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Righting the Ship

By Ted Boynton | TV | March 31, 2010 |

By Ted Boynton | TV | March 31, 2010 |

This is the third 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 are included below.

In January 1943, the United States pulled the weary First Marine Division out of Guadalcanal as U.S. troops poured into the Pacific theater to secure the Allies’ foothold there for their counter-offensive against the Empire of Japan. Riddled with dysentery, malaria, and combat injuries, the Marines sailed to Melbourne, Australia to recuperate from their wounds and regain their strength. After four months of grueling jungle warfare the Marines had no idea what to expect from their Australian hosts. Episode Three of The Pacific finds them in a young soldier’s idea of paradise: a community untouched by war, rife with beer and young Australian women, and essentially devoid of young Australian men with whom to compete for such resources.

Considering the Australia-centered focus of Episode Three, it is worth noting that, in the first installment of this recap series, a reader took umbrage to the statement that, following the Japanese military expansion throughout the Pacific in 1942, “the U.S. had no real choice but to move as quickly as possible to defend Australia.” The reader responded, “That’s a fairly narrow interpretation of the situation!! But what we’ve come to expect from everyone’s supposed hero, USA.” (sic) In fairness, I always thought Australia was next to Germany, but it turns out the creators of The Pacific at least did some research.

Now, while it’s fair to assume Australia was on the verge of singlehandedly driving the Japanese back into the sea in 1942, while at the same time whipping the Nazis in Africa; and as much as one might anticipate that Australia would have been perfectly comfortable had the U.S. just elected to sit this one out; one can at least sympathize with the United States’ myopic and self-absorbed belief that intervention in the Pacific was necessary. By the end of 1942, Australia was nearly empty of military-age men, with the British military command having persuaded the Australian government to concentrate its infantry forces in North Africa to support the British effort there. Australia’s Pacific navy — all five ships, and I’m not kidding — patrolled parts of the South Pacific to protect shipping lanes but was not a match for the massive Imperial Navy of Japan. So, despite Australia’s impending bitch-slap to the Axis powers, the United States butted its unwelcome face into the proceedings, thousands of dead Marines be damned.

That said, perhaps you had better brace yourself, dear reader, because as Episode Three of The Pacific begins, one of the surviving Marines from Guadalcanal had the gall to say this: The Marines arriving in Melbourne were greeted as the “saviors of Australia” by Melbourne’s residents, who viewed the Marines’ exploits at Guadalcanal as a major blow supporting Australian security. Sergeant Basilone and Private Leckie, along with thousands of fellow Marines, disembarked from their transport ships in disbelief in a Melbourne harbor jammed full of cheering Australians. Although initially assigned to billet in a Melbourne sports stadium, the majority of the Marines who could walk under their own power soon went AWOL under the benevolently negligent eye of the military police assigned to keep order among the troops. What they found was a soldier’s paradise, and for nearly ten months they reveled in it.

Episode Three devotes its hour to the assimilation of the Marines into Melbourne’s community, especially the night life, finding Sergeant Basilone (Jon Seda) and Sergeant Morgan (Joshua Biton) lifting a glass or six to their fallen friend Manny, a fellow NCO killed on Guadalcanal. Poet-warrior/Private First Class Leckie (James Badge Dale) takes time out from a bender with his squadmates to stumble after a beautiful Australian girl, Stella, as she boards a street car. Stella invites Leckie to sober up and call upon her at home, in that order. Basilone and Leckie’s paths diverge sharply soon after, however, as Basilone learns that he has won the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded to U.S. servicemen. As a result of this honor, Basilone is reassigned to duty in the United States to tour the country seeking support for war bonds to help fund the war effort. Meanwhile, Leckie bonds with Stella and her mother and step-father, Greek immigrants as entranced with American soldiers as all the rest of Melbourne. Invited to stay in their home, Leckie finds Stella heating up their relationship with alacrity as she visits him in his room the first night, wearing a bathrobe and little else. (Was I the only one utterly delighted that curvily delicious Stella is played by Claire Van Der Boom?) Leckie’s squadmate, Private Sidney Phillips (Ashton Holmes), also finds romance, though of a comically more chaste variety closely overseen by a young lady’s bearded, unsmiling grandfather, who has unilaterally adopted a strict set of wartime articles for the courtship of his granddaughter.

After last week’s near-derailment of the series, Episode Three does solid work in re-focusing the narrative by concentrating on the jarring contrast between the swampy, lethal combat conditions on Guadalcanal and the impossibly idyllic environment of wartime Melbourne. In particuarl, Leckie’s interactions with his hastily adopted family resonate strongly, a good storyline giving life both to the frustrating impact of the war at home — family friends missing in action, strict wartime rationing — and to Leckie’s unsatisfying home life. The warm reception (oh so warm!) afforded by Stella and her family begins to tease out the difficulty of Leckie’s upbringing as a the youngest child of a large family that was not exactly thrilled to see him come along. The chilly relationship between Leckie and his father, illustrated by their farewell in Episode One, contrasts sharply with the immediate acceptance and love he experiences from Stella’s small, patched-together family, a warmth and sense of belonging he appears never to have known. The relationship takes an unexpected turn, however, when Stella learns of the death of a childhood friend and begins to question her devotion to a man whose greatest perils still lie in the future. Leckie lashes out in an unexpected way in response, leading to his reassignment to an intelligence unit, rendering his future with the First Marines unclear.

Basilone’s tale remains arid, and actor Jon Seda continues to struggle to breathe life into an underwritten character and narrative. After a nice bit with Basilone’s commanding officer, the charismatic Lewis “Chesty” Puller (William Sadler), in which Basilone shows up to receive his Medal of Honor commendation with a Level 4 hangover, the plot rapidly loses momentum as Basilone deals with the news of his transfer stateside. It’s unclear whether Basilone feels guilt, relief, or a mixture of both as the plot drifts to an inert state with Basilone heading home. Seda is a dynamic, magnetic presence, and the Basilone character has great potential. So far, however, that potential has gone largely untapped, other than Episode Two’s murky exploration of Basilone’s heroics on Guadalcanal, an exploration which hardly did justice to the truth of Basilone’s exploits.

With Episode Three, The Pacific shows promising signs of pulling viewers in a more focused direction. In particular, the maturation of Leckie and his baby-faced squadmates, as they hurtle through a lifetime of drama in a few months, rings true in depicting the crucible of young men caught up in violent world events, trying to squeeze out those few moments of humanity allowed them in the maelstrom. The preview for Episode Four indicates that these Marines are headed back into combat, however, with every appearance that the ten-month visit to Melbourne will only last one episode in the universe of The Pacific.

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]

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