This is the fifth 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.
After the First Marine Division was pulled from New Britain in 1944, most of the Marines expected to be sent back to Australia for another extended break from fighting. The jungle warfare in New Britain had exacted a horrific toll in the form of casualties, dysentery, fever illnesses, and mental and physical combat fatigue, and conditions did not improve a great deal at their next stop, Pavuvu. After securing the island of Pavuvu, however, the First Marines made that island their rest and refitting stop. Several months later, the Marines were directed to their next combat destination, Peleliu, at which they were to take an airfield to extend the Allies’ military power closer to the Philippines and, ultimately, Japan. After three days of naval bombardment to soften the Japanese defenses, the First Marines made a beach landing to invade the island in the face of hostile machine gun and artillery fire.
Episode Five finally begins to deliver on the miniseries’ promising premise: a study of several characters during the same time period to show the impact of the war and relate the history through the eyes of the men who made it, as well as acquainting the viewer with the fear and loss the soldiers experienced. As the episode begins, fresh-faced Private Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) arrives at Pavuvu to take his place among the First Marines prior to their pulling out for Peleliu. After some initial “new-guy” hazing, he successfully sets out to find his boyhood friend, Sid Phillips, among the myriad Marines populating the island. Their reunion is short-lived, however, as Phillips’s unit soon departs for a stateside rotation.
Sledge also meets Private Leckie while searching for reading material, in a scene that finally reveals the potential of The Pacific to relate a compelling story with gifted actors and a strong script. The attitude between the two young men begins in standoffish discomfort when Sledge and Leckie spar uncomfortably:
Sledge: “Have you heard the latest about the war in Europe?”
Leckie: “Unless you got a brother in Europe, most guys don’t give a shit.”
Sledge: “My brother landed in Italy.”
Leckie: [pause] “Well, I guess you get to give a shit.”
Their exchange is quiet and ruminating as opposed to antagonistic, and this is the type of contemplative moment that came in bunches in Band of Brothers, moments that resonated with the knowledge that the rest of the world was continuing to happen while boys got their heads blown off on some patch of land their families had never heard of. Sledge and Leckie’s exchange then turns to religion, with Leckie expressing his disgust and disdain for a god who would let this war occur, with Sledge quietly absorbing the rant of a man who has just seen the horrors waiting in store for Sledge himself. The Sledge and Leckie characters have a good balance in this episode, though Leckie doesn’t get nearly the attention he received in Episode Four, with Sledge taking the lion’s share of the character development.
Episode Five begins to make clear the toll on the Marines’ psyches, with Leckie and Phillips both displaying uncharacteristic aggression and animosity before Sledge. Leckie, the warrior-poet with a graceful intellect, now spouts racial slurs about the Japanese in between bouts of creeping nihilism. Similarly, Sledge’s boyhood friend Phillips has become taciturn, turning inward away from the horrors around him. When the two are talking on the beach at Pavuvu, Phillips begins to use his lighter to torment a crab - when Sledge objects and stops him, Phillips responds, “You won’t be so tender-hearted.” It’s a tad heavy-handed, but all three actors play the scenes in an understated way that lends gravity to the depiction of what is happening to their humanity.
Alas, Episode Five officially turns the John Basilone character (Jon Seda) into a ludicrous embarrassment in an already-thin plot. As with Sledge in Episode Four, Basilone appears early in the episode, in this case an uncomfortable show pony for the U.S. war effort. Basilone then inexplicably disappears for the remainder of Episode Five. As if to point out the puzzling nature of this plotting decision, Seda gets in one of the best lines in the episode, highlighting what might have been had this character received a modicum of attention in the scripting. While touring the U.S. to help sell war bonds as a military hero, Basilone meets up with his younger brother, George, another Marine departing soon for his first action in the Pacific. When George asks John how afraid he should be of what’s coming, the older brother senses the danger of a younger brother feeling pressure to live up to his war hero brother’s image. In response, John leans forward, husking out the words, “Don’t feel like you need to prove nuthin’.” It’s a nice moment, and Seda does well in projecting the awareness and concern the more mature brother feels in the situation. Perhaps we’ll see more of Basilone in the second half of the miniseries, but so far this character’s potential has been almost completely squandered.
The second half of the episode follows the First Marines, specifically Sledge and Leckie’s units, as they storm the beach at Peleliu under heavy fire. The Pacific wisely cribs from the “you-are-there” playbook of the beach invasion in Saving Private Ryan, with the toiling, grinding landing craft spitting out Marines on to the beaches in the face of ferocious enemy machine gun fire and artillery blasts. Again giving the lie to the theory that all depictions of combat must glorify war, Episode Five offers another grim reminder of the sheer terror of trying to get to cover on a beach with unseen adversaries raining down death and destruction all around. The combat scenes are immediate, visceral, and ultra-realistic, and all I could think while watching was “I’m glad I’m not there, oh Jesus, Sledge, get down, oh god, Leckie, get behind something, hide hide hide.”
Sledge is made out to be neither a hero nor a coward in this first engagement, but a raw, wide-eyed recruit mimicking the soldiers around him to move forward and try to stay alive. As Episode Five closes, he has acquitted himself well enough in his first test, just in time to face one of the most bitter infantry engagements of the entire war. The First Marine Division’s commanders expected the engagement on Peleliu to be difficult but quickly over in as little as three days. Instead, the First Marines spent two months grinding their way across an island less than three miles across. In Episode Six, the series will follow Leckie and Sledge into the maw of that monster.
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]