Reviewed by Victorino Matus
At the end of the first episode of THE PACIFIC, the Tom Hanks/Seven Spielberg war drama airing this March on HBO, a Marine celebrates his birthday on the island of Guadalcanal. Members of his platoon sing to him, “Happy Birthday to You.” But when they get to the second verse, instead of “How old are you now?” they ask rather darkly, “How ****** are you now? … You’re surely ****** now.” The men are heard chuckling as they disappear into the jungle just before the screen fades to black.
Gallows humor but entirely appropriate. The first major U.S. offensive in the Pacific, the Guadalcanal campaign lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 and claimed the lives of more than 7,000 Americans. (The Japanese lost closer to 30,000.) It was a shocking way for America to enter the war. The jungles were teeming with malaria and other diseases. Supply lines were disrupted, leading to deprivation. The enemy committed unspeakable atrocities.
This is also how THE PACIFIC begins. Since Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the HBO hit miniseriesBand of Brothers (2001), there has been much anticipation for Spielberg, Hanks, and fellow executive producer Gary Goetzman to set their sights on the epic World War II battles of the Pacific. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, also about Guadalcanal, lost its way under the weight of its many stars like Sean Penn, John Travolta, John Cusack, and George Clooney. Its sense of moral equivalence was also a bit much, as when we hear the thoughts of a dead Japanese soldier who asks, “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”
Given the green light by HBO, the cast and crew of THE PACIFIC spent months filming in Australia while even more time was spent on research—the series focuses on the real-life tribulations of three Marines: Robert Leckie (played by James Badge Dale), John Basilone (Jon Seda), and Eugene B. Sledge (Joe Mazzello, who audiences might remember as the child actor who starred in Spielberg’sJurassic Park). In addition, veteran actor William Sadler does a superb turn as then-Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller. The series is also based in part on the memoirs of Leckie and Sledge—the latter’s book, With the Old Breed, is widely regarded as a military classic. According to historian Victor Davis Hanson, “within two decades of publication, that draft became acknowledged as the finest literary account to emerge about the Pacific war.”
HBO’s new ten-part miniseries, set to air in March, vividly depicts the savagery of the war in the Pacific, reminding viewers of the profound differences from the war fought in the European theater. “The question we ask in THE PACIFIC,” explains Hanks, “is how were they able to go through all of this?”
As historians Michael and Elizabeth Norman note in their gripping account of the Bataan Death March,Tears in the Darkness, basic training in the Japanese Imperial Army was a hell all its own:
Men were beaten till their teeth fell out or their eyes swelled shut or they lost their hearing, “beaten like a dog!” one recruit wrote home, “beaten like a bag of flour.”
The end result?
When the first-year privates finally finished their pitiless apprenticeship, they were promoted to senior privates, stewards to a new cohort of conscripts. Now the bullied became the bullies themselves. One group of primitives had created from itself another group of primitives, and all the groups from all the camps across all the home islands formed one great primal horde, 2,287,000 men who had been savaged to produce an army of savage intent.
This was the army that awaited Robert Leckie, John Basilone, and Eugene Sledge.
It takes approximately 45 minutes until the first firefight erupts in Episode One of THE PACIFIC—an impressive feat when one takes into account the amount of exposition required for the three main characters. (But it should come as no surprise how effortlessly this comes off considering the director of the series opener is Tim Van Patten of Sopranos fame.) And though 45 minutes may seem a while, once the Marines of the 1st Division begin to make their way into the dense jungles of Guadalcanal, an overwhelming sense of foreboding amid the eerie sounds of the wild will have the viewer wishing to be safely back home. Alas, there is no escape and, with a sudden jolt, the enemy is engaged, albeit briefly.
Much of the fighting on Guadalcanal took place in violent spurts such as around Alligator Creek, which also occurred in the middle of the night. The bloody chaos that ensues will leave the audience as confused as the troops—precisely the point. Moving figures are illuminated by either bursts of gunfire or the occasional flare. The rest can only be heard—the terrifying sounds of bullets zipping by, the screams of men.
For more of the story, see the Web site at www.USOOnPatrol.org.