Heroes Or Victims? The Pacific

As an avid devotee of Band of Brothers, probably the greatest war movie ever made, I was looking forward to The Pacific, which promised to do for the Pacific theater of operations what Band of Brothers did for the European theater. The Pacific was made by the same team (Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, in particular), and the coming attractions looked great.

Then, shortly before it aired, Tom Hanks had to open his mouth and spew some of the most mindless drivel anyone in Hollywood has ever vomited forth.

Suddenly, The Pacific was mired in controversy. I grit my teeth, but set my DVR to record the whole thing. In honor of Memorial Day, I watched all ten hours this past week.

Much of The Pacific is excellent, riveting film making. The characters were rich and deep, the suspense at times nearly unbearable, and the choice to over saturate the film to lighten everything and thus bring out the brightness of the tropical setting was inspired (and a direct contrast to Band of Brothers, which was desaturated to the point of nearly being black and white). It was also, unfortunately, disjointed and appeared like it was trying to do too much. What made Band of Brothers work was the unifying elements that tied together all ten episodes. Based on the true story of Easy Company, Band of Brothers followed the same group of men throughout their triumphs and tragedies as they made their inexorable way from the beaches of Normandy to Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop hideaway, the Eagle’s Nest. Because the war in the Pacific was fought so differently, it was not possible for the filmmakers to take the same approach.

The Pacific, instead, focuses on three individuals (Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and John Basilone) who between them saw action in most of the major hot spots of the war: Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The producers’ reasons for doing it this way are valid, but the result was having major characters appear and disappear for hours at a time. In essence, it was like watching three films about the Pacific, rather than one cohesive story.

The major difference between Brothers and The Pacific did come down to a certain political slant. Brothers first aired in September 2001 and in the intervening years America has become war-weary and Hollywood has been particularly strident in their view of all things war-related. There have been a plethora of movies released about the War in Iraq and almost all of them have been poorly disguised political broadsides. This mentality takes a toll on The Pacific, as well.

One of the most emotional lines in Band of Brothers is when one of the surviving veterans says, “I wasn’t a hero. But I served in a company of heroes.” After seeing what those men went through on D-Day, in Operation Market Garden, and most especially in The Battle of the Bulge, it’s almost impossible to hear that line and not weep with gratitude for these men and their incredible heroism. The sense that we are watching heroes who fought and died for our freedom is what was missing from The Pacific.

It’s not as if there are no battlefield heroics on display. The courage of Medal of Honor winner John Basilone is amazing to watch, and seeing how these men coped with the nightmarish conditions that they lived through day after day is awe-inspiring. What was missing from The Pacific was context.

In the ninth episode of Band of Brothers, Easy Company came upon a Nazi work camp, filled with emaciated Jews who had managed to escape death but were subjected to beatings and starvation and forced slave labor. The horror on the faces of the soldiers at finding this camp, soldiers who had been through the worst of the combat, told the story. The episode was called, simply, “Why We Fight,” and it put all the earlier episodes and the horrific battles into perspective. The war in Europe was not a series of disjointed battles, it was a large campaign to end the reign of one of the world’s worst monsters.

The War in the Pacific was fought for similar reasons. The military dictatorship in Japan was just as bloodthirsty and eugenicist as the Nazis, maybe even more so.

True to the idiotic statements by Tom Hanks, there was an accent on the racism of the American troops in The Pacific. Eugene Sledge, in particular, becomes increasingly hateful of his Japanese enemies. He wants to see them all dead and at one point wishes that he could strangle them rather than shoot them, presumably because strangling is more personal. The problem with The Pacific is not that it shows the American troops saying things about “yellow, slant-eyed monkeys” or wishing for the deaths of the entire Japanese race. The problem is that there is no explanation for why American troops might have felt this way.

By the time of Peleliu and Okinawa, American troops were all too familiar with the incredible brutality of the Japanese troops. American troops had seen the way the Japanese military treated native islanders throughout the Pacific, and had at least heard stories about what the Japanese did to American POWs. This brutal side of the Japanese, which was endemic to their code of warfare, is hinted at in The Pacific, most notably in a scene where an Okinawan woman with a baby is strapped with dynamite and sent to the American front line as a walking bomb. But all too often the Japanese military is portrayed as merely being brave fighters who don’t believe in surrender. While there’s no denying the bravery of the Japanese military, it was not their tenacity and strength that caused the Americans to hate them so much. It was their unbelievable cruelty towards anyone who was not Japanese, not to mention that it was the Japanese military that successfully, and sneakily, attacked America at Pearl Harbor. For many of the fighting men in the Pacific, the war against Japan was personal in a way that it was not for the men in Europe.

Racism in times of war is regrettable, but it is a very understandable human tendency to think of the enemy, whomever they may be, as monsters. The problem with the comments made by Tom Hanks, aside from the profound historical mistakes, is that it assumes that racism was the cause of the war and not a part of the result. For the Japanese, this is partially true. They did view other races as subhuman. For the Americans, the war was a defense of our freedoms. In the end, this idea of what we were fighting for is what The Pacific was missing. It was a crucial mistake on the part of the producers, because the reason the Americans fought, more so than just battlefield bravery, was what made them heroes. Without that context, the Marines in The Pacific often come across as mere victims of geopolitical war games.

The battle scenes were truly terrifying, and I was glad to see the largely forgotten battle of Peleliu get some overdue recognition. The acting was uniformly excellent, especially Joseph Mazzello as Eugene Sledge, James Badge Dale as Robert Leckie, and Jon Seda as John Basilone. It is unquestionably worth watching and a valuable addition to the canon of films about the war for its unflinching portrayal of the horrors of the Pacific campaign. But without a unifying thread, and without the context of the larger reason for the war, The Pacific was a series of set pieces and not a unified whole. What was shown on the screen was often extraordinary; what was left out was the difference between a great miniseries and a work of cinematic art.

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One thought on “Heroes Or Victims? The Pacific

  1. Excellent review. I enjoyed watching the Pacific, but agree that certain information was left out. There was no mention what so ever of the Bataan Death March. Historic for it’s brutality and inhuman treatment of civilians and soldiers alike.

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