There is a scene early in “The Pacific,” the ten-part miniseries that debuted on HBO on March 14, in which the filmmakers acknowledge the shadows that loom over their production. Sydney Phillips, a Marine from Alabama, is aboard a small craft about to land on the remote island of Guadalcanal. He and his comrades sit in somber silence, some in prayer, as they prepare to storm the beaches and face the enemy.
The scene will be familiar, of course, to anyone who has seen the first thirty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” which portrayed the Allied landing at Normandy in gory detail. Yet once “The Pacific” nods in the direction of its esteemed predecessor, it makes a quick pivot, as if to remind viewers that we are not in the European theater. For when the Marines land at Guadalcanal, guns at the ready, they do not encounter the dreaded “Jap,” but a slew of other Marines, basking in the South Pacific sun. This battle, at least, would not be fought on the beaches.
Unfortunately, this kind of playful homage is all too rare in “The Pacific,” which like HBO’s earlier World War II miniseries, “Band of Brothers,” hails from the producing team of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The filmmakers generally approach their task with the utmost seriousness, intent on recounting the horrors of this forgotten chapter of World War II. Yet as it undertakes this grim enterprise, “The Pacific” too often strikes a somber note and never fully escapes the anxiety of influence at the heart of this endeavor.
Like “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific” wisely chooses to profile the soldiers in the trenches instead of the war’s commanders. Philips (Ashton Holmes) and Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) are members of the marine infantry. John Basilone (Jon Seda) is a sergeant who has returned to fight in the Pacific after a pre-war tour in the Philippines. After the marines’ victory in Guadalcanal, Philips and Leckie leave for brief reprieve in Australia and then onto Peleliu, a rat-infested island that saw some of the worst fighting of the war. Basilone, a medal-winner for his bravery, is sent back to the States to promote the sale of war bonds. Later episodes, which were not available for review, portray the fighting in Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
That the series’ principal characters hardly know one another, and leave for separate assignments after the second episode, is the series’ besetting sin. Where “Band of Brothers” had a natural narrative spine—Stephen Ambrose’s riveting account of Easy Company’s trek from Normandy to Berlin—“The Pacific” works with shards of stories. They are good stories, to be sure: the filmmakers use journals by Leckie and Eugene Sledge as their founding texts. After serving in the Pacific, Leckie went on to become a military historian, and published his wartime account, A Helmet for My Pillow, in 1957. Sledge’s With the Old Breed has been hailed for its gritty portrayal of battle. Stitching these stories together was surely a challenge, made all the more difficult by the vast canvas that was the Pacific theater. The result is a film impressive in scope but absent the compelling narrative thread an epic story requires.
Despite these failures, however, “The Pacific” still commands attention. Sledge’s and Leckie’s first-hand reports lend the series a realistic, unfiltered feel, and the series is notable for its refusal to romanticize battle. The shots of Sgt. Basilone, firing on line after line of Japanese soldiers, are an effective reminder of what it took to defeat the Japanese enemy—and the ghosts the veterans lived with long after V-J Day. Later, when we see the enemy burrow deep in to the coral ridges of Peleliu, refusing to surrender, we glimpse the fanaticism that contemporary military leaders must reckon with.
At times, “The Pacific” revels in the horror of combat, and one later episode is unrelievedly grim. Watching a soldier pry a gold tooth from a dead Japanese fighter is suitably shocking, but how often must the scenario be replayed? And is it necessary to present what can only be described as a soulless American soldier, tossing pebbles into the sheared skull of his enemy? An argument can be made that yes, we should witness these scenes, if only to give us pause before setting out to war again. Yet by disturbing the viewer in this way the filmmakers risk alienating their audience. Worse yet, in their search for gravitas they too often leave humor by the wayside.
The portrait of Pfc. Eugene Sledge is particularly humorless. Sledge entered the war late, against the wishes of his father, a doctor. Dr. Sledge tended to veterans of World War I, observing first hand the effects of battle trauma, and worries for his son. As the series unfolds, Dr. Sledge’s anxieties come to fruition in an all too predictable manner. Sledge's skin turns deathly pale and his eyes glaze over. Before long, he too is hunched over a Japanese soldier’s open mouth, knife in hand.
What finally makes “The Pacific” worth watching, though, isn’t the narrative, but the opportunity to observe the genesis of a new global order. One cannot make a film about the Pacific theater, after all, without the specter of the atomic bomb pressing in on every frame. So as the Japanese soldiers fight to the death in Peleliu, astute viewers may be reminded of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose staff argued that a land invasion of Japan would result in tens of thousands of U.S. casualties. And in the brutal conduct of the American soldier, who demonizes the “Japs” as less than human, there are signs of the fierce will to win that ended in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In a poem written during a rare moment of quiet, Robert Leckie meditates on the “the hero's holocaust” at Guadalcanal. Given the era, the choice of such a fraught term seems intentional, and one of the implicit questions raised by “The Pacific” is whether the slaughter of the Japanese constituted a holocaust. The question is not easily answered, but it is inarguable that the dropping of the bomb marked the birth of something wicked indeed. For all its flaws, “The Pacific” is a searing depiction of the twentieth century as it groaned in labor pains. We live with that war’s legacy even now.