The Brutality of War

Bruce C. McKenna ’84 returned to campus on March 30, 2010, to talk about his work on the new HBO miniseries The Pacific, which debuted on March 14 and ran through May 16. The sprawling 10–episode program tracks the intertwined real–life journeys of three U.S. Marines across the vast canvas of the Pacific Theater during World War II. Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman were executive producers for the project.


In May, The Pacific received 24 Emmy Award nominations including recognition for Outstanding Miniseries; Bruce McKenna and Robert Schenkkan were nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special.


McKenna was a writer for seven of the 10 episodes, and he took on additional responsibilities on the miniseries by crafting the overall narrative arc for the project and overseeing the writing staff. He also served as co–executive producer and showrunner. He spent 10 months on the set in Australia making sure that the written vision and historical accuracy were maintained as pure as possible through every stage of production.


McKenna presented the world premiere of episode four of The Pacific to the Wesleyan community at the Powell Family Screening Room at the Center for Film Studies. This episode shows the brutal conditions of the 1st Marine Division’s battling the Japanese at Cape Gloucester, and the physical and mental effects of combat on U.S. Marine Robert Leckie, who is sent to a naval hospital on nearby Banika for psychiatric observation.


Before the screening, McKenna spoke to Wesleyan about his work on the HBO project.


He previously wrote several episodes of the celebrated HBO World War II miniseries Band of Brothers for which he won a Writers Guild of America Award for his contribution to the “Bastogne” script. In March 2003, about 18 months after Band of Brothers received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries, McKenna had a meeting with Hanks, Spielberg, and Goetzman to develop a project about the war in the Pacific.


“We went into Spielberg’s office and he had two mandates for me,” McKenna says. “He wanted the new series to be as epic as possible, covering the war from the beginning to the end, and he wanted it be more psychologically astute, intense, and personal than Band of Brothers.”


McKenna devoted seven years to the project. He did extensive research for the show, reading everything he could find about the historical period, and he also talked to many soldiers about their war memories. He read roughly 40 volumes about the Pacific campaign, and his wife called the pile of books near his bedside “the stack of death.” He had the help of a research assistant, Hugh Ambrose, the son of Steven Ambrose, who wrote the book for Band of Brothers.


McKenna decided the only way to cover such a huge canvas was to concentrate on a limited number of characters, weaving their stories in and out so their lives would touch each other, though “the star of the show was the war itself.” Each of these characters would illuminate different aspects of the war. This structure was inspired by that of another dramatic miniseries, Traffic.


McKenna chose to focus on three men from the 1st Marine Division: Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and John Basilone. He had read the war memoirs Helmet for My Pillow by Leckie and With the Old Breed by Sledge, and both books moved him deeply, capturing the brutality of their war experiences. Because it is so honest and personal, many think With the Old Breed is the finest combat memoir ever written.


“I knew these two men had to be my main characters because they were so different,” McKenna says. “Leckie was an Irishman, told a good story, with a little bit of blarney, and he was kind of an artist. He was self–conscious and self–reflective in a way that made him more of an intellectual. Eugene Sledge was just the raw guts.”


Sledge recounted his experiences without any artifice, a sort of story that resembled a Norman Rockwell kid who wore a coonskin cap and by the end of the war became a stone–cold killer. Between these two, McKenna had two very different psyches he could show in the series.


For the third character, John Basilone was chosen consciously because he was the most famous soldier known in America in 1942?43. The movie The Sands of Iwo Jima is a thinly disguised version of his life. “He was not an intellectual, had no artifice about him, no self–reflective capabilities,” McKenna says. “He was like a classical Greek hero who either did or died. And of course, that is what he does in the series.”


These three men provided a very complicated picture of what war could do to young men and their relationships with lovers, wives, and family members. Their stories would take them through the whole course of the war from Guadalcanal to Okinawa.


McKenna thinks that by focusing on the three Marines, the guys on the ground who do the bleeding and dying on the front lines, the miniseries became more universal because it depicted a kind of war that has been fought throughout history.


“This is what happens to those who go fight our wars whether they’re in Pickett’s Charge, the Battle of Concord, the Pacific, the Korean War, or Iraq,” he says.


“There is no better crucible than war for drama,” he adds. “Everything imaginable that can happen in the human condition happens during wartime.”


McKenna says the new miniseries reveals a darker side to World War II than Band of Brothers, which depicted characters who were still alive. The Pacific’s three main characters were no longer living, which gave him and the other writers more freedom to depict more multifaceted, less idealized portrayals.


In episode four of The Pacific, Leckie spends time in a mental hospital. The depiction of this type of experience is usually avoided in films about World War II’s “Greatest Generation.” Yet McKenna points out that many soldiers who fought in World War II suffered immensely mentally as well as physically, as much as, or more than, soldiers, sailors, and Marines did after Vietnam.


Though several war films have dealt with the well–documented battle in Iwo Jima, The Pacific devotes three episodes to the lesser–known battle of Peleliu, which is one of McKenna’s proudest accomplishments as part of his work on the project.


“Peleliu was a forgotten battle in the Pacific of the Second World War.” McKenna says. “It happened in 1944, part of the steeping–stone toward Japan. It was a slaughterhouse of epic proportions. Some 3,000 Marines died there in about 30 days, and about 10,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors died there. It was among the first instances the Americans had to experience the savagery of the Japanese refusal to surrender. Out of the Japanese who died, only seven had surrendered. The last Japanese to surrender on Peleliu did so in 1947.”


The Peleliu battle was planned to last a few days but it wound up lasting months. The battle also was completely unnecessary and the men fighting it knew it at the time.


The budget for The Pacific was about $230 million dollars, making it possibly the most expensive production to date in the history of television. More than 1,400 people were employed more than 10 months, with two separate crews shooting principal photography simultaneously. The production had one of the largest sets ever constructed in Hollywood history, including the airfield and administration building in Peleliu.


Does McKenna plan to continue working on historical subjects?


“I just finished a script now for director Frank Darabont and Phoenix Pictures about William Mulholland and the birth of Los Angeles,” he says. “I love research. The best part of all these projects is the time I get to spent metaphorically ‘in the stacks,’ delving as deeply as possible into the subject matter, finding the kernels that I can adapt and turn into something really cool dramatically. That to me is the joy of the process.


“The film industry in Hollywood is not quite as accepting of historical dramas as it used to be,” he adds. “But HBO and places like Showtime and AMC are still willing to spend the money to explore past seminal events in American history that resonate with what’s going on today. I’m sure I’ll continue to adapt historical subjects because it answers a deep–seated need in me to be a particular kind of storyteller—to interpret history in a way that I feel like I’m being faithful to what really happened. And yet providing that Aristotelian sense of drama that is imperative for audiences to bond with characters and enjoy that as a theatrical experience.”


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