Executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg return to HBO (and World… (Andrew Cooper / HBO )
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.