No Enchanted Evenings in "The Pacific"





MIDWAY through the first hour of “Band of Brothers,” HBO’s 2001 mini-series about a company of paratroopers during and after D-Day, there’s a scene on a troop ship that’s jampacked with new recruits on their way to hard fighting in the European theater. “Right now some lucky bastard’s headed for the South Pacific,” one soldier says to another, envious. “He’s going to get billeted on some tropical island sitting under a palm tree with six naked native girls helping him cut up coconuts so he can hand-feed them to the flamingos.”

Now comes “The Pacific,” an HBO mini-series by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the rest of the “Band of Brothers” crew that spends 10 grueling hours and almost $200 million showing just how inaccurate that newbie’s idyllic image was. The series, in one-hour episodes that begin next Sunday, follows three real-life Marines from Pearl Harbor to homecoming after V-J Day. There are no naked native girls or flamingos. Instead there are bloody battles against well-fortified enemies on small islands. There are heroic deaths and random ones; unrelenting rainstorms, tropical diseases, nervous breakdowns....

If the Pacific war didn’t take hold in the popular imagination and Hollywood quite as firmly as the European one did, the roots may extend back to the coverage of combat in the two theaters. There were reporters in the Pacific, but certainly nothing like the 558 accredited print and radio correspondents covering the Normandy landings. Re-creating the sprawling, grueling story of the Pacific war was a matter of considerable research and synthesis. The process began shortly after the debut of “Band of Brothers” (like this series, a production of HBO, Mr. Spielberg’s DreamWorks and the production company of Mr. Hanks and Gary Goetzman, Playtone). The historian Stephen E. Ambrose, whose 1992 book had been the basis for that mini-series, had already been interviewing Pacific war veterans, collecting their stories....

“All of us knew we had to do the whole war,” Mr. McKenna said; this would not be a simple story of a single battle. Eventually the decision was made to focus on three members of the First Marine Division: Eugene B. Sledge and Robert Leckie, both privates, and Sgt. John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal. Mr. Leckie and Mr. Sledge, who both died in 2001, wrote memoirs that became cornerstones for the series; Sergeant Basilone’s story was well documented in the news media at the time....

All these efforts represent an attempt to bring the starkness and psychological depth of the best Vietnam movies — “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon” — to the treatment of World War II. Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hanks — one as director, the other as star — had already made strides in that direction in 1998 with “Saving Private Ryan,” whose unflinching depiction of the D-Day landing startled audiences. And where an earlier brand of ensemble World War II films — “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape” — were often star heavy, both “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” used actors with relatively low profiles....

All three lead actors spoke of developing an appreciation bordering on reverence for the men they were portraying. “We all felt a heavy responsibility in just needing to get it right,” Mr. Seda said. “We’re basically becoming the voices for all these men who never were able to truly express to their loved ones what they went through, and that’s a huge responsibility.”

One of those men, R. V. Burgin, 87, who fought in battles including New Britain, Peleliu (“by far the worst”) and Okinawa, had what is surely a veteran’s highest praise for the parts of the mini-series he had seen: “It puts you right in the foxhole with them,” he said. Mr. Burgin, who describes his war experiences in a new book, “Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific” (New American Library Caliber), recalled a request he made to Hugh Ambrose when he was interviewed for the series in 2004: “I told him, ‘Will you do me and all the rest of the guys out there who fought in that war a favor?’ And he said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘Leave the damn fiction out of it.’ ” The real stories of valor and loss, Mr. Burgin said, provide more than enough fuel for any mini-series....



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