This is the sixth in a multi-part series examining the origins and progress of HBO’s original miniseries The Pacific. Full critical analysis will be reserved until the series has completed its run. Please note that minor spoilers may be included below.
After the First Marines Division successfully braved Japanese shore defenses to storm the beaches of the tiny Pacific island of Peleliu, U.S. forces were still clinging to the beachheads between the ocean and their target, the island’s airfield. Beyond the wide, open airfield, a range of rocky hills provided a formidable defensive area for the retreating Japanese soldiers. In addition to providing the Japanese an environment well-suited to guerilla defensive tactics, Peleliu also represented a change in Japanese tactics — a change completely unforeseen by U.S. military intelligence. Allied commanders believed Japanese forces would initially hurl themselves against the Marines and then retreat upon realizing they were outmanned and outgunned. What the Allies had not anticipated — an unforgivable lapse, in retrospect — was a new Japanese strategy of digging in to the island itself, tunneling for defense, and fighting tooth and nail for every inch of dirt and rock the U.S. forces took. In order to completely secure Peleliu, the First Marines had to cross a long, open plain to attack entrenched Japanese machine guns and artillery; their reward for successfully accomplishing that task would be a month of struggling over boulders and through gulleys while being ambushed, undergoing constant sniper fire, and staring into the darkness at night anticipating attacks.
Episodes Six and Seven of The Pacific follow the First Marines’ charge across the airfield (Episode Six) and their month-long struggle through the hills (Episode Seven). In these episodes, the narrative direction shifts sharply to the series’ creators strengths: depicting gripping and terrifying combat as young men are literally pulverized attempting to capture a vague military objective. Episode Six devotes nearly all of its run-time to following Private Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Private Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), along with their squads, as they brave the fiery maelstrom of whining bullets and exploding shells. Episode Six does little in terms of plot or character development, but its purpose is more pure than that: Episode Six serves as the pivotal center of a war narrative, a vacuum of sense and meaning where the truly brutal nature of warfare visits itself on characters the viewer has come to care about. Poet-warrior Leckie and the soft-featured, gentle-natured Sledge, both already indelibly stamped with the bloody badge of close infantry fighting, accompany their units across the airfield under heavy enemy fire, spending what feels like hours creeping toward an unseen enemy, an enemy wholly committed to exacting a heavy blood price for every step of progress by the Marines. By the end of Episode Six, the First Marines have captured the foot of the hill country, but at a staggering cost in bullet-riddled bodies, brutally severed limbs, and a constant vapor-rain of blood in the air. Leckie, knocked unconscious by a shell explosion, is among the lucky — his internal injuries result in his removal to a hospital ship, where he reunites with one of his close friends, also injured during the dash across the airfield. Meanwhile, as Episode Six draws to a close, Sledge’s unit prepares for the unknown perils of clearing the hills.
Episode Seven then capitalizes on the exhausting tension created by the Marines’ momentary perch between the airfield and the hills by focusing on the excruciating experience of Sledge’s platoon as they creep through the hills trying to clear the island of Japanese soldiers. Each day, Marines leave the base camp at the airfield to enter the hills, proceed to the most forward secured area, and continue engaging the remaining Japanese fighters in close quarters combat, in between episodes of dodging sniper fire and the occasional artillery shell. Because of the craggy, uneven terrain, soldiers are rarely truly under cover, and the experience of Sledge’s unit is one of continuous anxiety and fear over what might be waiting for them behind the next boulder or around the next bend in the canyon. At night, the Marines hunker down in their foxholes, paired together to avoid being knifed in the darkness by Japanese guerillas. After each patrol, the surviving Marines return to the base camp, passing the next Marine patrol as it heads into the hills.
Episode Seven, which focuses almost entirely on Sledge’s psychological decay during these patrols, is the most effective episode so far in terms of setting and accomplishing an important narrative goal. After Sledge’s baptism by fire in Episodes Five and Six, his first major combat experience turns into the horrifying drudgery of skulking, crouching, and sporadically fighting for weeks on end, anxious stretches of creeping forward punctuated by bursts of running and killing. Burned and battered Japanese corpses litter the landscape, a constant reminder of the tenacious enemy awaiting them. Stretcher teams remove the wounded and dead, constantly at risk for being hit themselves. And day by day, the hand of death moves among the remaining soldiers, with the inevitable loss of friends and squadmates always only a moment away.
By the end of Episode Seven, the transformation of the Marines from strong, loose-limbed youths into dusty, limping ghosts presents a more damning indictment of the cost of war than even the most frightening combat scene. The direction is especially strong in presenting this contrast at both a micro- and macro-level. A microcosm of the whole, Sledge devolves into a vacant-eyed blunt instrument, a walking rifle with a thousand-yard stare, chillingly brought home at the end of the episode when he can’t engage in a dialogue with visiting female nurses welcoming the Marines with refreshments at the base at Pavuvu. Sledge’s transformation occurs within the larger framework of the patrol exchanges, as empty, bone-weary soldiers trudge listlessly toward their camp following a shift in the hills, passing a barely-rested patrol, already on pins and needles, on its way back out. By the end, Episode Seven has delivered its dramatic payload in force, and the viewer wants nothing so much as to see these boys reunited with their families.
Episode Seven succeeds so well that The Pacific finally begins to resemble a potentially worthy companion to Band of Brothers, but the occasional reminder of The Pacific’s inferiority crops up here and there. It’s becoming boring to scrutinize the miniseries’ painful mis-use of the John Basilone character, but at this point it’s as if the series’ creators want to remind the viewer of this vestigial dramatic appendix. Episodes Six and Seven again include a couple of throwaway scenes involving Basilone’s uncomfortable role in selling war bonds as a military hero while his comrades fight and die thousands of miles away. These scenes add absolutely nothing to the narrative other than a needless distraction, but apparently the writers felt a need to keep an umbilical attached to Basilone while the plot follows the far more interesting paths of Leckie and Sledge. Advance scenes from Episode Eight indicate that Basilone’s story may take center stage, but at this point in the miniseries, that’s actually disheartening, because Sledge’s narrative has become so compelling.
The thrust of the remaining three episodes of The Pacific remains a mystery, and the plotting history through the first seven episodes provides no predictable roadmap. In Episodes Six and Seven, however, the series has shown strong signs of ripening into something worthwhile. Perhaps the show’s creators can finally find a way to weave the disparate storylines together into a more meaningful whole as they bring the story to a close.
HBO’s The Pacific airs Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who holds down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]