Hanks, who wrote and starred in a recent film about the Battle of the Atlantic, explains World War II’s cinematic appeal.
Tom Hanks has played everything from an astronaut to an animated cowboy, but he keeps coming back to World War II. The actor (and self-proclaimed history buff) starred in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, co-produced the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and spent the better half of a decade bringing his latest period piece to life: Greyhound, a movie adaptation of C. S. Forester’s 1955 novel, The Good Shepherd. The naval drama follows Commander Krause, skipper of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Keeling (codenamed “Greyhound”), as he braves U-boats and the elements while leading an Allied convoy across the Atlantic Ocean in 1942.
Greyhound—which Hanks wrote and stars in—was set for a spring 2020 theatrical release until Covid-19 swept the nation; the film instead premiered in July on the video streaming service Apple TV+. Even then, Hanks managed to draw parallels between the unprecedented change in plans and—you guessed it—World War II.
Why are you so interested in World War II?
The war created this loss of certainty in everyone’s lives, this loss of a prescribed calendar that said, “I will finish college. I will enter the workforce. I will find a mate. I will have children. I will get on with life.” This puts forth the question: “What would I have done if I were in the same circumstance?” That, to me, is the power of cinema. That’s why I keep coming back to World War II again and again.
When I first read C. S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd, I stumbled into the perfect examination of this scenario: a U.S. naval officer in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean not knowing where the enemy is, if he’s doing right or wrong, or if he’s going to live to see another day. He’s hoping he can hold on long enough so that some combination of serendipity, luck, training, and instinct will see him through another 24 hours.
How did you first discover Forester’s work?
I knew that Forester had written the Horatio Hornblower series of novels as well as The African Queen . But around eight years ago, I picked up a used copy of The Good Shepherd because of its cover. It featured a picture of Krause. His hat was off. He had gray hair; his clothes were askew, and he was standing at the rail of a ship. A signal is flashing behind him, and a ship is sinking on the horizon. I thought, “Who is that guy, and what has his day been like?”
When you finished the book, you told yourself, “That’s a movie I haven’t seen.” How did your role in the project take shape?
I didn’t want to direct. I didn’t want to write the screenplay, but nobody else bit. It wasn’t until I finally had the time and the inclination that I said, “Let’s see what I can make of this.” I viewed it as a labor of love.
Did you always picture yourself playing Krause?
Yes. I’m older now, so I can no longer play a younger guy in the army, or the navy, or in the air force. But Kraus is a middle-aged man, a career navy officer who is about to retire. That’s in my wheelhouse.
How faithful is Greyhound to the novel?
We [director Aaron Schneider and producer Gary Goetzman and I] always wanted to make as taut and as spare and even as cryptic a movie as possible, so we took liberties with it while staying true to the DNA of the original material. For example, we aren’t at sea in the film for as long as Krause is in the book. We created a different backstory for him that requires less explanation. In Forester’s book, the USS Keeling is trailed by a possible U-boat from the very beginning; we have one showing up like an attacking shark.
The Battle of the Atlantic isn’t as frequently depicted in popular culture as other World War II campaigns.
The Battle of the Atlantic is hard to shoot without modern-day technology. With older nautical World War II films like The Enemy Below , In Harm’s Way , and Run Silent, Run Deep , the sea had to be calm because crews couldn’t get a camera out there otherwise while filming. With CGI, we could be much more realistic, environment-wise.
The film pays great attention to historical detail, from ship protocol to naval technology. You even shot much of it aboard the USS Kidd, the decommissioned World War II-era Fletcher-class destroyer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The Good Shepherd is chockablock with these types of details. It was actually serialized by Life in the 1950s because it was so authoritative; many magazine readers had participated in the war. Not only did we have very powerful source material, but we also had technical advisers for all things military. Every cast member went to school; they spent time aboard the USS Kidd and ran through all the naval drills. They trained for their characters’ jobs, all the way down to how quickly they switched the dog watch [the dinner watch] and the midwatch [the night watch].
World War II naval films seldom include African Americans. But Greyhound briefly features actor Rob Morgan as Cleveland, one of the ship’s messmen. Was it important for you to create this character?
That was very important. There was a segregated military; Black Americans were not allowed to be the soldiers and sailors they could have been. They could be bakers, cooks, and orderlies. We would’ve been doing an artificial thing if we had ignored this, and we would have been doing an artificial thing if we had expanded it. We wanted to show the boldfaced difference between White officers and Black messmen.
Are there any other World War II–related projects on the horizon?
Masters of the Air, the miniseries follow-up to 2001’s Band of Brothers and 2010’s The Pacific, will eventually air on Apple TV+. We are currently in the process of completing a screenplay; it’s based on Don Miller’s 2007 book about the Eighth Air Force and the air war over Europe against the Nazis.
Any unique takeaways for homebound viewers during this period in history?
We’re currently in the middle of something that is perhaps as stressful and anxiety-causing as some aspects of World War II itself. We didn’t know we were going to be releasing Greyhound at the time of a worldwide pandemic. But it ended up being a thematic match to what’s going on right now: when we’re in the middle of something with no end in sight—just like Krause is in the movie—we can trust procedure, luck, fate, and instinct, and we might be able to pull through it. ✯
This article was published in the October 2020 issue of World War II.