Clint Eastwood's time in the US Army undeniably influenced his work. Edited screenshot from Gran Torino/Warner Bros.
Clint Eastwood is the Energizer Bunny of Hollywood. The legendary actor, director, and producer celebrated his 91st birthday on Monday. When it comes to filmmaking, Eastwood just keeps going and going and going, putting out a film about every two to four years. He starred in, directed, and produced his latest film, Cry Macho, which wrapped production this year.
While winning four Oscars is incredibly impressive, the level of success he’s achieved over a career that spans more than 65 years is mind-boggling. According to his IMDB page, Eastwood has won 157 awards (from various organizations) for his work in film and has been nominated 174 times. He’s basically Hollywood’s Bruce Dickinson.
But before Eastwood was starring in films like A Fistful of Dollars and directing masterpieces like Mystic River, he served in the US Army as a swim instructor at Fort Ord, California, from 1951 to 1953. Eastwood’s time in the Army clearly influenced his body of work, particularly his penchant for telling stories about members of the military and veterans.
Here are six of Eastwood’s best films about military members or veterans.
Gran Torino perfectly captures an aging veteran and his unlikely redemption. Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is a widower and aging Korean War veteran whose racist tendencies reveal themselves when his new Hmong neighbors move in. In a predictable yet satisfying character arc, Kowalski comes around to his neighbors, going so far as to sacrifice himself for them, proving that even in his 70s, Eastwood could play a believable action hero. Wielding an M1 Garand and a 1911, Eastwood channels some Dirty Harry energy when he says, “Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? That’s me.”
In typical 1960s fashion, this 1968 war film borders on ridiculous. Despite its commandos infiltrating a Nazi castle by stowing away on a cable car, Where Eagles Dare is not even Eastwood’s most outlandish action movie (I’m looking at you, The Eiger Sanction). But there’s still plenty of cheesy James Bond-style action to make this war flick an enjoyable ride. Eastwood plays an Army Ranger attached to a British commando team, and they pull off an epic high-altitude rescue mission. At a time when Americans were feeling disillusioned by the Vietnam War, Eastwood decided to star in a film that highlights the versatility of Army Rangers.
Eastwood directed Bradley Cooper in this 2014 Iraq War drama. Despite co-starring a fake baby, the film is a powerful adaptation of US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s bestselling memoir of the same title. Eastwood’s decision to make a big-budget film about an unpopular war proved lucrative. With the help of Cooper’s Academy Award-nominated performance, American Sniper became the highest-grossing war film of all time and earned six Oscar nominations, including for best picture, best adapted screenplay, and editing. American Sniper won an Oscar for best sound editing.
One of Eastwood’s few fumbles also happens to be the clearest example of his commitment to portraying members of the military in a positive light. This film tells the real-life story of how US Air Force Staff Sgt. Spencer Stone (then an airman first class) and Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos teamed with a civilian passenger to thwart a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris. Childhood friends Skarlatos and Stone were on leave in France at the time. Their heroism earned them France’s highest order of merit, the Legion of Honor.
Eastwood had the veterans play themselves in the film. While Skarlatos and Stone do a fine job for first-time actors and Eastwood succeeds in building a suspenseful film out of a seconds-long conflict, it’s not his best work. It is a compelling story, however, and captures the American fighting spirit.
James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers tells the story of Bradley’s father, Doc, who was a US Navy corpsman and veteran of Iwo Jima. Until recently, Doc Bradley was believed to be one of the flag-raisers captured in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph. The book is a moving account of men at war.
Eastwood broke the story into two films: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. While Flags of Our Fathers focuses on the American perspective of the battle and the men involved in the famous flag-raising, the companion Letters From Iwo Jima tells the tale of the Japanese defenders of the island. Of the 20,000 Japanese who fought there, only 1,000 survived the bloody battle, and Eastwood’s Letters comes from their perspective.
Both films hit theaters in 2006 — a time when war entertainment was not particularly popular — yet both received positive critical receptions and were lauded by audiences for their fair portrayal of the battle’s opposing forces. Together, the films garnered six Academy Award nominations, and Letters From Iwo Jima won the Oscar for sound editing. Eastwood’s films together capture the drama of the bloody battle from the perspective of all the men who fought there.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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