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HBO’s ‘The Pacific': About as Real as Hell on Screen Can Get

By Gene Santoro
3/12/2010 • World War II

Photo courtesy of HBO
Photo courtesy of HBO

10-part miniseries
Premieres March 14 at 9 pm on HBO.

On Peleliu, during one of the bloodiest and arguably most pointless battles of World War II, Alabama-born Eugene Sledge, a.k.a. Sledgehammer, and his Louisiana pal Shelton, a.k.a. Snafu, share a brief respite. Inside a bunker whose roof and walls have been mostly blown off are two dead Japanese. One is bullet-riddled and leaning up against the wall whose opposite side Sledge squats wearily next to. The other has his skull top sliced neatly off, revealing a bloody puddle within. Above him perches Snafu, who scoops up pebbles and drops them metronomically, almost absent-mindedly, into the open brain pan—PLUNK, PLUNK, PLUNK.

Between inevitable eruptions of rage and terror on war’s front lines, numbness is all. The two marines are mostly silent. Finally Sledge, reacting to the repeated PLUNK, hauls himself up, unsheathes his knife, clambers around what’s left of the wall dividing him from the intact dead Japanese. He’s about to dig out the corpse’s gold teeth, as he’s seen others, including Snafu, do. Then Snafu drawls softly but imperiously, “You don’t wanna do that, Sledgehammer.” The verbal jockeying is a seesawing stalemate till Snafu says, almost gently, “You a doctor’s son, right? Medics say these Japs got weird germs, get to ya after they’re dead. You don’t wanna do that, do ya?”

That lets Sledge retarget his rage: “All right with you if I take this insignia, then?” “Oh, yeah,” Snafu is pure nonchalance now. “Insignia got no germs.”

A surreal pact between foxhole buddies: Snafu helps Sledge hang on to a tattered piece of his prewar humanity in one of the most forsaken places war has ever seen.

At its best, The Pacific, the 10-episode HBO miniseries, captures the myriad realities of what hell does to its inhabitants—including moments of redemption. In that and other ways, it’s a more tightly focused Band of Brothers, moved halfway around the globe.

Three marines—Sledge, John Basilone, and Robert Leckie, real men who fought in the Pacific theater—are the miniseries’ main characters. Their individual stories intertwine to provide narrative continuity, but are divergent enough to offer historically accurate and dramatically effective angles on ground-level aspects of the Pacific war, from Guadalcanal through Okinawa.

Leaving his large, boisterous Italian family after their 1941 holiday dinner, John Basilone (Jon Seda) earns a Medal of Honor for his outsized heroics after the deceptively easy landing on Guadalcanal. He becomes the Corps’ first and, at this dark hour, badly needed, hero, embraced by a reeling America: he muscles a heavy machine gun with his bare hands while he charges around raking flocks of enemy troops.

In Australia for R and R, he nearly pukes on the award letter Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller shows him. Puller persuades him to go back home for a Hollywood starlet–studded bond drive tour: “You know what we need out here, and it all costs money.” Basilone does his duty—staying in hotels’ presidential suites, bedding starlets, appearing on radio and at Radio City Music Hall. Finally, he can’t take it. So he bails out to train new boots at Camp Pendleton, finds love and gets married, and reups for another hitch so he can go with his company to Iwo Jima.

Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale) gets blooded on Guadalcanal as a hardened, sharp-tongued rifleman, where he and Basilone at times pass each other—first when Basilone’s unit is pulled off the line and passes Leckie’s, its replacement.

‘Neither documentary nor historical overview, The Pacific is outstanding historical drama’

Leckie meets a Greek girl during the marines’ Australian regrouping, and is adopted into her family until she cuts him cold when he’s ordered to New Britain. There, the endless rain and mud and blood infest his deepening sense of isolation and rejection, spurred by his lieutenant’s riding; he short-circuits physically and mentally, and develops enuresis—uncontrollable urination. That lands him in a hospital, with tropical sun and startling white bed linen and starched nurses and an affable shrink who, dispelling Leckie’s fears, shrugs, “I don’t do anything here except check people out and send them back.” He lugs his growing cache of books to Pavuvu, the marines’ new staging area, and crosses paths with Eugene Sledge.

Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) follows a boyhood chum into the marines; they reunite on Pavuvu, after the newbie passes a hard-ass old gunnery sergeant lunging fiercely with his fixed bayonet into imaginary Japanese troops. Laughed out of Leckie’s tent in his search for a bunk—one of many times replacements are ragged, ignored, or taunted by vets, each “generation” in its turn—he comes back to browse the books, and comes up with a Bible. “Ah, a believer,” sneers Leckie. “Me, I believe in ammunition.”

After landing on Peleliu, frozen in fascinated fear as he watches the doors of his landing craft open up to a growing blaze of white light like something from a dream, Sledge bolts onto the exploding, body-strewn beach, where he finds out exactly what Leckie means.

Part of what makes war hell is the desperate disorientation that engulfs each individual. Homicidal chaos surrounds you and all you have left are your autonomic training, your buddies, and whatever passes for your luck. The aggressive battle sequences in The Pacific mimic and convey that to devastating effect. Expanding on models like Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima flicks and television’s Homicide: Life on the Street, at pressurized moments the frame stutters and shakes, perspectives shift and jumble, suddenly flaring light is swallowed by spews of smoke and dust and the odd body part while men drop relentlessly, some shredding, some exploding, some crumpling, their screams lost in the tremendous tumult. It’s about as visceral and real as hell on screen can get.

Neither documentary nor historical overview, The Pacific is outstanding historical drama. It matches dazzling camera work with solid and evocative ensemble acting; generally sharp pacing; varied, if sometimes formulaic, romantic interludes; welcome if familiar forms of comic relief and spiky gallows humor; and careful attention to historical verisimilitude in scenery, costumes, weapons, and materiel. All of it is expertly laced with the virtuosic emotional tension-and-release executive producer Steven Spielberg has made his trademark.

Each episode opens with documentary footage, narrated by executive producer Tom Hanks and punctuated with on-camera testimony from surviving marine vets, some of them represented in the miniseries. No mere gesture, this is a cunning, knowing nod to the distance between history and historical movies—a distance The Pacific does its cinematic best to bridge, with powerful success.

Read exclusive interviews with Bruce McKenna, The Pacific‘s chief screenwriter and co-executive producer, and Capt. Dale Dye, military advisor to the miniseries.

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11 Responses to HBO’s ‘The Pacific': About as Real as Hell on Screen Can Get

  1. unbuttoned 10 says:

    Hollywood, which has been selling out for decades to the most awesomely genocidal regime history has ever seen —ACROSS the
    Pacific —can make all the seen-to-death WWII retreads –with all the
    PC trimmings in Malibu it wants —it still AIN’T gonna’ wash.


  2. John Beatty says:

    It’s OK, but it’s Hollywood, and that means it does a lot of compromising.

    For instance, tracers were removed from MG belts fairly early, but it’s a lot less spectacular. Grenades are more like artillery in the movies, and nothing’s different here.

    The Marines are much too well fed, not yellow enough, and morale remains high, all things we know from the record are inaccurate.

    No matter. It’s HOLLYWOOD!

  3. SteveD says:

    This review is long on summary and short on review. Not very useful–except for spoiling the plot.

  4. Robert says:

    Please NOTE: When refering to a a member of the USMC (Marine) , Marine is ALWAYS capitalized !!! Semper Fi… , Thank you…RL…

  5. ErikB says:

    Crap, pure crap.

  6. Kent Schoffstall says:

    I am not a veteran of the Pacific war and this story is not my own. But it is my Dad’s. He served with the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. At the battle of the Teneru, the battle shown at the end of the first episode of The Pacific, Dad led a 37 mm antitank crew that fired directly on the massed Japanese assault on Marine positions.

    He would never talk about it. I understand that the men who really saw horrible things in combat seldom talked about the war. Perhaps for that reason, my Dad didn’t like Sledge’s book, a memoir about the 1st Marine Division battles that followed Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. I think Sledge spoke about things that most Marines kept private and wanted to forget — the absolute horror and brutality of that no-quarter war.

    I am emotionally tied to these scenes in The Pacific. As far as I can tell in the first two episodes, they are accurate. And maybe, they tell part of the story that my Dad would never share. Part of what he did share is there — the Japanese shells (“sounding like freight trains coming over you”) slamming into the Marine perimeter around Henderson field; the abandonment of the Marines by the American navy at Guadalcanal; eating wormy, captured Japanese rice and raw fish.

    And yet, a part of the story is not there. The Marines who spent six months or more on Guadalcanal were young boys and recent civilians. They fought against the cream of theJapanese Army, which had never been defeated. A few Marines, desperately outnumbered and under supplied, and surrounded for months at a time by the Japanese navy, fought their enemy to a standstill and prevailed against him.

    The true significance of their battle is hard to get across on screen, I think. But I believe The Pacific is a fitting tribute to my Dad and the thousands of Marines like him. This was their war.

  7. pg 2010 says:

    Having made BILLIONS upon BILLIONS these past decades
    catering to the franchise-slum and denial needs of history’s
    MOST awesomely genocidal regime —-ACROSS the Pacific
    Holllywood continues to run for moral cover behind ad nauseum,
    anachronistic, PC WWII retreads —–EVEN ON THIS
    -the once again ‘mysteriusly overlooked’ 60th Anniversary
    of the genuinely epic, relevant —indeed STILL unfolding
    ——–KOREAN WAR!

    Guys! —STOP being such set-up soul saps!
    In 2010 —-it’s DANGEROUS!

  8. Shelley Heard says:

    My dad set foot on Peleliu shortly after D-day. His letters home were reserved. “Suffice to say that the Marines had ponchos over them and the Japs didn’t.” It was ugly, and sad, stuff.

    I respect Mr. Hanks and his mission to tell the story, but if you have read THE book (With the Old Breed), then you know that poetic license has diminished the story a bit. READ THE BOOK! if you care about this story, READ THE BOOK. Thank you, Eugene Sledge, Sir.

    BTW, Snafu did not have that conversation about dental hygiene with Sledge. As big as the budget was, you’d think they’d tell the story as it was written..

  9. juan says:

    What a bunch of whiney critics. This series does a very good job of capturing the essence of the 2 books it was based upon. I’ve read them both several times and “The Pacific” remains faithful to them.

  10. eber hart says:

    Nice of Hollywood to come up with yet another ad nauseum, done-to-death PC WWII retread -er’ we mean ‘tribute’ —even as they rake in BILLIONS upon BILLIONS shamelessly catering to the franchise slum
    denial needs of history’s –MOST– awesomely genocidal regime
    —ACROSS the Pacific (70 million exterminated in ‘peacetime’ long AFTER WWII -unoutted, unanswered for, unmentioned in ANY Hollywood film -EVER!- FACT)).

    ESP. galling as millions continue to suffer and die on this, the once again ‘mysteriously overlooked’ 60th Anniversary of the chillingly
    relevant, STILL unfolding —KOREAN WAR…


  11. Henry says:

    If you’re going to quote the movie at least get the quotes right.

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