PASADENA, Calif. – Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have gone to war together before: On the 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan" and on HBO's 2001 World War II miniseries "Band of Brothers."
After "Brothers," mail poured in from soldiers who recognized in the miniseries their own experiences in Europe and also from veterans of Pacific battles who wished that backdrop had also been included.
Now it is, in HBO's "The Pacific", a 10-part miniseries that tracks three U.S. Marines through the conflict in a part of the world filled with vivid colors that contrast with the desaturated look found in "Band of Brothers."
To the producers, the setting was almost incidental.
"What moved us to tell these stories based on these veterans was to see what happens to the human soul throughout his particular engagement," Spielberg said at a January press conference. "These islands were steppingstones to the mainland of Japan. We weren't trained by the drill instructors stateside except what they could glean from recent history. We were trained by the enemy how to fight the enemy. They trained us how to fight like them.
"I don't want to compare one (theater of) war to the other in terms of savagery," Spielberg continued, "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 for the actors and for the writers and for all of us to put on the screen. But we felt we had to try."
"The Pacific" was six years in the making, with 10 months devoted to filming in Australia. Unlike "Band of Brothers," which was based on Stephen Ambrose's book of the same name, "The Pacific" was inspired by several books about or written by the three Marines who would become the characters at the heart of the miniseries: Journalist Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), symbol-of-the-war-effort John Basilone (Jon Seda) and sensitive but desperate-to-fight Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello).
At first, Sledge cannot go to war because of a bad heart, diagnosed by his patrician doctor-father who explains his fears to his son based on his own experience treating soldiers after World War I.
"(It) wasn't that they'd had their flesh torn," he says. "It was that they had their souls torn out. I don't want to look in your eyes someday and see no spark, no love, no life. That would be heartbreaking."
For Hanks, "The Pacific" represents an opportunity to examine aspects of the human condition perquisites of fate and serendipity alongside the great genius behind long-term planning and masterminding.
"What is much more key is how to take the stories of these young men ... and put them in a story in which we can recognize ourselves somehow," he said. "We haven't done a very great job, if you look at this only as a museum piece, for the way that people acted and thought back then. We've done a much better job if, when you see it, you'll ask yourself, 'I don't know what I would have done in that same circumstance. I recognize that fear in that person's face. I can see how there's correlations between the choices that those 17-year-olds made then and what 17-year-olds are making today in regards to what they do with the rest of their lives.' "
"It just so happens that we have examined this great, great canvas of World War II, this great, great, rich period of our history time and time again," Hanks said, "but we do it because we keep seeing ourselves and the current human condition reflected back in us from those stories."
Fans of World War II storytelling may recognize Sledge's best friend, Sid Phillips (Ashton Holmes). The real Dr. Phillips appears in historical vignettes that precede episodes of "The Pacific," and he previously appeared in the Ken Burns PBS documentary "The War."
Holmes said he asked Phillips about the American view of war today versus in the 1940s and why someone like Eugene Sledge would be eager to get in the fight.
"What he told me helped illustrate the culture in the late '30s and '40s when there was a definitive enemy and a purpose behind going," Holmes said. "I think nowadays it's gotten muddied because the enemy is like a mixture of bad people in a sea of good people. Then we were fighting a very definitive opponent."
Spielberg said when creating battle scenes in projects such as those he has been involved with it's important to be mindful that the experience of those at war is not to look at what they go through as a geopolitical endeavor.
"You look at war as something that is putting your best friend in jeopardy," he said.
From those experiences, heroes emerge not out of a conscious desire to be heroic, Hanks said, but from a willingness to step up.
"Heroism does not come after the fact," he said. "It becomes in the present moment. I think any person who says, 'I'll do it,' is a hero and what happens after that is sort of what goes into whether or not they are remembered and celebrated or forgotten. But just saying, 'If it's got to be done, I'll do it,' well, there you have your definition of a hero."
(Contact Rob Owen at rowen(at)post-gazette.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)