Last August, while Robert James Waller's heartwarming novel was still chugging like the Energizer Bunny after nearly two years on best-seller lists, the movie version of The Bridges of Madison County was threatening to land in development limbo. Three directors and four writers had dropped by the wayside, and the opportunity for shooting that fall in Winterset, Iowa, was fast disappearing. ''You guys have blown enough time,'' complained Clint Eastwood already signed to play the movie's lovelorn lead to Warner Bros. chairman Terry Semel. ''Everyone is going to move on to something else.'' Semel, who had backed the surprising choice of the aging action star for the romance, responded: ''How about you directing it?'' ''Give me 24 hours,'' replied Eastwood. On Aug. 7, he flew a Warner's jet to Winterset to inspect locations for the shoot and scrapped plans to build a new Roseman Bridge, thereby instantly cutting the budget by $1.5 million. He then called Semel. ''Yeah,'' he said. ''I'll do it.'' Now, with the successful opening of The Bridges of Madison County, it's clear that Eastwood did something few filmmakers would have dared: He kept things simple. Making no concessions to anyone not the book's author (who neither conferred with Eastwood nor visited the set but, according to a press rep, ''loved the movie''), nor the film's studio, nor its onetime producer Steven Spielberg he fashioned an austere, languidly paced romance. A three-hankie weeper like they don't make anymore, the film opened robustly at the box office and drew a uniform chorus of critical raves (Said New York Newsday critic Dave Kehr: ''There are moments here...that are as powerful as anything the movies have given us''). ''Clint has a way,'' says Lennie Niehaus, the film's composer, ''of taking something and making it his own.''
Here are a few things things you won't find in the film version of The Bridges of Madison County:
A laconic, gun-slinging Man With No Name.
Though Robert Redford's name was mentioned, Warner and Spielberg always wanted Eastwood for the role of peripatetic National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid. ''Warner never approved of Redford,'' says one executive at the studio. ''He's such a matinee idol as opposed to a rough, earthy guy. Clint has more edge.''
''I've been friends with Clint since the Play Misty for Me days in the early '70s,'' says Spielberg. ''I've always felt that Clint in his real life was a much drier version of Kincaid in Waller's book. He was always my first choice.''
Eastwood had initially encountered the book when producer Lili Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy) sent him a copy, saying, ''I see you in it.'' ''It was a short read,'' says the actor. ''Some things worked well, other things I wasn't quite sure about. I thought I could play it. I've played a lot of loner macho roles, but that doesn't necessarily mean I felt that way in life after I left the set that night.''
And Kincaid? ''I've been that guy a little bit,'' Eastwood says, ''going off by myself years ago in a pickup truck into Nevada, scouting locations for High Plains Drifter. But I didn't stop off with any housewives while doing that.'' Coproducer Kathleen Kennedy thinks Eastwood ''is much more like Kincaid than the [movie] persona he's created over the years. He's really a very gentle soul.'' But his sensitive performance will still surprise many. As Kincaid, he talks, dances, makes love, and when he can't have the woman he loves cries, nose streaming. Before he leaves town, he stands pathetically in the rain outside his truck, hair plastered to his forehead. ''How many actors today would do that?'' asks Kennedy. ''It takes tremendous self-confidence.''