With ‘Masters of the Air,’ a 10-Year Dream of Spielberg and Hanks Lifts Off

After Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks spearheaded the epic 2001 World War II series “Band of Brothers,” Spielberg got some feedback from one of his most important critics.

His father, Arnold, a World War II veteran who served in what was then called the United States Army Air Forces, liked the series. But he wanted more aerial action. Then Spielberg and Hanks returned as executive producers in 2010 with “The Pacific.” Again, the elder Spielberg approved — with the same caveat.

“‘Well, that’s a great series,’” Spielberg, in an interview this week, recalled his father saying. “‘But where’s the Air Force?’”

Arnold Spielberg, who died at age 103 in 2020, would most likely be pleased with Spielberg and Hanks’s third World War II series (following the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan,” in which Spielberg directed Hanks). “Masters of the Air,” a nine-part Apple TV+ series starring Austin Butler and Callum Turner, premieres on Friday and chronicles the dangerous feats of the 100th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, known as the Bloody Hundredth. The unit flew daytime bombing missions 25,000 feet over German targets knowing that the odds suggested they might not survive.

With 10-man crews packed into B-17 bombers so big they were called Flying Fortresses, the 100th faced not only a constant barrage of enemy fire, but also thin air, subzero temperatures and the psychological strain of what often played out as suicide missions. An estimated 77 percent of the Eighth Air Force was killed, injured or captured; the number of fatalities, more than 26,000, was higher than that of the entire U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

For Spielberg, “Masters of the Air,” adapted from Donald L. Miller’s more expansive nonfiction book about the Eighth Air Force, is part of a continuing effort to keep World War II in sight as the years claim the lives of more and more veterans.

“I see it as a consistent recognition of the courage and sacrifice of the greatest generation, in keeping their memories alive today in a society that looks ahead more than they look back,” he said. “Through these dramas, we can tell these stories and get people to not only watch our series, but to go online and start to explore and navigate the history of World War II. That’s a big win for us.”

“Masters of the Air” was conceived a little more than 10 years ago, when Hanks called the screenwriter John Orloff, one of many writers who had worked on “Band of Brothers.” As Orloff recalled in a video interview, Hanks’s question was simple: “You want to write another one?”

Hanks and Spielberg had a specific story line in mind, to be chiseled from Miller’s mammoth book. They wanted to zero in on the friendship between Maj. John Egan (Turner) and Maj. Gale Cleven (Butler). A study in contrasts — Egan, known as Bucky, was a hard-drinking raconteur; Cleven, known as Buck, was a stoic with swagger — the two men flew mission after mission, building a reputation for leadership under heavy fire.

After writing the first episodes and the show bible (a comprehensive guide to a TV series being pitched), Orloff was tasked with writing the entire series. Even with the names attached, it was not a sure thing to get picked up; in 2016 the “Masters” team submitted scripts for the first three episodes to HBO, which had broadcast “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” but the company passed on “Masters” “because of the price tag,” Spielberg said. That’s when Apple stepped in, ready to foot the bill. (HBO declined to comment; Apple would not disclose the budget.)

“We were really fortunate to have Apple jump in and become our home,” Spielberg said.

With intricate aerial sequences, massive sets, armies of extras and extensive research undertaken beyond the source book, the series “was a monumental undertaking,” Orloff said.

“None of us thought it would take 10 years,” Orloff added. “I thought it would be a three- or four-year project, which is what ‘Band’ was and ‘The Pacific’ was, from inception to production. But this one was a bit tougher — the ambition of it, the scale of it. It was very intimidating to get this made.”

For Butler, 32, and Turner, 33, the series was a chance to immerse themselves in the war’s history and the sacrifices made by the men they play. Specifically, “Masters” confronts what it meant to go “flak happy,” a phrase of the time that describes what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s atrocious what they had to face, the most violent space a human could have ever put themselves in,” Turner said in a video interview. “What our show does is explore that trauma, what that did to their mind and their body and their spirit and their soul.”

Butler, in a separate video interview, recalled speaking with a 102-year-old veteran of the Bloody Hundredth who said that the air would get so cold up there that his feet would freeze to the bomber pedals and have to be chipped out. The physiological hardships only aggravated the mental strain of seeing friends blown out of the sky and never knowing if your turn might come the very next day.

“One of the elements that you see in the show is them dealing with the psychological toll,” Butler added. “It was just unfathomable.”

One movie that inspired Spielberg and Hanks was “Twelve O’Clock High,” the 1949 World War II drama about a B-17 bomber unit suffering heavy losses and low morale. “That was actually one of the first films made after World War II that embraced PTSD,” Spielberg said. He added: “Even though a Flying Fortress is a heavily armed heavy bomber with 50-caliber guns all over it, it is a very thinly constructed airplane with not a lot of steel, except sometimes in the floor. Just watching the series, I had a problem with my own claustrophobia.”

Dee Rees, one of the series’s five directors, was drawn largely by a story line featuring the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black pilots and airmen who formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S.A.A.F. The Tuskegee men are mentioned only once in Miller’s book, but Orloff felt it was important to give them airtime, especially since they wound up in the same German prisoner camp as some of the prisoners from the Eighth Air Force. President Harry Truman didn’t desegregate the Armed Services until 1948, but the Airmen earned high marks for their combat duty in World War II.

“That was a big part of me wanting to do it, to tell that part of the story and do them some justice and show their bravery,” Rees said in a telephone interview. “The very thing they’re fighting for abroad is what they’re going to be denied on their home soil. These men are more American when they’re overseas than they are at home, even though they are risking their lives and doing things that are just as difficult as their white counterparts.”

Stories about World War II can veer into hazy reverence for a bygone era, more fodder for the nostalgia machine. World War II, after all, has become something of a cultural industry, leaving a mountain of books, television and film. But for Hanks, this interpretation doesn’t apply here. He thinks the specific themes of “Masters of the Air” are not only resonant but also applicable to the present day.

There is an aspect of World War II storytelling “that can be absolutely lost in fanciful nostalgia, which bores me to tears and, I think, also misses the point,” Hanks said by phone on Wednesday.

“Here was a time in which there was just no question that a division was going to take place in the human condition,” he said. “You had truly evil empires that were murdering people and enslaving them in order to hold sway over their part of the world.” But even if today’s conflicts feel more complicated, he added, the things that matter most remain the same, like good citizenship, like civic duty and responsibility.

“Of course the world is completely different now,” he said. “But you still come down to the core issue of what is the truth, and what is justice, and what is my part to play in that? Isn’t that what all literature is kind of based on one way or another? Isn’t that what all storytelling comes down to?”

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