LOS ANGELES - If one Clint Eastwood picture does not capture audiences' fancy, another one is never far behind.
Two months after releasing the acclaimed "Flags of Our Fathers," a box-office underperformer relating the World War II battle at Iwo Jima from the American perspective, Eastwood follows with the critical darling "Letters From Iwo Jima," chronicling the combat from the Japanese point of view.
With "Flags of Our Fathers" already fading from memory, it seemed as though Eastwood's recent winning streak amid Academy Awards season was about to end.
Now, "Letters From Iwo Jima" has emerged as a surprise awards contender, just as Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" did two years ago, when it was a last-minute addition to the Warner Bros. 2004 schedule.
Coming just a year after his best-picture nominee "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby" went on to win four Oscars, including best picture and director, Eastwood's second triumphs in those categories after 1992's "Unforgiven."
After "Flags" failed to find an audience, running up a modest $33.6 million at the domestic box office, Warner decided to bump "Letters From Iwo Jima" from its February 2007 premiere to a limited release starting Wednesday, making it eligible for this year's awards.
Typically matter-of-fact, Eastwood said the schedule change had nothing to do with positioning either film for awards. "Letters From Iwo Jima" was released on the heels of "Flags of Our Fathers" simply because the film was ready, he said.
"It seemed like a natural progression following `Flags of Our Fathers' that they might as well come out closer together. It just seemed like the thing to do. The pictures were interrelated in a certain way," Eastwood told The Associated Press.
"Awards things, those things have to sort of take on their own life. There's nothing you can do. You can't force those things."
With Oscar nominations barely a month away, awards matters have taken on a life of their own again for Eastwood. "Letters From Iwo Jima" was picked as the year's top film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, which gave his Western "Unforgiven" the same honor 14 years ago.
The Golden Globes followed by nominating "Letters From Iwo Jima" for best foreign-language film. Under Globe rules, the movie was not eligible for best dramatic picture because it is told in Japanese.
Globe voters also nominated Eastwood as best director for both "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers." It was the first time a director was nominated twice in the same year.
The question now is whether one or both of Eastwood's films will find favor with Oscar voters, whose nominations come out Jan. 23. Nominations for "Flags of Our Fathers" would be a validation for a film that had been expected to do big business after Eastwood delivered unlikely hits with "Million Dollar Baby" and "Mystic River."
Eastwood is at a loss why "Flags" failed to grab movie-goers. He noted that some have speculated its cast - led by Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford - was not recognizable enough to pack in the crowds.
"I would have liked it do much more. I think it's a very important subject matter. I think it's historically interesting for young people today to know what their fathers, grandfathers, the people before them gave away in the so-called greatest generation. The sacrifices mothers made in not seeing their sons come home," Eastwood said.
"I think it's a pertinent subject in today's world. Unfortunately, you can't go out and twist people's arms. We certainly had nice reviews, but if they want to go to see `Saw II,' that's it."
Directors such as Steven Spielberg, Eastwood's producing partner on both World War II films, and Steven Soderbergh have managed to pound out two acclaimed movies in a single year.
But an achievement such as Eastwood's, delivering companion pieces about the same subject in just months, is unprecedented, especially considering the scope of the two epic war films. How, at age 76, does Eastwood keep up the pace?
"I'm not really sure. We just kind of put the pedal to the metal on it," Eastwood said. "We went ahead and did it. In the golden era of movies in the `40s or so, people made a lot of movies. Now, everyone takes forever."
After editing "Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood shot "Letters From Iwo Jima" in six weeks last summer, largely at locations around Los Angeles. Some battle footage for the second movie was filmed in Iceland while Eastwood was shooting the combat portions of "Flags of Our Fathers."
Eastwood also got permission from Japan to do some shooting on Iwo Jima itself, the island the Allies viewed as a vital steppingstone to an invasion of the Japanese homeland.
The idea to make a companion piece from the Japanese perspective struck Eastwood after he read a comment from U.S. Gen. Holland Smith praising Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who led the defense of Iwo Jima against the Americans.
Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe, came up with a unique battle plan in which he conceded the beach to the enemy, concentrating his soldiers farther inland in trenches, pillbox bunkers and tunnels from where the Japanese troops took a terrible toll on U.S. Marines.
"Letters From Iwo Jima" is compassionately told through the eyes of Kuribayashi, who had studied in the United States and been an envoy there before the war, and several others, including Lt. Col. Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an equestrian gold medalist at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and Pvt. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a foot soldier longing to return home to his wife.
The film draws much of its background about Kuribayashi from a book of letters written to his family about his travels there.
"He was very nostalgic about things. He drew little pictures - he was a sketch artist - he drew sort of crude little pictures of things he was seeing in his journey," Eastwood said. "He just seemed like not the kind of man who would be a general of armies and a person looking for a battle.
"That's what got me curious about the other side of it, as well. It turns out the boys there missed their mothers and didn't want to die, just as the boys on our side."
With his Iwo Jima films behind him, Eastwood said he is ready to move on to something new.
"You never get to the point where you're the professor, where you think, `I'm just going to sit back and pontificate.' You're a constant student, constantly moving forward," Eastwood said. "I don't know what I'm doing next. Maybe something humorous, maybe something dramatic.
"It'll be something different for me, anyway."