Blue 'Pacific'

March 13, 2010


"Band of Brothers,” the landmark miniseries about the U.S. Army’s experiences in the Second World War in Europe, is a hard act to follow. By far HBO’s most successful series, “Band” dramatized the heroism of ordinary American soldiers of the Greatest Generation and went on to generate over $200 million, the best-selling TV-on-DVD of all time. You might expect its producers, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, to rest on their laurels.

But they haven’t. After Spielberg’s father, who fought with the 490th Bomb Squadron in the China-Burma-India campaign, urged his son to tell the stories of the soldiers who fought in the Pacific, he and Hanks started working on “The Pacific,” a sprawling, ambitious, and devastating journey through the island battlefields of Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Pavavu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The miniseries serves as a companion piece to “Band of Brothers” and will forever endear its creators to military veterans and their families.

While “Band of Brothers” was based on the famous Stephen Ambrose book of the same name, “The Pacific” gathers material from several books, two of which were written by Marines that appear as pivotal characters in the 10-episode series.

These works helped the executive producers give shape to the narrative. “We tested our theme [for the miniseries] on each other for years before we found the memoirs, then we never stopped measuring how the screenplays, dailies and cut footage reflected that theme,” says Executive Producer Tom Hanks. “We struggled to never let the grander facts overshadow the personal stories of our characters.”

The “Pacific” tells the stories of three real-life Marines: John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge. Bergen Evening Record reporter Leckie (played by James Badge Dale) enlisted in the Marine Corps just after Pearl Harbor and served with the 2nd battalion, 1st Marine Division as a machine gunner; his memoir, “Helmet For My Pillow,” serves as source material.

A heart murmur delayed Sledge’s (Joe Mazzello) enlistment with the Marines, but eventually he did sign up and served as a mortarman with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine division. He went on to about his war experiences, “With the Old Breed” and “China Marine,” that also informed the project.

“Leckie took us from December 1940 through Guadacanal. Then Sledge enters the story and we let him take us through the rest of the war and back home again,” Hanks says. “We all knew the Basilone arc would let us go back and forth across the Pacific, to and from the mainland. So, rather than ‘deciding’ on the narrative, we exec producers enforced what was on the theoretical page.”

The series kicks off with the Marines landing at Guadacanal, the first of “The Pacific”’s battle sequences, which become more gruesome as the war goes on.

“We needed to start the series with a graphic depiction of combat,” Hanks says. “Each of those battles — certainly those that are not depicted in our series, like Tarawa or Saipan, were their own unique manifestations of hell on earth.”

In one scene, Japanese soldiers are forced out of a bunker and one of them is set on fire as he runs for cover. The soldiers, in particular Sledge, become embittered and desperate to wipe out the enemy.

“The Pacific was horrible and the battles filled with terror and death and so it is in our series,” Hanks says.

Sledge’s memoir helped screenwriters (the show has many) define how the war adversely affected the behavior of the Marines. On two occasions, they are seen carving the gold fillings out of the skulls of dead Japanese soldiers.

“It happened all the time,” Hanks says. “Sledge is specific in telling how he had sunk to the level of taking gold teeth from enemy soldiers and was ‘saved’ from doing so by a fellow Marine, who did it all the time.”

Sledge and Leckie gave the screenwriters plenty of background material to create scenes, but they didn’t have to create a hero. The war has one legendary figure who stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Sgt. John Basilone, who had already served three years in the Phillippines with the U.S. Army when he joined the Marines in 1940 as a machine gunner with C Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division, is the only soldier in U.S. history to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. He was awarded the Medal of Honor after he killed 38 Japanese soldiers at Guadalcanal.

In “The Pacific,” Basilone, who shipped home from Melbourne, Australia, the location for most of the $200 million production, to sell war bonds, is played by Jon Seda. The New York-born actor had only played a real person once before in his career — and that was Chris Perez, the husband of Tejana singer Selena, in the 1997 biopic starring Jennifer Lopez.

Once he was cast, Seda, 39, was swept up in Basilone’s rich legacy. His heroism at Guadalcanal was followed by a brief haze of glamour as Basilone toured the country selling war bonds. There was a parade in his honor — it continues to this day — in his hometown of Raritan, NJ. Hollywood starlets, most notably B-movie actress Virginia Grey, draped themselves on his arm as his fame grew. When Basilone was in Los Angeles, he was a guest in the Presidential Suite at the Biltmore hotel.

After selling over a million dollars in war bonds and having his taste of good life, though, Basilone was itching to get back to military life and volunteered to train soldiers at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

“He was feeling guilty that he was able to live that life while his men were still fighting and he demanded to go back,” says Seda. “I asked myself, Would I go back?”

“For me it was kind of hard to portray him,” says Seda. “So many stories make him seem like this superhuman, Rambo-type figure. But I felt from the beginning that I was meant to play him. I felt something inside that connected with me.

“I didn’t know I was getting myself into, both good and bad. Once the reality of what we were doing set in, there were many times when I cried like a baby on my own. I felt the presence of John and these men, on both sides. We were shooting battle scenes and you see the bodies all over. You wonder: How did it hit the people who were in it?”

“The Pacific” was a massive undertaking — 10 months of shooting in Australia at locations such as Port Douglas in Queensland, Drumsara, which was used for the jungles of Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu, as well as soundstages in Melbourne, Victoria.

Seda, who made 9 trips back and forth to Australia to complete his episodes, says the crew trucked in black sand to replicate the beach at Iwo Jima — where John Basilone was killed by Japanese artillery fire on February 19, 1945. He was 28 years old.

Seda’s “Pacific” showcase, episode 8, is one of the series’ finest — and gives the audience a necessary break from the grueling battle scenes.

In it, Basilone meets and marries Sgt. Lena Riggi of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, charmingly played by Annie Parisse, who was on a “Law & Order” a few seasons back.

Lena knows all about the Basilone legend, and tells him she has seen him enter the classic Hollywood restaurant the Brown Derby with one woman on his arm and leave with another.

She pegs him as a spoiled Italian mama’s boy and makes him court her. When Basilone knows he’s going to ship out again, he proposes over French toast served at five in the morning in the Camp Pendleton commissary.

“He unexpectedly found love and got married. It speaks to the love John and Lena had that she never remarried,” Seda says. “Being a Marine herself, she understood his need to fight.”

After the war ends, the Marines return home, with mixed results. Leckie goes back to work the paper and meets his future wife. Back in Mobile, Ala., Sledge tries applies for admission to a local college, only to be asked if he has acquired any skills during the war that could be useful.

“I killed a lot of Japs, and I was very good at it,” he snaps at a clueless clerk.

Lena Basilone goes to New Jersey and presents her husband’s Medal of Honor to the grieving Basilone family. It will be hard to find a more moving moment on television this year.

By Robert Rorke

Source : New York Post