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October 8, 2015

'The Pacific' on HBO: Previewing the WWII Miniseries From the 'Band of Brothers' Team

by Gary Susman, posted Mar 11th 2010 5:00PM
Historians like to say that each new war usually finds its generals trying to re-fight the previous war. So it is with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who are ready to fight World War II one more time in 'The Pacific,' a 10-hour miniseries debuting March 14 on HBO.

The team that brought you 'Saving Private Ryan' on the big screen in 1998 and miniseries 'Band of Brothers' to HBO in 2001 has returned with a lavish, detailed, docudrama companion piece to 'Brothers' that promises to do for the fight against Japan what 'Ryan' and 'Brothers' did for the war in Europe: make it come alive for those of us too young to remember.

And they've spared no expense in doing so. According to the Hollywood Reporter, costs for 'The Pacific' have been estimated as high as $200 million, making it the most expensive single event in TV history. Then again, it costs a lot of money to manufacture 3,000 uniforms on 1940s-vintage sewing machines so that they'll have the right texture, or to paint 80 tons of white sand black to replicate the volcanic beachscape of Iwo Jima. That's the level of detail and authenticity the filmmakers were going for in trying to restage the Pacific war.

Read on for more of what to expect from Hanks and Spielberg's latest historical epic.

Trailer for 'The Pacific'

After 'Band of Brothers,' Spielberg and Hanks heard from veterans of the Pacific war, asking if they could tell the story of the campaign against Japan as well. "We all felt, I think, after 'Band of Brothers' that we had covered Part A of World War II: Version 1.0, and there was still Version 2.0 out there," Hanks said, according to the production notes. "It was Steven Spielberg who, at one point, asked, 'Is there any way we could do the Pacific?' And we had to ask ourselves, 'Whatʼs the story?' because we didn't want to make up things or redo things that had been done before."

Hanks and Spielberg discovered the memoirs of Marine veteran Eugene B. Sledge, 'With the Old Breed' and 'China Marine.' That led them to other memoirs, including Robert Leckie's 'Helmet for My Pillow' and Chuck Tatum's 'Red Blood, Black Sand.' These became the basis for 'The Pacific.'

Like 'Band of Brothers,' 'The Pacific' tells the story of the war from the perspective of a tight-knit group of fighters involved in some of the pivotal battles of the war, with each episode prefaced by a short lesson. (Here, the lessons focus on the geography of the Pacific island-hopping campaign, as it moved westward from one obscure island to another toward Japan over three and a half grueling years.) As in the earlier series, it's not about star-power; the narrative centers on three members of the Marine 1st Division, all played by relatively unknown actors:

Pfc. Robert Leckie was a New Jersey sportswriter as a teen. He enlisted in the Corps after Pearl Harbor and served as a machine gunner. He's played by James Badge Dale, best known as Chase Edmunds on '24.'

Pfc. Eugene B. Sledge was a privileged son of Mobile, Ala. who wanted to enlist after Pearl Harbor but was kept out of the war by a heart condition until December 1942. He served as a mortarman. He is played by Joe Mazzello, best remembered as the boy from Spielberg's 'Jurassic Park.'

Sgt. John Basilone had served in the U.S. Army in the 1930s in the Philippines, where he became a champion boxer. After returning home to New Jersey, he enlisted in the Marines and served as a machine gunner. Decorated for his WWII service, he spent much of the war back in the States leading war bond drives. He is played by Jon Seda ('Ghost Whisperer').

The miniseries traces the three men's enlistment and follows their involvement in such key battles as Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. It also follows the difficult transition the men faced when they returned to stateside life.

'The Pacific' makes a point of showing how different the war against Japan was from the war against Germany, in terms of the way servicemen experienced it. "I think the audience will see the malaise of being in an environment so foreign to anything the soldiers had ever before experienced," Spielberg said, according to the production notes. "More than the fighting, more than the loss, it was the conditions that these young men were under – the boredom, the tedium, the relentless rain, the mud, the biting insects, the malaria. You know, unlike the Dutch and the French countrysides of the war in Europe, the jungle has no face – itʼs a ubiquitous organism."

Another difference from the European war: the often racist nature of the propaganda directed against our enemy, something that strikes Hanks as similar to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment whipped up during the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods," he recently told Time. "They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?"

The result is a portrayal of war that's reportedly even more intense and more gruesome than 'Band of Brothers,' with more moral ambiguity in its portrayal of American servicemen and more depiction of atrocities committed by both sides. At least one WWII veteran, however, praises 'The Pacific' for coming closer to getting the big picture and small details right than any previous screen depiction of the war.

Sidney Phillips, a lifelong friend of Sledge's who's also a character in 'The Pacific' (played by Ashton Holmes), has seen the mini-series already. The 85-year-old told the Associated Press, "War movies are never accurate to war veterans, but I think this is maybe the best one I've seen so far."

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