At war with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg

March 14, 2010


War. What is it good for? For Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, a battalion of Oscars and countless other honours for their 1998 World War II drama, Saving Private Ryan, and a like number of Emmys and other awards for their 2001 miniseries, Band of Brothers.

And now they're back to fight another day, with another 10-episode HBO mini, The Pacific, debuting here on HBO Canada on Sunday night at 9.

Same war, different battle. The Pacific goes back to the first American offensive at Guadalcanal, and then on through the bloody initial encounters that followed.

"Quite frankly," Hanks acknowledged at the mid-season media tour, "it doesn't bend to the more, I want to say, `graceful' narrative that they can approach the war in Europe with. The war in Europe liberated Paris. They landed at Normandy, and eventually you crossed the Rhine into the fatherland, and Berlin fell.

"The war in the Pacific does not fall into that brand of territorial narrative. You tell me what's important about Peleliu. Well, we establish what's important about Peleliu, Guadalcanal, Okinawa ... little tiny spots. A hundred miles from where Saving Private Ryan took place, more or less, is the Eiffel Tower. A hundred miles from Peleliu is an empty spot of ocean in the middle of the Pacific.

"It doesn't fall into the same cognizant recognizability that the war in Europe does."

As such, it required a little more intensive research. Band of Brothers was based almost exclusively on the like-titled "oral history" written by Stephen Ambrose. Pacific, on the other hand, is based on the intersecting individual stories of three real-life Marines.

"Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed," Hanks says, "is considered perhaps as great a combat memoir as has ever been produced. It is very personal and it is very much written with his voice and with his perspective on life.

Robert Leckie's combat memoir, Helmet on My Pillow, is really more like 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 public record."

They also had the benefit of the first-person perspective of surviving veteran Dr. Sidney Phillips. "Robert Leckie was in my company," the old soldier says.

"Eugene Sledge was my life-long, close friend. I went to grade school and high school with him."

According to Hanks, "the challenges that we put forward to ourself at the beginning of all of this was to take human beings and put them through hell and wonder how in the world they would approach the world when they came back."

The vastly different tone of the Pacific conflicts – Hanks argues the inhumanity (racism and various degradations) was greater than in the European theatre – required a markedly different visual approach.

"Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg says, "(was) informed by the very few surviving photographs of the great war correspondent, Robert Capa. And I combined those photographs to try to find a 24-frame-per-second equivalent about how I can show that kind of terror and that kind of chaos without making a movie that looked elegant and beautiful and in full living colour, very much like war movies had been made in the past.

"It wasn't that I was trying to break the mould of the old war movie approach, visually, but I was simply trying to, I guess, 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. It was ... what I thought was right for that particular story."

They took the same visual approach, even one step further, on Band of Brothers, shooting the battle scenes in particular with a bleak, muted palette.

"There is a very strong desaturated quality about Band of Brothers," Spielberg says. "(But not) in The Pacific, because it was blue skies – they weren't fighting in overcast weather.

Sometimes monsoons would come in and it was terribly rainy and muddy and you couldn't see the 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, I think, in The Pacific than we ever had in Band of Brothers, because that was the way it was, when you read the books and talk to the survivors of those campaigns.

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

By Rob Salem

Source : The Star