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When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks made Saving Private Ryan, they brought the experience of World War II to a generation who had not lived through it. More recent generations may have only seen war films depicting Vietnam. Through the film’s brutally realistic portrayal of the Normandy invasion, the artists ensured we would never forget the many sacrifices the U.S. troops endured in Europe.

As two of Hollywood’s biggest heavyweights, the pair continued portraying WWII stories by producing the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. In the ten episodes, the duo inspired other filmmakers and actors with the vision to explore different perspectives on the struggles of young soldiers.

Now Hanks and Spielberg are bringing another WWII miniseries to HBO, The Pacific, possibly the most expensive TV movie/miniseries ever made. Where Private Ryan and Band of Brothers portrayed the European front of WWII, The Pacific chronicles the battles in Southeast Asia. Hanks wanted to bring attention to that half of the war, because it is chronicled so less frequently than Europe.

The duo made a press appearance in Los Angeles recently, and Dish was there to speak with them about The Pacific.

“Quite frankly, it doesn't bend to the more graceful narrative that [filmmakers] can approach the war in Europe with,” Hanks told Dish. “The war in Europe liberated Paris.  They landed at Normandy, and eventually you crossed the Rhine into the fatherland, and Berlin fell. The war in the Pacific does not fall into that brand of territorial narrative.  You tell me what's important about Peleliu. Well, we establish what's important about Peleliu, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, going on, little tiny spots.”

It is also harder to see the context the battles on small Japanese islands had in the grand scheme of things. Instead, The Pacific makes it more personal than political. “A hundred miles from where the moment where Saving Private Ryan took place, more or less, is the Eiffel Tower. A hundred miles from Peleliu is an empty spot of ocean in the middle of the Pacific.”

“I think what moved us to tell these stories based on these survivors, these veterans, was to see what happens to the human soul throughout this particular engagement,” Spielberg said. “These islands were stepping stones to the mainland of Japan. These islands were all stepping stones. The warfare that we were trained to fight, 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. We fought them in a very different way than we fought the Italians and the Germans and the axis in Europe.
Because of that, and I don't want to compare one war to the other in terms of savagery, but there's a level when nature and humanity conspire against the individual. To see what happens to these individuals throughout the entire course of events, leading up to the dropping of the two atomic bombs, is something that was very, very hard, I think, for the actors and for the writers and for all of us to put on the screen. But we felt we had to try.”

That's why in this film, we have much more individual stories of three Marines. It almost doesn't matter where they were. It almost doesn't matter what battle they fought and what they fought in. It's only very important to them, not to us as the audience.”

It has been 12 years since Saving Private Ryan and nine since Band of Brothers. Spielberg continues to hear stories from veterans that he feels need to be told. “It was inevitable that we would do The Pacific with HBO because there was such an overwhelming response, not only from the general public that got very involved in Band of Brothers, but we got so much positive mail,” Spielberg said. “At the same time, mail that said, ‘I was a veteran of the Solomons.’ ‘I fought on Tarawa.’ ‘I was at Midway.’  I mean, we got so many letters from veterans from the Pacific Theater of Operations asking us if we could acquit their stories the way we acquitted the stories of the European Theater of Operations.”

And this is what accounts for the difference between Band and Pacific, Hanks argues.  

“For Band of Brothers we had Stephen Ambrose's pretty magnificent oral history, almost a piece of scholarship, in his book Band of Brothers. The three stories that we've culled from here, Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed is considered perhaps as great a combat memoir as has ever been produced. It is very personal and it is very much written with his voice and with his perspective on life. Robert Leckie's combat memoir, Helmet On My Pillow, is really more like a pro's poem about what it means to be young and alive and involved in a quite hideous adventure. The story of John Basilone is more or less taken from public record.”

From an audience’s perception—an audience that expects glory—it may seem that war is a hero’s journey. However, The Pacific reminds us that it is more about surviving. And looking out for your friends.  

“I don't think that anybody in any war thinks of themselves as a hero,” Spielberg said. “I think the minute anybody presumes that they are heroes, they get their boots taken away from them and buried in the sand. So that's not going to happen. In combat situations  and this is coming from a director who's never been in a war but in the recreation of a combat experience based on being mindful of what these veterans have actually gone through. You find that the biggest concern is that you don't look at war as a geopolitical endeavor. You look at war as something that is putting your best friend in jeopardy. You are responsible for the person in front of you and the person behind you and the person to the left of you and the person to the right of you. Those are the small pods that will inadvertently create a hero, but that is someone else's observation, not the observation of those kids in the foxholes.”

The circumstances of that struggle can manifest themselves in infinite ways on the battlefield. So filmmakers will continue to find different facets of the story to tell.

“I don't look at World War II or any war story and see it as a specific, finite, open and closed story,” Hanks said. “It is constantly fascinating in regards to examination of any aspect of the human condition. You see the best of humankind in war; you see the worst of humankind in war. You see the perquisites of fate and serendipity at the same time that you see the great genius behind longterm planning and masterminding.”

“You see great moments of faith, and you see great moments of despair.”

The Pacific premieres March 14 on HBO and airs for 12 weeks every Sunday at 9pm et/pt / Issue 107 - September 7192
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