Spielberg & Hanks present miniseries chronicling US Marines

March 10, 2010


ASADENA, Calif. — They were specks on a map with obscure, forgettable names like Peleliu, Pavuvu and Cape Gloucester, but they were the sites of some of the bloodiest, most bitter battles of the Second World War. And when Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and producer Gary Goetzman got together to mount The Pacific, their epic, 10-part miniseries followup to the Emmy Award-winning Band of Brothers, they felt the heavy burden of responsibility to the memory of those who fought and died on the sands of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and all the empty spaces in-between.

The Pacific follows the intertwined life stories of three real-life U.S. Marines, journalist Robert Leckie, Marine Sgt. John Basilone and Private First Class Eugene Sledge, who were there and experienced first-hand the night sweats and jungle terrors of combat.

Actors play their real-life counterparts. James Badge Dale plays the budding journalist Leckie; Jon Seda plays the working-class hero of Guadalcanal; and Joe Mazzello plays the naive scion of a wealthy Alabama family who is tested to the limits of his endurance in combat. It was important to Hanks and Spielberg that The Pacific look and feel realistic and in-the-moment.

"I don't want to compare one war in Europe against the other in the Pacific, in terms of savagery," Spielberg said, "but there's a whole other level when nature and humanity conspire against the individual. To see what happens to these individuals throughout the entire course of events in the Pacific, leading up to the dropping of the two atomic bombs, is something that I think was very, very hard for the actors and writers and all of us to put on the screen. But we felt we had to try."

Segments of The Pacific were directed by David Nutter and Canadians Graham Yost and Jeremy Podeswa. Podeswa directed and co-directed three of The Pacific's 10 instalments, including the finale, which will air on May 16.

Unlike the war in Europe, day-to-day details of the war in the Pacific remain largely unknown in the collective mind of the public at large, despite film epics such as Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Spielberg's own Empire of the Sun and Ken Burns' trenchant, powerful documentary series, The War.

Dr. Sidney Phillips, one of the combat veterans who provided witness testimony for Burns' The War, would later become one of Hanks's and Spielberg's closest confidants, advisers and sounding boards for The Pacific. It was important to Hanks that the voice and tone ring true.

The Pacific is not just Band of Brothers set in the tropical terrain of the South Seas instead of the winter snows of Western Europe, Hanks insists. The only common link between the two is that they are both set during the Second World War, from 1941 to '45.

"Quite frankly, the Pacific war doesn't bend to the more, I want to say, graceful narrative that one can approach the war in Europe with," Hanks said. "The war in Europe liberated Paris. They landed at Normandy, and eventually they crossed the Rhine, and Berlin fell. A hundred miles, more or less, from where Saving Private Ryan took place is the Eiffel Tower. A hundred miles from Peleliu is an empty spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

"The war in the Pacific doesn't follow that tidy territorial narrative. You tell me what's important about Peleliu. Well, we establish what's important about what's going on in these tiny spots.

"The war in Europe was a war with maps with territorial lines drawn on them, and armistices to be honoured. The European war was the last war of its kind, by and large, in which great armies fought and decided when they began and when they ended. In Europe, an enemy soldier could throw up his hands; his war would be over. The war in the Pacific was more like the wars we've seen since. It was a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors, both on the battlefield and in the living conditions the soldiers endured.

"What we wanted to do, at the beginning of all this, was to show what happens when you take human beings and put them through hell, then wonder how in the world they will approach life when they come home."

Band of Brothers and The Pacific tapped different source material for their different, yet similar, tales of men, and women, under pressure.

"For Band of Brothers, we had Stephen Ambrose's magnificent oral history, almost a piece of scholarship, in his book Band of Brothers," Hanks said. "We culled three different, separate stories for The Pacific. Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed is considered perhaps as great a combat memoir as has ever been produced. It is very personal and is very much written with his voice and his perspective of life. Robert Leckie's combat memoir, Helmet On My Pillow, is really more a prose poem about what it means to be young and alive and involved in a quite hideous adventure. The story of John Basilone is more-or-less taken from the public record."

Band of Brothers employed a lot of the jittery, hand-held camera and grainy film-stock look that Spielberg pioneered in Saving Private Ryan — "I had a sense that I was establishing a visual template based on the experiences communicated to me by the veterans who fought that morning on Omaha Beach," Spielberg explained — but The Pacific demanded a different look.

Spielberg was mindful, though, that The Pacific not fall into the Hollywood cliche of a South Seas paradise, "a movie that looks elegant and beautiful and in full living colour."

The Pacific's look walks the narrow margin between the allure of the tropics — turquoise lagoons and black-sand beaches — and the horrors of war.

"There was a very strong desaturated quality about Band of Brothers, but The Pacific is more about blue skies," Spielberg said. "They weren't fighting in overcast weather. Sometimes monsoons would come in and would be terribly muddy and rainy and you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, but it was a blue-sky war. It was a hot, dry, humid, blue-sky war. So there are more vivid colours in The Pacific than we ever had in Band of Brothers, because that's the way it was, when you read the books and talk to the survivors of those campaigns."

It was important, too, that The Pacific not be an essay on the nature of heroism, or a rallying cry in a time of war.

"I don't think anybody in any war thinks of themselves as a hero," Spielberg said quietly. "I think the minute anybody presumes they are heroes, they get their boots taken away from them and are buried in the sand.

"This is coming from a director who's never been in a combat situation, but in the re-creation of the combat experience, you're always mindful of what these veterans have gone through. You find that the biggest concern is that you don't look at war as a geopolitical endeavour. You look at war as something that is putting your best friend in jeopardy. You are responsible for the person in front of you and the person behind you and the person to the left of you and the person to the right of you. These are all the small parts that may inadvertently create a hero, but that is someone else's observation."

The Pacific is set in a particular time and place, but that doesn't make it like other films about the Second World War, Hanks believes.

"I don't look at World War II or any war story and see it as a specific, finite, open-and-closed story. It's constantly fascinating to examine an aspect of the human condition. You see the best of humankind in war; you see the worst of humankind in war. You see fate and serendipity, at the same time you see the genius behind long-term planning and masterminding. You see great moments of faith and you see great moments of despair."

The Pacific sticks close to the historical record, but there's more to this story than a dry recitation of dates and facts.

"We haven't done a very good job, really, if you only look at this as a museum piece," Hanks said. "I think we'll have done a much better job if, after you've seen it, you ask yourself, 'I don't know what I would have done in that circumstance. I recognize that fear in that person's face. I can see the correlation between the choices those 17-year-olds make and the choice 17-year-olds are making today, with regards to what they do with the rest of their lives.'

"That's the reason, I think, we tell every story. It just so happens we have the canvas of World War II, this rich period in our history, to tell this particular story. We keep telling these stories, I think, because we keep seeing ourselves and the current human condition reflected back at us."

By Alex Strachan

Source : The Vancouver Sun