Hanks and Spielberg: Masters of war

March 18, 2010

They've helped define the Greatest Generation for the current generation. Their latest effort: HBO's epic "The Pacific."

For an entire generation, the most indelible memory of World War II may be a mortally wounded captain, grabbing a rescued soldier by the lapels and urging him to "earn this." Or it may be a bored, bare-chested Nazi shooting a Jewish prisoner from his window, simply for sport. Perhaps it's the voice of a small-town Minnesota newspaper editor paying tribute to the hometown heroes laying down their lives an ocean away.

These are freeze-frame moments from "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List" and "The War," three of nearly 20 projects illuminating the spirit, sacrifice and shock of World War II by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Oscar-winning filmmakers who have dedicated much of their clout and talent to this special mission.

Their campaign continues Sunday with the premiere episode of "The Pacific," a $250 million, 10-part television epic that focuses on three Marines fighting the Japanese on various fronts near the end of the war. It's a tour de force that's both touching and harrowing, proof that the powerful duo has not lost its passion for the subject.

"It just so happens that we have examined this great, great, rich period of our history time and time again," said Hanks, who shares executive-producing duties with Spielberg and Gary Goetzman. "We do it, I think, because we keep seeing ourselves and the current human condition reflected back in us from these stories."

Fresh assault on sacred ground
For decades, most filmmakers seemed to regard World War II as sacred ground. In such best-picture winners as "Casablanca," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "From Here to Eternity," "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" and "Patton," the battlefield was kept in the background, as if exposing real combat would be an act of disrespect. Those who wanted to show the ugly side of war had Vietnam.

That reverential attitude was shattered the moment Hanks and company splashed and stormed onto the beaches of Normandy. The first 20 minutes of 1998's "Saving Private Ryan" -- an ugly, dizzying, bloody, sloppy, chilling sequence -- set a new standard for how battles could be shot.

Inspired by the photographs of war correspondent Robert Capa, Spielberg sensed that he was re-creating the template.

"I wanted to show that kind of terror and chaos without making a movie that looked elegant and beautiful and in living color, like war movies had been made in the past," said Spielberg, who won his second best-director Oscar for the film. "I was simply trying to validate all of this testimony, if you can call it that, that had been communicated to us based on the young men that lived and survived that battle." Spielberg has also had the counsel of Dale Dye, a Vietnam War veteran who has become Hollywood's go-to guy for war films ranging from "Platoon" to the upcoming remake of "All Quiet on the Western Front." Dye confirms that his projects with Spielberg and Hanks are extra special because the duo lets him push actors to the edge during pre-filming training exercises.

For "The Pacific," he broke down normally pampered actors through a 10-day retreat in the Australia bush, putting them through sleepless nights in foxholes, early-morning raids and 5-mile runs with 50 pounds of food and water on their backs.

Dye believes it's important that filmmakers not sugarcoat the World War II experience, especially at a time when he believes younger people are not as interested in reading about American history.

"What's really important is that war, specifically combat, is a situation in which you see the full gamut of human emotion and all shades in between," said Dye, who remained on set throughout the eight months of shooting. "If you blink, if you pull back, if you ignore the brutality, you're not teaching the appropriate thing."

"The Pacific" is packed with eye-popping, heart-stopping moments, not the least of which is a battle on Peleliu that's every bit as dramatic as the "Ryan" montage. There's a strong chance you'll have a hard time sleeping after you see the sequence in which a Marine casually tosses pebbles into the open scalp of a dead Japanese soldier, almost as if he were throwing basketballs into a hoop.

A different kind of war
But Hanks and Spielberg don't rely entirely on a shock-and-awe strategy. They are equally interested in the emotional impact of war and peace.

In "The Pacific," all of the three featured Marines -- each is based on a real person -- are battling inner demons, too. John Basilone must come to grips with his hero status that earns him a posh, rock-star life in the States, even as his buddies march on. Robert Leckie, a budding journalist, starts to lose his mind after weeks in the jungle. Eugene Sledge, the likable, thoughtful son of a well-to-do family, finds himself erupting with racist and violent outbursts.

Jon Seda, who plays Basilone, said the actors found themselves trying to do right by their characters, as well as their bosses.

"They poured everything into getting this done," he said, referring to Hanks and Spielberg. "We want to make sure we made them proud."

Neither Spielberg nor Hanks directed any of the episodes, but they've overseen every detail since they started working on the project while shooting "The Terminal."

"The Pacific" is perhaps the least commercial but most compelling of the duo's three World War II collaborations. Unlike "Ryan" and "Band of Brothers," it takes place on nearly anonymous islands that were overshadowed by the more romantic, more reported events on the European front.

"The war in the Pacific was more like the wars we've seen ever since, a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors," Hanks said. "The challenges that we put forward to ourselves at the beginning of all this was to take human beings and put them through hell, and wonder how in the world they would approach the world when they come back."

As for future war efforts, Hanks and Spielberg haven't announced any plans, but one of their collaborators believes this is no time to stop. Dye said he's been bugging Hanks about going back to HBO in a year and getting the channel to sign on for a 10-hour miniseries about the Korean War, to be followed by similar projects about Vietnam and Iraq.

"I think we need to understand the importance of this thing they've hit on," he said.

By Neal Justin

Source : Star Tribune