditation on what does and does not constitute heroic behavior, The director sat down with his friend, TIME's Richard Schickel, to reflect further on the topic of heroism. Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

TIME: When you read the book the first time, did you start thinking of what constitutes heroism and what doesn't?

EASTWOOD: Yeah, I did. The thing that I liked about it is there were no stories of people bashing down walls and running through doors. It was just the common man — skinny kids out of the Depression, getting out of high school and going right into the war. Maybe with adventure in their hearts and patriotisim in their hearts, or maybe they felt it was a just a job to do. Or maybe all of the above. And then getting into battle that just was more than they could fathom. Their average age was 19. What that must have done to the brain of a young kid. And then going home, but not normally like most kids. The government put them out on this war-bond drive. They came back to a million people at Times Square, and climbing these paper mache mountains, all this Hollywood kind of stuff. In fact we're talking about the propaganda machine. The propaganda machine is our subject matter.

That's to me the most interesting aspect of the movie. In effect they're saying we just happened to be six guys who were accidentally standing around with a pipe and a flag. It could have been any six guys.

And you don't see their faces. You could put anybody on those paper mache mountains and say, "These are the guys who raised the flag." Who was to know? It wasn't like you see a movie with Gary Cooper or James Cagney standing there. It turned out they even had one wrong guy listed.

Does the very anonymity of the Joe Rosenthal picture make them seem more heroic?

Rosenthal always claimed that if he'd composed it he would have ruined it — because he would have said I can't see your faces, and "Come on, fellows, clear your hands there." You know how people do. It symbolized the whole country being heroic, rather than an individual Medal of Honor winner.

Isn't the essence of heroism, as we understand it in the United States at least, dutifulness?

I think so.

And also shutting up about what you did later.

It's something like you're holding your soul in. You're just not baring it. It's something that is private, and if you brought it out you might bring out a lot of bad stuff with it. Ira Hayes [in a scene in the movie] says, Wouldn't it be great if the other guys — meaning the other three compadres who are dead — could be here on this train, eating with silverware and all these niceties? He's in a drunken stupor and he just says, "We shouldn't be here." And that sort of sums the whole thing up. He feels, I'm glad we're alive, but we sure as hell shouldn't be here. They were beginning to realize that maybe they should either be back with their units or be home.

Or sinking back into anonymity.

Which had it costs. The idea of post-traumatic stress symptoms wasn't around in those days. It used to be called "shell shock," and they were told, "Go home and get over it." And it was up to their wives or girlfriends or mothers and fathers to get them over it. I met with a lot of vets. I went to a 60th anniversary in San Francisco and there was a panel of vets. All of them, to a man, said that they'd only come out in the last couple of years, and this was a 60th anniversary. One guy I talked to was Danny Thomas, who was a corpsman like Bradley, the same decorations and everything — he said it took him 55 years before he could talk about it, even in passing.

And now?

You know, heroism is so much different now than it was then.

I think everyone is looking for who's the hero that is going to get us out of what we're in now. I heard somebody on the radio the other day — one of these talk shows — saying, "Oh, where's the new General Patton? Where's the guy who says, 'I don't give a s--- what the politicians want, this is what we should do.'"

The military is so bureaucratized now. It's hard for a guy to assert that kind of will. He's going to end up a major on a base in New Mexico; he's not going to be a Colin Powell.

No, no — he's always been a person who likes to take the conservative way. He certainly isn't militant military. At least we don't picture him that way. Whether he could do the Pattonesque kind of thing I don't know.

So is there any conceivable possibility in the modern world for the assertion of conventional heroism? Or is the definition of heroism just totally decimated by the circumstances in which we now live?

I don't see it right now. I certainly don't see any politician that's a hero, on any party, anywhere. I think John McCain did something that I don't know if I could do, and I don't think many men can look in the mirror and say they'd do — give up a chance to get out of prison because his dad was an admiral, and the Vietnamese were going to let him go... I mean that took cojones, donating another three and a half to four years of his life to stay in prison, rather than be the one guy who gets to walk away: "Hey, fellas, I'll say hello to everybody." Pat Tillman, giving up his NFL career to fight — and die — for his country, is like that for me, too. But most of the political structure I get so disappointed at. We're reduced to a society that is sitting here arguing about who used the "N word" 30 years ago. You see grown men doing this stuff in order to get into a power position, and it's really kind of disgraceful.