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HBO's WWII miniseries continues work Hanks began in 'Saving Private Ryan'

Sunday, September 09, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Sometimes, when his work as an actor is complete, Tom Hanks isn't ready to be done with the story. "Apollo 13" led him to be executive producer of "From the Earth to the Moon," HBO's outstanding 1998 miniseries about not just a single space mission, but the entire Apollo program.

 
 
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His experience on "Saving Private Ryan" was the impetus for his latest TV project, HBO's 10-hour World War II drama, "Band of Brothers," beginning at 9 tonight.

"The question always comes down to scope for me," Hanks said after a July news conference. "If there's anything frustrating about those two moviemaking experiences, it's that they came to an end just when I thought we were getting into the swing of things."

Hanks recalled recently standing in France, looking toward a church steeple about six miles away.

"I realized that on June 7, 1944, the Allies were in the position I was standing in, but that church steeple and that village were not liberated until June 29 or July 3 or even further down the line," Hanks said. "I've never heard the story told that it took another 22 days to get from here to over there. It's that kind of scope the 'Band of Brothers' story goes after.

"And we're just fans of history more than anything else," Hanks added.

Based on the book of the same name by historian Stephen Ambrose, "Band of Brothers" tracks the U.S. Army's Easy Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division -- throughout World War II.

Ambrose said he chose to focus on this particular group of soldiers for two reasons.

"These guys were everywhere," Ambrose said. "They started [training in] Georgia, they ended up at Hitler's Eagle's Nest, and they covered everything in between. But what fascinated me the most was not their battle record, which is outstanding, but their closeness. ... They remained the closest of friends because of what they had experienced in the Second World War.

"That was the part of it that I wanted to get at. How did this happen that these guys became so bonded that they are a band of brothers?"

Ambrose said Hanks was the right person to answer that question in the television miniseries, calling Hanks "trustworthy" when it came to getting details right.

"In almost all war movies before 'Saving Private Ryan' -- whether Zanuck is making the movie or whether Burt Lancaster is the star -- when an American gets shot, it's either [in the forehead] or [in the heart], and he's dead," Ambrose said. "And his commanding officer can write home to the grieving widow or to the parents, saying, 'He never knew what hit him. He didn't suffer.' It doesn't happen like that. They do know what hit them. They do suffer. When you watch a Spielberg movie or when you see Hanks' 'Band of Brothers,' you're going to see that."

And more. Limbs are blown off. Pieces of soldiers' faces are obliterated.

"You've got to look at that if you want to understand war," Ambrose said. "And I knew that Hanks was going to do it that way."

Hanks said authenticity was key to the project, not just in details like selecting the proper uniforms and tanks, but by fairly and honestly representing the real-life soldiers whose stories are told in the miniseries.

As a fact-based drama, "Band of Brothers" offers a history lesson, but it shouldn't be confused with actual history, Hanks said.

"We can lay a certain claim to being a teaching tool, but we can't even represent the entire story of [the book]. But we can certainly foment a desire to learn more," Hanks said. "We are still on a sub-par level, I'd say. Better than some, but certainly not as good a history lesson as, say, Ken Burns' work in something like 'The Civil War.' "

He called "Band of Brothers" a "weird hybrid of what [filmmakers] do, that is totally false, and what history shows us to be absolutely true."

Hanks gave an example of the detail the filmmakers strove to accurately represent. In one episode, Easy Company crosses a river in Holland. In doing research, the filmmakers discovered that Canadian engineers supplied the boats and piloted some of them. So they made sure some actors wore Canadian uniforms.

"If students were reduced to [watching movies] as some sort of historical lesson, the next time they're studying World War II, I'd hope they'd watch 'Band of Brothers' instead of, say, 'Pearl Harbor,' " Hanks said. "If they studied 'Band of Brothers' and took a test, they might get a C."

Hanks, who co-wrote and directed an episode of "Band of Brothers," threw on a British airborne instructor's uniform to help fill out the background of a scene as an extra in episode No. 5. Most of the cast are relative unknowns, save for David Schwimmer ("Friends"), Donnie Wahlberg ("Ransom"), Scott Grimes ("Party of Five") and Colin Hanks ("Roswell"), Tom Hanks' son from his first marriage. Jimmy Fallon ("Saturday Night Live") has a one-scene cameo.

Filmed from April to November 2000, "Band of Brothers" was shot mostly at a former British aerospace plant in Hertfordshire, England. Some scenes were also filmed in Switzerland, but mostly the production was located somewhere on the 1,100 acre British back lot. A 12-acre village set was redressed to portray 11 different European cities and villages.

The total cost of the miniseries was $120 million, or approximately $12 million per episode (most one-hour drama series produced for the broadcast networks cost between $1 million and $2 million each), a much steeper price tag than the $68 million HBO spent on Hanks' 12-hour "Earth to the Moon" odyssey.

The box office and critical success of "Private Ryan" no doubt helped justify the cost.

"I realize that a cottage industry seems to have sprung up over the last few years, and myself and my associate, Steven Spielberg, are in some ways responsible for it with the motion picture we made a few years ago," Hanks said. "That sort of brought rebirth to an entire genre of filmmaking, it seems. The great thing that has come about from it all has been a focus where focus deserves to be placed.

"Here we are at the beginning of the third millennium, and if you go back and take honest stock of the key story of our lifetime, you must return to the years between 1939 and 1945, in which you can honestly say the fate of the world hung in the balance," Hanks said. "Had it not turned out the way it had then, without question the world would be a very, very palpably different place than it is right now."

Though World War II stories have become fashionable again in the past five years, Ambrose said they'll never fade completely. He compared the resurgence to continued interest in the Civil War and the number of visitors, who, more than 100 years later, continue to flock to battlefields such as Gettysburg.

"World War II was the greatest event of the 20th century. It determined that we're going to live in a democracy," Ambrose said. "And it will last for as long as the Republic lasts."

The World War II stories that have the greatest impact on Hanks are those away from the battlefield. He said he tears up every time he watches the final episode of "Band of Brothers," not because of what the soldiers experienced during the war, but what happened afterwards.

Hanks said it's difficult to imagine how, in 1952, veterans celebrated a normal Christmas, decorating a tree with their children and preparing for Santa's arrival when "eight years prior to that, Christmas Eve was spent freezing in a foxhole in Bastogne and their best friend died in the artillery barrage that happened that night.

"I don't know how these guys did that," he said. "I don't know how they did it then, and I don't know how they got on with things afterwards and were able to somehow put it all in its proper perspective."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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