Without a Sign His Sword the Brave Man Draws
This is the first 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 this recap includes minor spoilers.
One of the most ignorant assertions in all of artistic history is François Truffaut’s claim that it is impossible to make an anti-war film because the medium inevitably glorifies combat as visually exciting. Whatever Truffaut’s virtues, he politicized himself to the point of irrelevance with this statement, at least as to its subject matter, though it might be fair to say simply that he had no pertinent masters to admire. In the hands of a skilled artist, the true nature of war is readily brought home as a horror, inspiring grim recognition in those familiar with it and grateful relief in those who are not. The foundation of Truffaut’s error is the assumption that one cannot honor the truth of sacrifice in combat while taking the position that war is to be avoided until there is no choice but to fight. Any film truly capturing the nature of war is, at some level, an anti-war film, in the same way that nearly every soldier who has truly seen combat would elect not to subject himself or his brothers to it again. It doesn’t mean they won’t go again if called; it means that the cost had damn well better be worth it, and we the viewers should appreciate the cost and be grateful for being spared.
Whatever else The Pacific may bring to the table during its run on HBO, its first episode follows in the tradition of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and, yes, Band of Brothers in giving the lie to Truffaut’s notion. If the series’ tagline — “Hell was only an ocean away” — isn’t enough of an indicator, Episode One’s suspense-ridden crawl toward the inevitable meat-grinder of the Pacific theater of World War II certainly serves notice that there was no accurate notion of glory or excitement in the minds of the callow youths sent to oppose the aggression of the Empire of Japan against the United States in the Pacific region in 1941 and 1942. While not without its flaws, The Pacific appears poised to take its place in that noble line of cautionary tales of soldiers called upon to hurl themselves into a breach that no sane human would desire to fill.
From the outset, The Pacific, HBO’s original miniseries about the United States Marines’ combat experience against the Japanese during World War II, faces an incredibly daunting task: succeeding in the long shadow of what is quite simply the best miniseries ever filmed, Band of Brothers. It is impossible to evaluate The Pacific without reference to Band of Brothers, the 2001 HBO miniseries created by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who are also the primary movers behind The Pacific. Band of Brothers told the sibling tale of the European theater of combat in World War II through the eyes of Easy Company, a ridiculously tough and effective outfit in the fabled 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. The only thing more beautifully absurd than Band of Brothers’ tale of Easy Company’s legendary accomplishments and horrific casualty rate was the fact that the tale is entirely true; Easy Company saw heavy combat in most of the major U.S. offensives in Europe, and Hanks and Spielberg’s ten-part miniseries went to painstaking lengths to capture in great detail the experience of actual soldiers who lived, served, and died to defeat Nazi Germany. At the same time, Band of Brothers gently but grippingly dramatized the forging of those soldiers from raw civilians into battle-scarred soldiers, bringing home the universal horrors of war — Vietnam wasn’t the first time U.S. soldiers felt terror, pain, and confusion — and humanizing and explaining the habits and methods ordinary men use to get themselves and each other through such an extraordinary, hellish experience.
The Pacific takes what seems the only reasonable approach: to begin its story as if Band of Brothers never existed, grounding itself on the rock of historical fact and spooling out its story in its own course. The Pacific plainly goes to deliberate lengths, however, to avoid the appearance that it might try to outdo Band of Brothers. Eschewing Band of Brothers’s deep initial character development, The Pacific makes an election to reach hostile foreign shores early in the going. Likewise, where Band of Brothers’s combat narrative began in the immediate aftermath of D-Day, The Pacific effectively summarizes Pearl Harbor and the Japanese subjugation of the Pacific islands with a soft, atonal voiceover from Hanks, accompanied by brief interview snippets from surviving veterans, briskly setting the stage for the United States’ entry into combat operations. No dramatization is needed, of course, when the most recognized actor in the United States (non-clown division, for you Cruise and Cage fans) lends his gravitas to the proceedings. When Tom Hanks talks, we are genetically incapable of not listening, and The Pacific wisely elects to use his words to jump into the fray.
Where Band of Brothers dedicated its initial episode to following the raw Easy Company privates through basic training in 1942, The Pacific indulges in only a brief introduction to the characters in their domestic environment before moving to the combat theater. To a great degree, history works in its favor in this vein, as the United States’ first and most urgent reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor was to mobilize for war in the Pacific — with the Japanese sewing up nearly the entire Pacific region over a six-month period, the U.S. had no real choice but to move as quickly as possible to defend Australia, in contrast to a more patient deployment in support of the relative stalemate between Britain and Germany in Europe. Because the Marines were the most combat-ready of the United States’ ground forces, they were thrown into action as soon as the U.S. could mobilize what remained of the Navy. Easy Company was still forming at Fort Toccoa in Georgia when the first Marines went ashore at Guadalcanal.
The plot of Episode One is quite basic. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the story follows several young men as they prepare to ship out for the Pacific: Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale), a newly enlisted civilian whose Marine battalion will be among the first soldiers on Guadalcanal; Jon Basilone (Jon Seda) and his fellow non-commissioned officers already enlisted in the Marine Corps at the start of the war; and Sidney Phillips (Ashton Holmes), another new enlistee whose friend Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello, the boy from Jurassic Park) is despondent over a heart murmur that prevents him from enlisting. In Episode One, the story focuses primarily on Leckie, whose brief, chaste encounter with a neighborhood girl and chilly farewell from his father set the tone for thousands of unmoored boys dropped into tin cans and shipped thousands of miles across a sea they’ve never even seen.
The bulk of the second half of Episode One follows Leckie’s unit as it slowly advances across Guadalcanal toward a key airfield built by the Japanese. Following an anti-climactic beach approach — a virtual practical joke by the filmmakers, given the expectation of a Saving Private Ryan-style onslaught — the Marines’ objective becomes a march across the island to take over and secure the Japanese airfield. Episode One is fraught with suspense as the soldiers cautiously advance through a presumably hostile jungle while encountering no real resistance. (We know from the commercials that a war eventually happens.) When the soldiers finally encounter the Japanese, the contrast is as sharp as a bullet suddenly hissing by, and the Marines meet their first real test.
Episode One’s primary themes are foiled expectations and the lesson that this war will be one of lethal patience, slow advances, and creeping, rotting attrition. The Pacific theater of World War II has traditionally received far less attention in American history books than the war in Europe and Africa, a war fought in places with at least somewhat familiar names from France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. Yet one of the most overlooked aspects of 20th Century history in the United States is the breeding of a generation of soldiers who believed that inexhaustible patience and endless resources would allow the United States to win a tropical jungle war against experienced jungle fighters. Twenty-five years later, the United States military would rely heavily on policy-makers’ experiences in Guadalcanal and the Philippines to extend a far less popular jungle war in Southeast Asia.
In its first episode, The Pacific is at its best with not-so-subtle jabs at the follies of our perceptions of war, some eternal, some era-specific. During a family gathering prior to soldiers’ shipping out, a family member delivers a toast in anticipation of a day “when this is all over, say a year from tonight.” When the soldiers are ashore and entrenched on Guadalcanal, they cheer the nighttime burning and sinking of a ship, assuming it to be Japanese, only to learn the next morning that the U.S. Navy intentionally scuttled a damaged ship and left under heavy fire, essentially stranding the Marines in enemy territory with no backup ammunition or medical supplies. Later, the young Marines are stunned to witness the Japanese soldiers’ fearless charge into machine gun fire while retaining their ferocity and defiance even in the face of hopelessness.
While the acting and cinematography are generally quite strong, The Pacific feels a little clunky in the early going in terms of pacing and direction. Particularly in the first half of Episode One, the expository dialogue and familial set-ups feel a bit forced. As The Pacific eases into its stealthy jungle patrol, however, it finds its stride in examining the wholly unpleasant business of trying to kill other people and avoid being killed, while at the same time navigating entirely foreign terrain. Episode One also effectively sets the stage for the moral conflicts involved in fighting even the most just of wars, from the casual torment of a defenseless enemy to the racist jingoism so common in rousing a nation to fight (a phenomenon fresh in the minds of 21st Century Americans). Although not without flaws, The Pacific makes an encouraging start with the promise of a challenging look at the lesser known side of the Unites States’ greatest historical moment. I can’t wait.
HBO’s The Pacific airs for ten consecutive episodes 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]