Tom Hanks interview on The Pacific

April 01, 2010


Tom Hanks has a gentlemanly manner, a cuddly charm – and an apparently insatiable appetite for war. In 1998, the 53-year-old American star survived the horror of the D-Day landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. He revisited the European trenches as co-executive producer (alongside Spielberg) of 2001 TV epic Band of Brothers. And now, for a formidable new 10-part series called The Pacific, he has returned to the horrors of the Second World War yet again, spending a quarter of a billion dollars to bring to the small screen the traumatic true stories of First Marine, the US regiment who are, in many ways, the War’s forgotten heroes.

Between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the mornings in August 1945 when atom bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the young men of First Marine risked (and in many cases lost) their lives to wrest a string of Pacific islands from the Japanese. Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa – sun-drenched, beach-fringed Edens with names like birdsong – played host to some of the most ferocious man-to-man combat the world had ever seen.

“The war in the Pacific was a different beast from the conflict in Europe,” says Hanks, during our recent interview in Los Angeles. “In Europe, by and large, when the bad guys knew that they were beaten, they’d put up their hands and say, 'We give up’ and they were taken off and put in prisoner-of-war camps, and that was that. This did not happen on the islands of the Pacific. The war in the Pacific was a war of terror and suicide and attrition, that’s all it was. There was killing and killing and killing until there was nobody left to kill.”

The men of First Marine went through hell. The relative isolation of the islands, the size and strength of the Japanese fleet, and the US government’s strategic priority – toppling Hitler – all conspired against the American forces in the Pacific. While over in Europe, D-Day involved one big push to Berlin, the Pacific conflict demanded multiple assaults on scattered, heavily defended islands – the men in the Pacific faced multiple D-Days.

Their Japanese counterparts held the best positions, the best ordinance and, quite often, the best technology. They also knew and understood the hostile terrain, and fought to the last man. Surrender was anathema to the Japanese warrior, and both sides suffered horrendous casualties.

“Of the 24,000 Japanese entrenched on the island of Iwo Jima,” says Hanks, “only 215 survived”. The invasion of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa was even more disastrous for the US forces – which suffered more than 50,000 casualties, an enormous figure in any era of warfare. The US Government decided that the only resolution to this conflict, and the intolerable loss of American lives, was atomic.

The Imperial Army’s zealous, extreme behaviour, which encouraged its defeated troops to transform themselves into suicide bombers, or kamikaze pilots, invites comparisons with the current conflict in Afghanistan, where the West is once more battling an enemy whose methods of engagement do not conform to its own. Hanks concedes that the parallels are hard to ignore. “In 1945, to us, to Western society, the Japanese were not living with the same human values that we were. Now there is this same sense of difference in regards to the Muslim world. We don’t know what they think and we’re not interested in figuring it out. They speak a different language and they worship a different god to us. And we’re in a war of racism and terror against them. Alas, history has given us this proof that it does just keep repeating itself over and over.”

Over the course of ten, 50-minute episodes, The Pacific follows the fortunes of three men from First Marine: Eugene Sledge, Robert Leckie and John Basilone (played by relative unknowns Joe Mazzello, James Badge Dale and Jon Seda, respectively), as they battle from island to island. “This was a crossroads in history,” says Hanks who once again teamed up with Spielberg as executive producer on the series. “And for us it’s all about the personal story of those people who were at those crossroads. It’s not always a matter of tactics and battles and maps or politics. It ends up being: what was this individual’s decision, what was going on in his head? What was the tactile feeling that he or she was having at the time? That’s the stuff that makes it worthy of going back and revisiting it again and again.”

While Band of Brothers employed plenty of hand-held camera work, The Pacific is classically shot, with slow camera movements and arcing, wide-angle vistas. The series is filmed in high-definition – bringing the jungles to life. This is not the olive drab, vérité-style frenzy that defined Band of Brothers. That earlier miniseries told the story of an entire company – Easy Company, mapping their progress through Europe after the D-Day landings –flitting from man to man with each passing episode. With The Pacific, Hanks and Spielberg were forced to adopt a different tack. “In this case, we couldn’t follow one unit through the entire Pacific War,” says Hanks. “Different men were shipped to and fought on different islands.” Hence they focus on just three men, whose real-life memoirs provided invaluable source material for the writers of the series.

The first episode, while not short on action, unloads the men of First Marine on the shores of Guadalcanal with minimum fuss. “You’ll see that when they land on these islands there was this terrible sense of monotony for the Marines,” says Hanks. “They were often left in terror, waiting for something to happen. You can put across that feeling in a mini-series, which you cannot with a movie where you only have so much time.”

Band of Brothers was instrumental in elevating the status of television as a forum for the kind of serious, big-budget drama that had previously only ever been shown on cinema screens. Its phenomenal DVD sales – somewhere in the region of $200?million – proved the commercial viability of long-form, high-quality television, and opened the door for the likes of Lost, Deadwood, The Wire and Mad Men. “And it looked like a movie as opposed to a TV show,” says Hanks. “At the time, it was viewed to be so prohibitively expensive [it cost $150?million]. But what Band of Brothers did was it showed that there was this willingness among audiences to watch these shows again and again. It showed that TV drama can be a defined work of art. Great television can be something that lives on people’s library shelves, much like classic literature. I hope The Pacific will be great television, too.”

By Will Lawrence

Source : The Telegraph