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Island-Hopping in the Pacific
At school, all Hanks remembers learning about World War II was that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, and that the American revenge came on August 6, 1945, when Army pilot Paul Tibbets dropped an atomic bomb from the Enola Gay on Hiroshima. For Hanks, the U.S. armed forces' island-hopping Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, among other bloody military engagements was just a blur on a map that seemed impossibly exotic and faraway. "Strange to think that I've become the World War II guy," Hanks laughs. "All my friends had dads who were on the U.S.S. Nimitz or U.S.S. Enterprise or U.S.S. Coral Sea. They lived in naval housing, and everybody who was like a primary caregiver to me talked about the war. But when it came to understanding the history, I nodded off."
Hanks first comprehended just how immense his own deficit in Pacific-theater history was while making Saving Private Ryan. Around that time, novelist Nora Ephron (who wrote the screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle, which starred Hanks) sent him the two-volume, 1,882-page Library of America Reporting World War II: American Journalism (1938 to 1946) as a gift. Hanks grew intensely interested in all things related to the Pacific campaign not necessarily the big names like Tojo or Ernest King, but the 3rd Marine Division, which was ambushed by snipers at Guam, or the intricacies of Operation Detachment at Iwo Jima. Print journalists like Robert Sherrod (on Tarawa) and Ted Nakashima (on U.S.-Japanese concentration camps) were eye-openers. "I went on a reading rampage," he recalls. "There is a fabulous book called The Fall of Japan. I got heavily into William Manchester and John Hersey."
What Hanks absorbed from those caffeinated reading bouts informs The Pacific, which starts with the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and moves straight into the murderous Guadalcanal campaign (August 1942 to February 1943), depicting the harrowing details right down to the dysentery and malaria. Cameras zoom down vulture-like on maps of flyspeck islands; the contrivance provides a nautical atlas for globe-challenged viewers. The true-life stories of Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller and Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone are incorporated into the narrative's bloodstream. Eight of its 10 hours rain valor worthy of a Medal of Honor. (If the roughly two hours of romantic sequences of Marines falling head over heels in love seem hokey by comparison, chalk it up to the demands of serial entertainment.) Nearly every prop used in the miniseries is an exact replica. "Steven [Spielberg] and I wanted to provide people with an accurate visual sense of time and geography," Hanks says.
In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg had vividly captured ghostly, pockmarked European ruins in elegantly warped shades of brown, grey and beige. Those drab colors wouldn't do for a miniseries set in the blindingly blue Pacific Basin. Together, Spielberg and Hanks did tests at a Universal Studios back lot to conjure up a faded Hawaiian postcard look. Palm fronds, ripe coconuts and white clouds pop out from the TV screen in a tamped-down Day-Glo way. The cinematic effect is mesmerizing.
Public education was an integral component of Hanks' vision. "We wanted to explain the arc of the Pacific war, the motivation within from the strategic perspective," he says. "So we start with the vast Pacific Ocean from Hawaii, and you just keep going farther and farther west. You get a dramatic sense of what it must have been like to be on one of those battleships. I used to wonder why in hell little Peleliu was in any way, shape or form so damn important. But then when you see how close Okinawa is, well, you immediately understand. Peleliu was a stepping-stone."
Much of the miniseries is based on two evocative World War II memoirs, Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow, but the imaginative energy comes straight from novels like Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones' The Thin Red Line. The result is like Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (both the novel and the made-for-TV movie) on steroids. Hanks and fellow executive producers Spielberg and Gary Goetzman are wrestling with age-old and current questions about the barbarity of war: How can Americans ask our young men and women to indiscriminately kill a shadowy enemy and then return to their ordered Coca-Cola lives Stateside?