Hanks goes back to the battlefield as producer of 'The Pacific'

March 14, 2010


Introducing a premiere screening of “The Pacific” in New Orleans earlier this month, Tom Hanks hailed Sidney Phillips from the stage.

A Mobile, Ala., physician, Phillips was in the audience that night because he is portrayed in the HBO miniseries that Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Gary Goetzman and approximately 600 others have created as the Pacific theater follow-up to the Europe-set “Band of Brothers.”And Phillips, Hanks said at the premiere event, was how they did it.

“The key was how to enter into the great story of this big, massive map on which there is no relatively recognizable landmark, such as Paris or the English Channel or Berlin,” Hanks said. “In order to tell this story, we needed to find the personal, individual stories to bring us into the tent.”

“The Pacific” is based on two books, “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” by Eugene Sledge and “Helmet for My Pillow” by Robert Leckie — “two memoirs that could not be more different,” Hanks said.

But: “Sledge’s best friend Sid Phillips was in the same Marine unit as Robert Leckie.”With that “curious, almost divine, bit of serendipity,” Hanks and Spielberg had a thread with which to knit the books’ narratives.

Ten episodes. A $200 million budget. An epic story.

All of which hinged on Mobile’s Sid Phillips.

Portrayed by Ashton Holmes (“Smart People”), Phillips is not one of the main characters in the drama — they’re Leckie, Sledge and John Basilone, played by James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda, respectively — but it wouldn’t have come together quite the same way without him.

Dubbed “America’s Historian In Chief” by Time magazine — in a March 6 cover story written by Douglas Brinkley — Hanks spends his movie-star capital on the odd hobby of telling war stories.

For HBO, he’s done it with “Band of Brothers,” “John Adams” and now “The Pacific” — all miniseries. (And, you could argue, the Cold War story “From the Earth to the Moon.”)

For the National World War II Museum, he’s done it (as co-executive producer) with “Beyond All Boundaries,” the multimedia presentation that’s been viewed by more than 80,000 visitors since its November debut.

He first did it — first learned how to describe a nation’s crusade through the likes of a Sid Phillips or John Miller — through Stephen Ambrose.

The University of New Orleans professor and author — and later founder of The National D-Day Museum — was a resource for Hanks while researching his role as the fictional Capt. Miller in “Saving Private Ryan.”

“Stephen Ambrose was not just a historian,” Hanks told the New Orleans “Pacific” premiere crowd. “He was not just a scholar, and he wasn’t just a great storyteller. He was literally a great machine, a magnificent recording of personal story after personal story that went beyond the grand scheme of tactics and maps and history, and brought World War II down to a very, very personal story over and over again through his work.”

It’s reasonable to assume that Ambrose, who died in 2002, would’ve enjoyed the very, very personal war stories told in “The Pacific.” His son, Hugh Ambrose, was a consultant on the project and wrote the companion book.

Planning for “The Pacific” began while “Band of Brothers,” which aired in 2001, was still in production. The first story meeting took place on the set of 2004’s “The Terminal,” directed by Spielberg and starring Hanks.

“We were actually shooting to do something different,” Hanks said in an interview before the New Orleans screening of “The Pacific.”

“ ‘Band of Brothers’ was the way it was because of Stephen Ambrose’s book (“Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest”). He provided us the focus — Easy Company. The guys were elite, all chose to be there, they had proved their worth and they went through everything together. That’s a pretty large group of people, essentially 16 main characters … who follow a specific history.

“This is really three main characters you can follow, therefore you can get more personal than we were able to be in ‘Band of Brothers.’ It doesn’t matter where they are. It doesn’t matter that it’s Guadalcanal. It doesn’t matter if it’s Okinawa. It’s just the guys themselves and what they did.

“In a weird way, by focusing on fewer characters, we were able to expand the scope of what we were trying to do.”

And presumably expand its audience. “Band of Brothers” is irresistible — just try not getting sucked in, again, when you come across a rerun somewhere on cable — but limited in mass appeal by its grime and gore.

The human sprawl of “The Pacific” follows its characters far beyond the battlefield.

“I think that what ‘Band of Brothers’ was able to prove is that this type of story in a 10-part format can be entertaining,” Hanks said. “Here, we wanted to distill everything down to three guys in a tank, two guys at a table, two guys standing on the beach, which happened a lot.

“We wanted it to be more intimate so that we could take it just one step further.”None of which diminishes the horror the characters face in battle. World War II in the Pacific, Hanks said, was about racism and terror. (Also thirst. The quest for drinkable water is endless.) There was visceral, near-inhuman hatred for the enemy on both sides of the lines.

“Both sides were trying to inflict enough terror and death on the other to stop their quest for sovereignty,” he said. “Does that sound familiar to anything that might be going on today? It is."

The Americans’ racial loathing of the Japanese had to be accurately portrayed, Hanks said, difficult as it may be to watch today.

“You cannot do this without a very painful and relentless authenticity,” he said. “You can’t decide to somehow politely avoid it, any more than we could not show guys really smoking cigarettes.”

As much as Hanks and his collaborators have done for armchair history buffs with their work for HBO, he’s done just as much for visitors to New Orleans’ National World War II Museum.

“It’s huge,” said Nick Mueller, the museum’s president, of Hanks’ devotion to the institution. “It’s indescribable.”

In addition to his work on “Beyond All Boundaries,” Hanks is a tireless fundraiser and advocate for the museum. (Which will include a session on the making of “The Pacific” in its International Conference on World War II, scheduled for March 18 to 20, though Hanks isn’t scheduled to attend.)

That one of several premiere events held around the country for “The Pacific” was held in New Orleans (a reception with cast members at the museum followed the screening) was another example of Hanks’ constancy.

“You’ve always got to remember that Tom Hanks is not doing this for money,” Mueller said. “He’s doing this because he believes in the mission of the museum.

“He loves America, loves America’s history and celebrates its values in his own work and creative effort. To have a very small piece of his time and effort in assisting with the museum has just been extraordinary.”

Sid Phillips has only seen the one episode of “The Pacific” screened at the New Orleans premiere. Still, he gives the project a thumbs-up.

“I liked it,” he said. “War movies are never accurate to veterans, but I think this is maybe the best one I’ve seen so far. They get the equipment right. They got the scenery right. It was good.”

Question: Given the subject matter and your personal role in the events it depicts, was “The Pacific” hard to watch?

Answer: “Not a bit. I know it’s Hollywood.”

By Dave Walker

Source : NOLA