It's been nine years since Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks joined creative forces to tell the story of a U.S. Army infantry unit that fought its bloody way across Europe during World War II.
The product of their collaboration, called Band of Brothers, is perhaps one of the best TV miniseries of all time. The 10-part HBO series, which won a boatload of Emmys and Golden Globe awards, followed a single regiment of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, from their days in basic training through D-Day and numerous battles as they fought their way toward Berlin, until the war's end in 1945.
Now Spielberg and Hanks are back, and their latest joint effort is another 10-parter on HBO, a companion piece to Band of Brothers that focuses on the portion of World War II that was fought on the other side of the world. The Pacific, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. with subsequent installments each Sunday night, tracks the intersecting journeys of three members of the 1st Marine Division, which was involved in much of the fiercest combat in the Pacific campaign.
Like 2001's Band of Brothers, The Pacific is based largely on real-life accounts by survivors of the battles it depicts. While Brothers was based on interviews and research by acclaimed historian Stephen Ambrose, The Pacific relies mostly on books written by soldiers who fought in the Pacific theater.
The new miniseries, which took nearly seven years to produce, cost close to $200 million (twice the tab for Band of Brothers), making it HBO's most expensive undertaking ever.
At the heart of the production are Marines John Basilone (played by Jon Seda), Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), and Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello, who as a 10-year-old appeared in Spielberg's Jurassic Park). Leckie and Sledge wrote the books on which the miniseries is based, and the story of Basilone, a Medal of Honor winner, has been well-documented.
In interviews provided by HBO, Spielberg and Hanks both explained that the new miniseries was a natural and, in some ways, necessary follow-up to Band of Brothers. Spielberg said his father and uncle - both of whom fought in the Pacific - were among many veterans who pushed for such a project.
"After Saving Private Ryan came out and Band of Brothers played on HBO," Spielberg said, "they asked me, 'What about the boys on the other side of the Atlantic? You're celebrating all those guys from Europe! We did something too!' "
Hanks agreed: "We all felt, I think, after Band of Brothers, that we had covered Part A of World War II - Version 1.0, and there was still Version 2.0 out there."
"Version 2.0" of the war saga zeroes in on the young Marines fighting for their lives on faraway specks of land that few Americans had ever heard of - places like Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa - against a fearless enemy like none they had even imagined. The Japanese believed in "Bushido," the Samurai code of death before dishonor, and a primary tactic was to send wave after wave of soldiers at the enemy without regard for their own lives.
The series' battle scenes are frighteningly well-staged. As Marines trek silently through the dark jungles in search of their enemy, the tension and dread clings to them like sweat, and when the enemy is finally engaged, all hell breaks loose in a confusing cacophony of gunshots, explosions, spurting blood, and fearsome screams. The in-your-face vision of war presented here is jarring, chaotic, and visceral, reminiscent of the controversial 25-minute opening sequence from 1998's Saving Private Ryan, a graphic series of scenes that nearly saddled the film with an NC-17 rating, the modern-day version of an X rating.
Though there are plenty of horrific scenes, plus brutal and disturbing examples of what one human can do to another, the on-screen carnage could have been much worse, according to Spielberg. "Actually, we restrained ourselves," he said. "We pulled ourselves back from what we could have shown, what these soldiers actually encountered … but we had a line we wouldn't cross."
But The Pacific is not primarily about the battles that were fought - some of which seemed utterly pointless to the combatants, and to the viewer as well. It's more about the men who fought those battles, and how the experience changed every one of them, for better or worse.
"It's the story of the corruption of the human spirit," Spielberg said, "and the private war that all of those soldiers had to fight to save themselves from what they were witnessing and what they were engaged in. It's about their struggle to find some salvageable fragment of their humanity."
It's also one powerful and terrific piece of filmmaking. It's hard to watch at times, but you won't be able to look away.