By: Todd Gilchrist
(This article originally appeared in the May issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
Tom Hanks has come full circle. After vividly depicting D-Day from the perspective of 2nd Ranger Battalion in Saving Private Ryan, the European Theatre via the 101st Airborne Division in Band of Brothers, and Pacific Theatre operations with the Marine Corps in The Pacific, he’s starring in Greyhound, which recounts Navy operations during World War II.
Enlisting director Aaron Schneider, Hanks — the film’s star, screenwriter, and producer — adapts C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd (Little Brown & Co., 1955) into a suspenseful account of seafaring heroism. Hanks plays a career officer facing off against a fleet of German U-boats — and his own self-doubts — in the early days of U.S. involvement in the war.
While recovering from coronavirus in isolation in Australia, Hanks told Military Officer about the film. After tackling WWII on so many fronts and from so many different perspectives, Hanks said Forester’s material tapped into a sense of that conflict he hadn’t seen or explored before.
“I’ve been pondering the physiological sense of stasis that permeated the days of those alive during the war,” Hanks said. “Time and history came to a standstill. I’d been looking for material that would explore that period of ‘hang fire’ when no end ... to the war was in sight.
“The Good Shepherd delivered a canvas for that stasis perfectly — the middle of the Atlantic, the relentless sea, only a horizon, and then, only in the daylight, the unseen enemy, with time and distance not mattering beyond the next hour and the next page of the charts.”
From its opening scenes, Hanks’ script immerses the audience in the characters’ experience, a challenge to acclimate to the mechanics, literal and metaphorical, that he and Schneider faced with Forester’s source material.
“I wanted to stay on the bridge with [fictional Cmdr. Ernest Krause] as much as possible,” Hanks explained. “No matter where we went elsewhere, coming back to the bridge, Krause on duty meant that we had the perfect return to cut to. Forester’s inner dialogue describing all that was going on in Krause’s head was just gold to be adapted.”
To strike the right balance between accurate procedure and evocative drama, the duo drew heavily on period footage and photographs that detailed what it was like aboard these warships.
“Forester was in the Navy himself, and everything is extremely technically accurate,” Schneider said. “It’s like someone stuck you on a destroyer and you had to figure out the ways things work.”
“Destroyers are very unique,” he added. “Most people think they’re huge, [but] they call them tin cans or greyhounds because they were fast and small.
“We started combing through old Navy archives for photographs in all kinds of different categories, depth charges, five-inch guns, different kinds of radar, different uniforms, cold weather gear, just visually steeping yourself in the subject.”
Although Saving Private Ryan employed CGI to more accurately represent the number of warships and landing craft populating the English Channel during the Normandy landings, that film marked a turning point in filmmakers’ abilities to depict authentic large-scale warfare without attempting to corral an actual fleet or army. Twenty-two years later, Schneider said he and his collaborators embraced an organic balance between practical sets and computer-generated scenarios to bring their story to life.
“The more tools you have in your bag and the more you vary them throughout the film ... the more successful you are in the long run,” he said.
“Most of the pilot house, the main cabin, was done on a gimbal on a stage, and your view out the windows would be later replaced by [digital] sky, with the realism of the water and the weather on your set with practical spray and wind,” he explained. “But for shots where [Hanks] lifts his binoculars and sees a U-boat emerging from the water, we can’t take a U-boat out into the water and service it, so we used 100% CG. But if you mix it all up so no one feels as though you’re leaning on one any harder than the other, you come away with a greater sense of realism.”
Hanks’ involvement propelled each step of the production: After his script made it easy for Schneider to strike the right balance between technical and creative challenges, the actor’s turn as Krause provided a centering force on screen that humanized the stakes of the conflict.
“I wrote like a fiend on the screenplay for two years — dreaming big and cutting savagely,” Hanks said. “Once Aaron and I fought out some of the realities of shooting — the economics and philosophy of this particular movie — and we were in Baton Rouge to start filming, I gave it all up to be the actor.”
“I would categorize Greyhound as an action film about the rigors of a 48-hour battle, and the challenges to this character are about his first assignment as a captain of a destroyer,” added Schneider. “It’s a trial by fire at a very late point in his career, and that vulnerability — the idea that you have to be a leader, but you also have to be human at the same time — that’s the kind of thing that Tom Hanks just excels at.”
More than two decades after the release of Saving Private Ryan, Hanks’ passion for WWII and chronicling the heroism of veterans remains undimmed. But even if times and perspectives about the conflict have changed since then, he said the foundations upon which he built Greyhound are the same ones that made Spielberg’s film relevant and powerful in 1998.
“The stories of WWII only work if they relate to our current world — if not politically, in the terms of human behavior.
“There can only be so many stories of so many ‘turning points’ of the war,” Hanks observed. “Movies work best when the audience sees themselves in the story and wonders, ‘What would I have done if I was there?’ WWII movies can ask those questions of an audience, but only on the most human of terms.”