Home Drama The Pacific – Executive Producer Tom Hanks on what makes a hero

The Pacific – Executive Producer Tom Hanks on what makes a hero

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The Pacific - Jon Seda
The Pacific - Jon Seda © HBO

Nine years ago HBO, Playtone and DreamWorks joined forces to present the landmark World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, which focused on a company of Army paratroopers in the European Theatre of Operations. Now Executive Producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are turning their attention to the Pacific Theatre and the U.S. Marines who fought there. The Pacific is a 10-part miniseries that tracks the lives of three real-life Marines, beginning with the first American offensive of World War II at Guadalcanal.

The Pacific premieres on HBO on March 14th. Tom Hanks spoke about this historic project to the TV Critics Association last month.

Can you talk about the way you chose to tell this story as opposed to the European Theatre story from Band of Brothers?

The Pacific - Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks © HBO

The main difference is our source material. For Band of Brothers we had Stephen Ambrose’s magnificent book. The three stories that we’ve culled from here are from Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, Robert Leckie’s memoir, Helmet On My Pillow, and the story of John Basilone is more or less taken from public record.

But I would say that the differences between The Pacific and Band of Brothers are as different as the concept of the two different theatres of war – Europe, maps, territory lines drawn on it, armistices that would be honored. The European war was the last war of its kind. The war in the Pacific was more like the wars we’ve seen ever since – a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors, both on the battlefield and in the regular living conditions.

With The Pacific, each episode opens up with a little history lesson about the specific period that episode is going to cover, why did you chose to do that?

The Pacific - James Badge Dale
James Badge Dale © HBO

By and large, there was a thought that it would be hard to get people excited about a battle over a place like Guadalcanal or Peleliu without some historical context to why our soldiers are fighting (there). There were those of us on the producing team that felt that context was a waste of time and once we got involved in this story, the context would be obvious.

Nonetheless, in the give and take of big-time show business, we took the need for context and turned it into one of the fingerprints (of the miniseries), and it all worked out in part because of the great arc of each one of our episodes.

For someone who actually appreciated the context, I have a sense that Americans under a certain age have a better understanding of the war in Europe than they do the war in the Pacific.

The Pacific - Tom Hanks, Katherine Phillips Singer and Sidney Phillips
Tom Hanks, Katherine Phillips Singer and Sidney Phillips © HBO

Quite frankly, (the war in the Pacific) doesn’t bend to the more graceful narrative that they can approach the war in Europe with. 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.

A hundred miles from 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. That’s why in this we have much more individualized stories of three Marines. It almost doesn’t matter where they were. It almost doesn’t matter what battle they fought. It’s only important to them, not to us the audience.

I know you’re telling intimate stories, but how are you able to communicate how truly big the Pacific Theatre was in your stories?

The Pacific - Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Jon Seda
Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Jon Seda © HBO

We can’t. We can only show the vastness of the horizon reflected in the eyes of the characters. At the end of the day, we put up a title that says Peleliu. We have black sand beaches. We call it Iwo Jima. That’s the best we can do. If we were to try to tell somehow dramatically the story of all of the Pacific Theatre, we would make a documentary that would last 26 days.

Is a soldier’s journey the ultimate hero’s journey?

I think the nomenclature of ‘hero’ can be very much discounted in its multiple use. I think the word ‘hero’ can be bandied about quite easily and quite often, and it just becomes like a talisman, this catchall phrase. But I think in reality, heroism does not come after the fact. 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 what goes into whether or not they are remembered and celebrated or forgotten. But just by saying, ‘If it’s got to be done, I’ll do it,’ there you have your definition of a hero.