Diving Into The Pacific

As HBO's miniseries The Pacific winds down, Allen Barra finds much to admire in it. But he also says it’s shown us nearly nothing new.

Andrew Cooper

“War,” wrote Von Clausewitz, is “a continuation of state policy by other means.” In the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which followed U.S. Airborne troops in Europe after D-Day, and now in its companion, The Pacific, which focuses on a Marine regiment on the other side of the globe, the other means are depicted with sheer visceral force and graphic detail. Were he still alive, “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah might have expressed admiration.

Clearly the battle scenes are where most of the estimated $200 million budget was spent, and they are more elaborate than any film since Saving Private Ryan—which, not coincidentally, was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Tom Hanks, two of the executive producers of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. As we begin to look at the miniseries as a whole (its 10-hour run comes to an end on Sunday, May 16), we can see that the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to show us that the battle-strewn islands that dotted the vast South Pacific were not all of a piece.

Film scholar Bernard F. Dick once noted that Hollywood never made a film which explained Japanese war aims, which is true, but the real problem with The Pacific is that it doesn’t explain American war aims.

There is a definite sense of place in each campaign: The jungle of Guadalcanal in Part 2, directed by David Nutter, is dark and foreboding; when soldiers on either side retreat into the trees and undergrowth they seem to be swallowed up by an enormous malignant creature. In Part 5, the coral island of Peleliu seems like a bright, poisonous paradise. Directed by Carl Franklin, who made the great films One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, this episode might be the best of the series. The fight for Iwo Jima in Part 8, co-directed by David Nutter and Jeremy Podeswa, is fought on black sands and volcanic ash. (Four thousand pounds of rock were mined, refined and shipped to the set in Australia and an additional 80 tons of white sand were painted black.) And the hellish struggle for Okinawa in Part 9, which airs this Sunday, directed by Tim Van Patten, veteran of both The Sopranos and Deadwood, seems to be happening on an endless wasteland of jagged rock on an alien planet.

But no matter how brutal and shocking even the best scenes are, there is a feeling that we’ve seen it before. War is hell; we get it. The only relief from the intensity of the war scenes is often melodrama as when one of the central figures, real-life Medal of Honor winner Sgt. John Basilone (played by Jon Seda), is killed and his body singled out from a field of corpses by an overhead camera in what seems like deification.

Despite the enormous team of producers, creative consultants, and writers (including Hugh Ambrose, son of the historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book for Band of Brothers, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan), The Pacific never comes together with a single artistic vision—perhaps because there were too many cooks in the mess hall. Nowhere in the entire 10 episodes do we get a sense of the terror-inspiring poetry of some great Japanese films on the war, such Fires on the Plain (1959) and The Burmese Harp (1956, remade in 1985) by the late great Kon Ichikawa, both made on relatively shoestring budgets. (Neither of Ichikawa’s films has much graphic battle footage.)

What’s lacking in The Pacific is not—to go back to Von Clausewitz’s language—the other means, but the state policy. Film scholar Bernard F. Dick once noted that Hollywood never made a film which explained Japanese war aims, which is true, but the real problem with The Pacific is that it doesn’t explain American war aims. There is no attempt to define our stake in the Pacific and Asia before 1941, our grand strategy during the war, or our ultimate goals. It is simply enough that we are Americans.

In interviews that ran on HBO before the series debut (which will be included in the DVD set, to be released later this year), Hanks says that one of his primary motivations was to correct the imbalance in the depiction of the Pacific War: “After Band of Brothers, I was besieged with letters and emails saying that we had an obligation to recreate the war in the Pacific. It’s true that, compared to the war in Europe, it’s been neglected by historians and filmmakers.”

If he really thinks that, then Hanks must have grown up in a cultural cocoon.

Most of the first actual combat films that Americans saw in movie theaters were about the Pacific campaign for the simple reason that it was where we were fighting first, before North Africa or Europe. (Some of the best newsreel footage was shot by our greatest film directors, John Ford and John Huston.) For the same reason, most of the first war films made by Hollywood were about the Pacific War, from Guadalcanal Diary (1943) to The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and dozens of others in between.

I’ve never seen a count, but I would bet that American films on the war against Japan outnumber those on the European theater by at least two to one, and in truth Hollywood has never lost its fascination with the War in the Pacific. Since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998 and beginning with the Normandy invasion, most World War II films have been set in the Pacific: Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (released in 1999), John Woo’s Windtalkers (2002), and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (released in 2006) and Letters From Iwo Jima (released in 2007). Ken Burns’ huge documentary The War, which aired in 2007, devoted as much time to the Pacific war as to the war in Europe and frankly did a far better job of explaining the big picture.

So what, exactly, does The Pacific show us that we haven’t seen in other films and elsewhere? The best thing about it is its evocation of civilian life in the 1940s, both in the U.S. and Australia. Filmed on location, Part 3 did a remarkable job recreating a small Greek community in Melbourne, where Marine Robert Leckie, engagingly portrayed by James Badge Dale, falls in love with the daughter of a first-generation Greek family. It was one of the few sequences in which I felt I was watching something that didn’t have the life story-boarded out of it. (Though Rami Melek as Merriell “Snafu” Shelton always surprises; his Marine corporal looks shell-shocked when introduced in Part 5, and by the time he returns home to New Orleans seems to have worked his way out of the furthest circle of Dante’s Hell.)

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Virtually everything else in The Pacific, however beautifully shot (perhaps a tad too beautifully in what Douglas Brinkley described in Time as “a faded Hawaiian postcard look” and well-acted feels as if it were intended to preserve, as if in amber, not just the memories but the attitudes of that time passed on to us from our parents and grandparents.

With Band of Brothers and now with The Pacific, Hanks has created what seems disturbingly close to an “official” history of World War II. It’s a handsome version, but one in which complexity, nuance, and perspective have been eliminated. It isn’t intended to challenge our notions about the war, but to confirm them; it’s as if every movie or TV show about the war years in the Pacific were put into one giant Cuisinart and blended together for those of us born after the war. The effect is to make us feel wistful for a time we did not live through.

The next war Hanks plans to tackle is Vietnam. This is an unsettling thought. World War II was a necessary war, and whatever our background or political stripe, it left us with issues we can still agree with and relate to. Vietnam, though, even after four decades, is still pregnant with divisive hot buttons. His approach won’t work for Vietnam, which will never be seen through the kind of nostalgic haze Hanks cast over The Pacific: It’s a war that can’t be amberized.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.