No Enchanted Evenings in This Pacific Warfare

March 05, 2010


Midway through the first hour of “Band of Brothers,” HBO’s 2001 mini-series about a company of paratroopers during and after D-Day, there’s a scene on a troop ship that’s jampacked with new recruits on their way to hard fighting in the European theater. “Right now some lucky bastard’s headed for the South Pacific,” one soldier says to another, envious. “He’s going to get billeted on some tropical island sitting under a palm tree with six naked native girls helping him cut up coconuts so he can hand-feed them to the flamingos.”

Now comes “The Pacific,” an HBO mini-series by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the rest of the “Band of Brothers” crew that spends 10 grueling hours and almost $200 million showing just how inaccurate that newbie’s idyllic image was. The series, in one-hour episodes that begin next Sunday, follows three real-life Marines from Pearl Harbor to homecoming after V-J Day. There are no naked native girls or flamingos. Instead there are bloody battles against well-fortified enemies on small islands. There are heroic deaths and random ones; unrelenting rainstorms, tropical diseases, nervous breakdowns.

Mr. Spielberg, who was born in 1946, said the seed that became “The Pacific” was planted in his childhood, when he was confused by the disparity between the formulaic war films he would watch — central hero, romance, defining battlefield moment — and the stories he would hear from his father and an uncle, who both served in the Pacific.

“My uncle and my dad were telling me how hellacious the war was, and it just wasn’t jibing with what was coming out of Hollywood,” Mr. Spielberg said. Missing were the grind and harshness that the ground troops on the islands experienced — the malaria, hunger, extreme heat, sense of isolation — elements generally not captured by the films focused on Pearl Harbor, Midway and the Pacific’s other great battles.

After “Band of Brothers” came out — the series won six Emmy Awards — the mail told him he had to address this nagging incongruity. “All the letters that came from the veterans of the Pacific theater of operations were, ‘When are you going to tell our story?’ ” Mr. Spielberg said.

That story was of a war that many Americans could not fully visualize, then and now. The pivotal moments of the European war featured locales people had heard of and been to — the bombing of London, the liberation of Paris, and so on — and there was a central villain, Hitler, who was known to all. But the troops sent to try to stop the Japanese from taking over the South Pacific were, for the most part, going to obscure islands.

How obscure? Before 1940 Guadalcanal, site of the first major Allied initiative, had been mentioned by name in The New York Times only about a half-dozen times; several of those were from the 1890s and involved “Baron Henry Foullon von Norbeck, the Austrian scientist and explorer, who with several members of the party he was leading was killed and devoured last summer by the inhabitants of Guadalcanal.”

Even Mr. Hanks, a serious history buff, confessed that he knew nothing about Peleliu before beginning work on “The Pacific.” The battle for that island in the fall of 1944, which is the focus of Parts 6 and 7 of the mini-series, left more than 1,600 Americans dead and thousands more wounded.

If the Pacific war didn’t take hold in the popular imagination and Hollywood quite as firmly as the European one did, the roots may extend back to the coverage of combat in the two theaters. There were reporters in the Pacific, but certainly nothing like the 558 accredited print and radio correspondents covering the Normandy landings. Re-creating the sprawling, grueling story of the Pacific war was a matter of considerable research and synthesis. The process began shortly after the debut of “Band of Brothers” (like this series, a production of HBO, Mr. Spielberg’s DreamWorks and the production company of Mr. Hanks and Gary Goetzman, Playtone). The historian Stephen E. Ambrose, whose 1992 book had been the basis for that mini-series, had already been interviewing Pacific war veterans, collecting their stories.

“I suggested to Stephen that I’d be happy to pony up some cash and replace that tape recorder with a video camera,” Mr. Spielberg said, and the result was a substantial archive of firsthand accounts. (Hugh Ambrose became a historical consultant to the series after his father died in 2002.) The job of distilling that into a coherent narrative fell to a team of writers like Bruce C. McKenna.

“All of us knew we had to do the whole war,” Mr. McKenna said; this would not be a simple story of a single battle. Eventually the decision was made to focus on three members of the First Marine Division: Eugene B. Sledge and Robert Leckie, both privates, and Sgt. John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal. Mr. Leckie and Mr. Sledge, who both died in 2001, wrote memoirs that became cornerstones for the series; Sergeant Basilone’s story was well documented in the news media at the time.

“We love the truth,” said Mr. Goetzman, who with Mr. Hanks also had success with the mini-series “John Adams,” another slice of history. “We think that’s where the best stories come from. You just can’t make up things that are any more exciting or any more compelling than what’s actually happened in this world.”

Combining the three men’s stories allowed Mr. McKenna and the other writers to take full advantage of the mini-series format, exploring their characters in a way that a standard two-hour war movie doesn’t allow. “What war movie have you ever seen where the main character was in a mental institute for half an episode?” Mr. McKenna said, a fate that befalls the Leckie figure. “And yet that’s a big part of war.” The physical and mental toll that the Pacific war took on the men who fought it is the mini-series’s defining feature.

“If ‘Band of Brothers’ was an examination of what we thought the Greatest Generation went through as a group, then this was more an examination of the personal cost to the individual,” said Tony To, who served as a co-executive producer on “The Pacific” and directed Part 6. Incongruously, that meant creating an even more expansive canvas than in “Band of Brothers,” in terms of both time and geography, to show the accumulation of pressures physical and psychological. (The writers used Sergeant Basilone’s return to the United States to sell war bonds as a way to break up the relentlessness of the battles.) It also meant few shortcuts.

For instance, Mr. To said, 500 coconut trees were brought to Australia, where the bulk of the filming was done, to create a particular setting; a less-conscientious production might have shot the actors in front of a blue screen and added the trees later. “We wanted the environment they were acting in to be as close as it could be to the actual experience,” Mr. To said, “so that they weren’t acting the experience, but actually experiencing it.”

Hawaii, Mr. To said, had been among the places in contention for the filming, but impediments like sacred burial grounds on the beaches there ultimately led the producers to select Australia instead. “We knew that whatever landscape we needed we would have to control completely,” he said, “because we were blowing it up,” not just once, but repeatedly: each island battleground had its own look (the black sand of Iwo Jima being particularly famous), so each required the beach on Australia’s northeast coast where the crew was working to get a makeover.

All these efforts represent an attempt to bring the starkness and psychological depth of the best Vietnam movies — “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon” — to the treatment of World War II. Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hanks — one as director, the other as star — had already made strides in that direction in 1998 with “Saving Private Ryan,” whose unflinching depiction of the D-Day landing startled audiences. And where an earlier brand of ensemble World War II films — “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape” — were often star heavy, both “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” used actors with relatively low profiles.

Those actors — Joe Mazzello as Sledge, James Badge Dale as Leckie and Jon Seda as Basilone — knew early on that much would be asked of them.

They were sent to a simulated boot camp that entailed nine days of drilling and such, overseen by Capt. Dale Dye, a retired Marine. “We went into it thinking: ‘We’re actors. What can they really do?’ ” Mr. Mazzello said. “Well, we found out.”

Mr. Mazzello, a rather slender 24-year-old when the filming was taking place, said he lost 12 pounds during camp. (Though he also learned a lot: “You could show me a mortar from 1943. and I could still fire it.” The filming itself was no picnic either.

The battle scenes are, of course, filled with gunfire and explosions of all sorts, and there were no stunt doubles. But, Mr. To said, “we never asked our actors to do anything we wouldn’t do.” He recalled a scene in Episode 6 in which an explosion blows a soldier backward into a tree. To demonstrate the safety of the shot, Mr. To, the director of that episode, climbed into the harness and took the jolting ride.

All three lead actors spoke of developing an appreciation bordering on reverence for the men they were portraying. “We all felt a heavy responsibility in just needing to get it right,” Mr. Seda said. “We’re basically becoming the voices for all these men who never were able to truly express to their loved ones what they went through, and that’s a huge responsibility.”

One of those men, R. V. Burgin, 87, who fought in battles including New Britain, Peleliu (“by far the worst”) and Okinawa, had what is surely a veteran’s highest praise for the parts of the mini-series he had seen: “It puts you right in the foxhole with them,” he said. Mr. Burgin, who describes his war experiences in a new book, “Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific” (New American Library Caliber), recalled a request he made to Hugh Ambrose when he was interviewed for the series in 2004: “I told him, ‘Will you do me and all the rest of the guys out there who fought in that war a favor?’ And he said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘Leave the damn fiction out of it.’ ” The real stories of valor and loss, Mr. Burgin said, provide more than enough fuel for any mini-series.

There are, of course, innumerable stories out there still waiting to be told. Is Mr. Spielberg prepared for a new batch of mail after “The Pacific” is shown, from pilots, corpsmen, intelligence experts, Rosie the Riveters?

“All I can say is, please bring on the letters, because your first batch of letters led to this series,” he said.

By Neil Genzingler

Source : New York Times