‘A war of racism and terror’

March 12, 2010

Every few years, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg play war.

First, they revisited the Second World War in the 1998 feature Saving Private Ryan, which earned Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar and Hanks another Best Actor nomination. Three years later, they went back to the trenches of Europe to co-produce the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Now, the Hollywood A-listers return to the same era in The Pacific (Sunday, HBO Canada at 9 p.m.) – but to a very different battlefield.

War is still hell, but this time it's slightly more hellish.

“There's never been any comparison between the wars in Europe and the Pacific,” said Hanks at the recent TV critics tour in California. “In Europe, an enemy soldier could throw up his hands and his war would be over. 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, both on the battlefield and in the regular living conditions. It was intense.”

Intense, and underrepresented. We’ve all seen the fighting in Europe played out as television fodder: Nazis were invariably the bad guys of choice in sixties series such as Combat!, Garrison’s Gorillas and Twelve O’Clock High, and in eighties miniseries such as The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

But that was modest and largely unimaginative viewing, sometimes bordering on the woefully cheap (Twelve O’Clock High was famous for using the same grainy aerial dogfight footage over and over). The Pacific sets a new standard for epic television. With an estimated budget of $200-million, it's far and away the most expensive project in HBO history – or TV history, for that matter.

And this time the money is on the horrors of another theatre of war. As with Private Ryan and Brothers, Hanks and Spielberg went for realism in The Pacific. The use of computer-generated imagery was kept to a minimum and there is literally a cast of thousands on screen during the 10 episodes.

Filmed in Australia over a two-year period, the series was already on Spielberg's radar while he was making Band of Brothers a decade back.

“It was always our plan to tell the entire World War II story,” said Spielberg. “After Brothers, we got so many letters from veterans of the Pacific Theatre of operations asking us if we could acquit their stories the way we acquitted the stories of the European theatre of operations. … These are those stories.”

Once again, the stories came from true-life accounts. Whereas Brothers adapted historian Stephen Ambrose's factual saga of a single paratrooper unit, The Pacific merges the accounts of ex-Marines Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and Chuck Tatum, who each penned books about their wartime experiences.

“The source material for this story was extremely powerful,” said Hanks. “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.”

Leckie and Sledge show up as two of The Pacific's main characters (portrayed by James Badge Dale and Joe Mazello). The third principal in the series, John Basilone (Jon Seda), is based on the Marine who won the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Steeped in period detail, the series starts in the immediate aftermath following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. declaration of war spurs thousands of young Americans to enlist, including Leckie, a budding journalist caught up in the patriotic fervour.

“Leckie was like all the other young men who signed up at the time,” said Dale, best known for a season-long run on 24. “His personal attitudes about war and violence were probably secondary; for most of them, it was simply what they were supposed to do.”

In the same episode, the character of Sledge tries repeatedly to enlist, but is turned down because of a heart murmur. While most of his friends and relatives are shipping off to war, he's left behind to keep the home fires burning.

“His level of frustration at the outset of the war must have been incredible,” said Mazzello. “Not being able to join the fight was probably the worst thing that could happen to a young man in those days. My own grandfather served in the Pacific, and it changed his life.”

By the second episode, the war in the Pacific has accelerated, along with the storyline following Basilone, who arrives with the Marines on Guadalcanal to reinforce U.S. troops defending the crucial airstrip. The Battle of Guadalcanal rages for five months, and in the end Basilone emerges as a true American hero – the only enlisted Marine in the Second World War to receive both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.

“Basilone grew up in New Jersey and so did I, so that put extra pressure on me to get him right,” said Seda, a former regular on Homicide: Life on the Street. “He was one of the first heroes of the battle in the Pacific, and people regard him as a legend. The challenge was finding his human side.”

The series continues to track both the human and the heroic, following the action through the harrowing, “haunted” jungles of the Philippines, into the dense rain forests of Cape Gloucester, through the sands of Iwo Jima and the merciless killing fields of Okinawa. On-screen maps show the Marines' progress over years of battle. The visuals are startlingly crisp, and vastly different from those seen in Band of Brothers.

“There was a strong de-saturated look to Brothers,'“ said Spielberg. “Here, they're fighting in blue skies, in hot, dry, humid conditions. There are more vivid colours in Pacific because that's the way it was.”

The way it was may make some viewers squirm. The fight scenes in The Pacific are graphic and intensely violent. And beyond the barbarism inflicted by soldiers on one another, there are scenes seemingly designed to shock – most notably those depicting Japan’s use of civilians as unwilling suicide bombers. In one horrific moment, a woman is blown up with a body bomb while holding her infant child.

“The level of savagery in The Pacific is more intense than it was in Band of Brothers,” Spielberg admitted. “But anything less would have been met with scorn by the veterans who fought in it. … That's war. That's what happens.”

By Andrew Ryan

Source : The Globe and Mail