Tom Hanks and Beyond All Boundaries

November 2009

It’s a sobering statistic: Every day, we lose 900 veterans of World War II. And with their deaths, we lose their stories, and the connection to a time that revolutionized America. In an effort to preserve those stories, the new 70,000-square-foot wing of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans opens on November 6 with a state-of-the-art 4-D Solomon Victory Theater. Playing on the 120-foot screen is the interactive film Beyond All Boundaries, which was produced by two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks.

Hanks, who has perhaps done more than anyone in Hollywood today to help tell the stories of the war with the film Saving Private Ryan and HBO seriesBand of Brothers. With Beyond All Boundaries, Hanks and his production team have created not just a film, but an "experience," he says, using narratives from soldiers, journalists, and home-front workers to illustrate the sacrifices made during the five years the world was at war. The 40-minute production actually took longer to create than the war itself, with special effects that take the viewer from the inside of bombers to the cold, snowy depths of the battlefield. Hanks’s goal was to make an impression: to give the viewer a chance to look beyond the familiar black-and-white portrayal of WWII and see that these were real people, living their lives in a period that would change them forever.

Traveler assistant editor Janelle Nanos spoke with Hanks about the making of the film, the museum’s role in revitalizing New Orleans, and how his travels to former battlefields have informed his perspective on the war.

After starring in and producing major Hollywood films about World War II, you spent five years researching and producing the film Beyond All Boundaries for the museum. What new things did you learn about the war in the process?
World War II has entered into a mythic realm as far as everyone understands it. It’s all about flickering images of black and white, long-ago heroes and horrors. The more that it becomes like that, the less connected it becomes to where we are today. You can look at great moments in history and see that history is nothing more than human behavior. And human behavior doesn’t change, the nature of mankind doesn’t change. No matter how much more we learn or how much more enlightened we become, wars still come about. Because somebody thinks “I want more,” someone thinks “the other side isn’t human,” someone thinks that “we’re superior to them,” or someone thinks “we’re entitled to this and we don’t have it.” And out springs the most base aspect of human nature, which is racism, terrorism, atrocity, and entitlement. Now that happened in World War II, and doesn’t it sound familiar? It seems as though you can say the same thing about where we are today, and yes, by the way, we are fighting a war and it is in some ways a global one, and we are facing the same things. The connections from World War II can be illuminated as part of today.

Many members of the film team had personal connections to the war. How did that influence the experience, and were you able to incorporate those stories into the film?
They started off with the theme: The cost of the war: the human cost; it cost time; it certainly cost money, political capital, the whole bit. That’s what struck me about the concept from the very beginning—that Beyond all Boundaries would convey the sense of what it took to get through the war. It moved an entire generation from one way of living to another. When I was growing up, everyone who was about 40 years old, and even younger, talked about the war as a peak in their experience. There was before, during, and after the war. They all went through profound changes through those three acts in their experiences. That was only five years or so. They were young, and they went places they’d never gone, did things they’d never done, and saw things they’d never seen. And they did so because the world was at war.

You used some rare footage from the war in the film. What does that that footage depict?
A lot of footage hasn’t been seen before. Because of the sheer volume of it, much was put away, and no one had ever found it. The team also created some computer images of what it would have been like to be in the nose of a B-29 or something as horrible as the firebombing of Tokyo. That attack killed over 100,000 people, whose main sin was that they were residents of Japan. Never mind what they thought of the war, or how much they might have hated it or supported it. Or how much they might have wanted to wake up in the morning and get through the day. The point of Beyond All Boundaries is to find those elements and moments as they exist in actual film or can be created with authenticity to land in the consciousness in a different and, if possible, brand new way.

There are over 250 special effects in the film—and in the theater itself—from snow to rattling seats to a watchtower that emerges on the stage. Is there any one in particular that still gives you chills, even though you’ve probably seen the production, what, a thousand times as of now?
The use of the pure graphics of planet Earth is impressive to me. They found a way to communicate the scope of where all these things happened. The world is a very big place, and yet it was united and made closer by way of the war. There’s also an image that comes out of the war in Europe in the Battle of the Bulge, in which you can barely make out a very, very cold soldier trying to stay warm as the snow falls in a dark wooded forest. And you think that man looks very lonely and miserable. All that was part of the image.

Your film Saving Private Ryan inspired legions of people to visit Normandy, and this summer you traveled there yourself to mark the anniversary of D-Day. Why do you feel it is important to revisit these sites?
I do that in a search for a true tactile understanding of a place. I’ve always been in Normandy in June, where I find myself thinking, “It was a day like today. It’s cold and wet like it is today.” It’s a very beautiful, lovely place, and you can walk through a farmer’s field and come across a concrete structure and see the gun emplacements. You wonder how many people were here, making sure there were not only enough shells to throw at the Allied advance, but how much coffee was here? Where did they sleep and hang their hats?
I’ve actually gone through the footsteps of individual battles we brought to life inBand of Brothers, the piece we did for HBO. You walk through a farmer’s field and they say, “we dug a trench here.” And you know what’s there? A trench. It’s still an impression in the farmland—it never goes away. It brings a human dimension to the people who were walking a really long way when they were very tired on a day when their job was to kill people on the other side. That to me just takes it out of any mythical storytelling atmosphere and turns it into a human one. Of human beings doing things one step at a time, one day at a time, one damn thing at a time. That’s the type of connection that it brings to you and that makes me think that’s what 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old kids are doing today in places like Afghanistan.

This is the largest cultural institution to open in New Orleans since Katrina. What do you hope the significance of the museum will be to the city?
I think museums like this are natural resources for any city where they can build up and support it and turn it into a world-class destination. Of course we started this when New Orleans was just the Crescent City, and now it’s the post-Katrina New Orleans. Nick Mueller [museum president] and everyone who’s behind the museum knows that this is the planting of a great orchard, and the roots will spread out. People all over the world will be able to come to New Orleans and get a ticket to the National World War II Museum, and every hour on the hour they’ll be able to see a film like Beyond all Boundaries. This is going to pay dividends for as long as there is a New Orleans. The city certainly needs it. There’s altruism from a civic-mindedness that goes beyond being fascinated and wanting to spread a sense of history. We started out just doing something good, and now it’s something that’s important.

Source : National Geographic Traveler