HBO returns to the battlefield with ‘The Pacific’

To prepare for the filming of HBO’s epic, $200-million World War II miniseries “The Pacific,” screenwriter Bruce C. McKenna accompanied a locations crew to a tiny coral island near Guam known as Peleliu. A ridge there is laced with hundreds of caves -- undisturbed for more than half a century -- where Japanese troops hid out from U.S. Marines during one of the war’s deadliest conflicts.

“There are still skeletons in the caves, and we saw them,” McKenna remembers with amazement. “At the first cave we found, we walked in and there was the rib cage of a dead Japanese soldier. Up in the hills, every square inch is covered with shell casings and rusted machine guns. The place is unbelievable.”

And -- unlike Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Guadalcanal, whose names still ring in the popular lexicon -- Peleliu is also largely unremembered, a fact troubling to surviving veterans who fought there. If the oversight deserves fixing, justice will be delivered when “The Pacific,” the long-awaited companion piece to HBO’s Emmy-winning 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers,” begins airing on March 14. The 10-part production, probably the most expensive miniseries in television history, will run on consecutive Sundays at 9 p.m., presenting the war in the Pacific from the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor to the emotional return of troops home after final victory over Japan.

A full quarter of the series -- 2 1/2 of the 10 hours -- unfolds on Peleliu, compared with, for example, less than a single hour on Iwo Jima. For the filmmakers -- notably, executive producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman -- the beaches and jungles of Peleliu turned out to be a convenient place to show the horrors of battle as experienced by the real-life soldiers whose stories they are telling.

Fittingly, though, Peleliu also symbolizes the plight of tens of thousands of soldiers caught in the glamourless, mind-wrenching mire of the Pacific war. It was a fight engaged on the other side of the world, on tropical archipelagoes with names nobody knew, for purposes that often seemed pointless to the average man in a foxhole. Isolated from families, cut off from familiar landscapes of roads and buildings, the troops on places like Peleliu battled oppressive heat, thirst, rats, dysentery and a particularly fearsome enemy in the Japanese, all to claim strategic islands that were barely habitable.

“You’re fighting for nowhere in the middle of nowhere,” as Hanks, a lifelong military buff, put it.

Or, as Spielberg noted, the jungle combat on Peleliu was much like the combat on Guadalcanal or Cape Gloucester or Pavuvu or Okinawa -- “just a hellacious grind of terror and monotony, and the threat of losing one’s soul. It was much different than the European war.”

Japanese soldiers believed in death before dishonor, a code known as Bushido. As a result, few ever surrendered, and there was a savagery to the Pacific war that was chronicled not only in vivid battle memoirs but also in towering works of literature, such as James Jones’ “The Thin Red Line.” In that novel, set on Guadalcanal, Jones brooded on the psychology of imminent death that the Marines constantly faced: “When compared to the fact that he might be dead tomorrow, everything was pointless. Life was pointless.” The Pacific war also inspired Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” described by Time magazine as the “best novel yet about World War II.”

The very attributes that make the Pacific story worth exploring also posed some of the thorniest creative obstacles to creating the miniseries. For one thing, would viewers relate to it? This was not a saga played out against the grandeur of Paris and Berlin, a drive to defeat the very face of evil, Adolf Hitler. Aside from the triumphant hoisting of the flag atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima -- plot spoiler: don’t look for it here -- no image of the Pacific war burns in the minds of most Americans.

Compounding the issue was the fact that Clint Eastwood had already well acquitted Iwo Jima in “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” both released in 2006. Spielberg, who was an executive producer on those films, said, “Clint covered Iwo from so many different perspectives and so brilliantly. Iwo did not become the centerpiece of our series.”

Still, what emerged after nearly seven years of planning and production stands as one of the most ambitious, sweeping miniseries in television history, the filmmakers boast. Its best attributes, they say, involve not so much the setting but the people and relationships, and specifically how men are shaped and broken by the long nightmare of war.

“ ‘The Pacific’ is the biggest movie any of us have ever worked on,” said Goetzman, who also collaborated with Hanks and Spielberg on “Band of Brothers.” While the latter also amounted to a 10-hour feature film, “ ‘The Pacific’ was a much bigger movie than ‘Band of Brothers’ by the time we were finished with it,” Goetzman said. “It has a lot more scope, it’s much more savage, and has a lot more range. I think ‘The Pacific’ is the best thing we’ve ever done.”

For HBO, “The Pacific” represents a huge gamble. The series’ $200-million price tag is nearly twice what HBO spent on “Band of Brothers,” which at the time was the highest-budgeted TV miniseries ever. However, the network has confidence in the ability of Hanks, Spielberg and Goetzman to deliver another “iconic, quality-driven” story, said Kary Antholis, president of HBO’s miniseries division.

Despite the costs, Antholis denied that the network has set any revenue or viewership targets for the series, saying HBO prefers to take a broader view of how “The Pacific” will help raise HBO’s image and give a boost to its many affiliates worldwide.

“We don’t get into tangible expectations,” he said. “When we were evaluating it, we looked at the impact that ‘Band of Brothers’ had made, not only in America but around the world. It enhanced the brand tremendously.”

“Band of Brothers,” based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose, traced the experiences of “Easy Company,” members of a U.S. Army infantry regiment, as they struggled toward Berlin. From the time the series aired, veterans clamored for a chronicle of the Pacific war. The motivations were especially strong for Spielberg, whose father, Arnold Spielberg, had been a master sergeant in a bomber squadron during the China-Burma-India campaign.

“When I told my dad we were doing this,” Spielberg remembered, “he only said one thing: ‘Atta-boy.’ ”

First, though, was the key question: How to approach such a vast, amorphous topic? The filmmakers were committed to sticking with true-life accounts, and yet they knew of no single volume that offered an ideal story line.

The ‘Traffic’ approach

Bruce McKenna, who would go on to write the bulk of the series, recalled an early brainstorming session in 2003. “I came up with the idea of trying to do it like [the movie] ‘Traffic’ -- finding three or four guys to pull us through,” he said.

The search for those stories involved interviews with dozens of military veterans and an exhaustive perusal of all of the Pacific war literature. “I must have read 50 books,” McKenna said. Out of the morass emerged “Helmet for My Pillow,” the bestselling memoir by Robert Leckie, a former Marine machine gunner, and “With the Old Breed,” a classic tell-all by Eugene B. Sledge, an ex-Marine mortar operator.

Filmmakers also liked the well-documented story of Sgt. John Basilone, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism on Guadalcanal, where with a machine gun he single-handedly held off some 3,000 Japanese troops.

The critical question was whether there was a way, using the real facts of the three Marines’ lives, to unify their disparate accounts -- to, as Spielberg described it, create the best “handoff” from one character to the next without the result coming across like three different films.

“Then I had one of those great moments,” McKenna said. “I found out that Sledge’s best friend, Sid Phillips, served on Guadalcanal with Leckie’s company. They weren’t buddy-buddy, but it was a good-enough connection that I knew we had a miniseries.”

Work only intensified after that. DreamWorks (Spielberg’s company) and Playtone (Hanks’ company) initiated interviews with surviving wives, brothers, children and friends of the three main characters, all of whom are now dead. (Both Leckie and Sledge died in 2001; Basilone had been killed in combat.)

“Massive amounts of research was done about these battles,” McKenna said. “What would a young man in combat see? Historians don’t always write about that stuff.”

Thirteen scripts were written; at Hanks’ insistence, the number was trimmed to 10. Meanwhile, special pains were taken with the casting. Actor Joe Mazzello, who as a 10-year-old played Tim Murphy in Spielberg’s " Jurassic Park,” won the role of Sledge -- but only after five auditions. “The last two were in front of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks,” he said. “If you weren’t nervous, there was something wrong with you.”

HBO officially green-lighted the project in 2007. Though anything but big-name stars, those selected for the parts were well-regarded young actors who were put through intensive preparation.

“After I got the part, they sent me 1 or 2 million pages of research,” Mazzello joked.

“They sent me a box that must have weighed 50 pounds,” said James Badge Dale, who had done TV work in the series “24" and who was cast as Robert Leckie. “Book after book after book.”

Actors also endured a 10-day “boot camp,” much like the simulated combat training that the “Band of Brothers” cast went through. The punishing war games were designed to forge the mind-set of soldiers. Conducted in north Queensland, Australia, where the island jungle and beach scenes would be filmed, the exercises involved digging ditches, camping in the jungle, living on three hours of sleep and twice-daily rations, and trekking in 40-pound packs. The men practiced hand-to-hand combat and trained with rifles, machine guns and mortars.

Nighttime “enemy” raids were followed by calisthenics at dawn, and then a four- to five-mile run in formation, said tough-talking retired Marine Corps Capt. Dale Dye, whose company, Warriors Inc., specializes in staging the boot camps.

Actors laughed recalling the sheer ordeal of the training.

“I lost 12 pounds in 10 days,” Mazzello said.

Actor Jon Seda, who plays the role of Basilone, was once an amateur boxer and called the boot camp “definitely the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever been a part of.” Yet he credits the training for molding the attitudes and the familiarity with weapons and procedures that make the series work. Like other cast members, he came to appreciate the magnitude of what the real Marines must have gone through during the war.

Setting up for Basilone’s heroic scene, Seda recalls being puzzled by the proximity of the machine gun to the point where the Japanese breached a wire fence to attack. His first thought was, “This must be a camera trick. It looks close here, but when they shoot it, it’s going to look far away.” Director David Nutter set him straight. “He said, ‘No no, this is to scale. That’s how far it was,’ ” Seda said. “I couldn’t imagine.”

Little-known battles

Filming lasted 10 months. McKenna likened it to shooting 10 separate $20-million movies back to back.

“It was incredible,” he said. “It’s a particular art to ferret 1,100 days of combat down to 10 hours . . . distilling the truth, the essence of what it was like for these men. We have officers who peed their pants in combat. There are Marines who defile dead bodies. ‘Pacific’ will probably be the most violent 10 hours that will ever be put on television. But there is not one gratuitous second.”

Screenwriter Graham Yost, who also directed one of the parts, found something appealing about showing battles never before depicted in film.

“There were a hundred D-days in the Pacific,” he said.

HBO’s one concession to the relative anonymity of those clashes will be to air short, documentary-like introductions to each episode, explaining how Peleliu, for example, fit into the larger picture of the war. Hanks does the voice-over, noting that Gen. Douglas MacArthur coveted an airfield there that the U.S. military captured but didn’t need.

For Mazzello, the needless waste of so many lives makes the sacrifice all the more moving.

“They did what was asked of them and hoped it was important,” he said. “Just because it wasn’t, doesn’t mean we should forget about it. In some ways, it should be even more memorable.”