So here it is, finally, after three long years in the making and a reported $230million budget, the latest extraordinary HBO mini-series, the most expensive drama ever, has at last landed. The Pacific, if you haven’t been made aware of the enormous hype, is an epic ten-part war drama focussing on US Marines in the Pacific theatre of operations in World War II.
A companion piece, rather than a sequel, to 2001’s outstanding Band of Brothers which followed a company of soldiers fighting in Europe, The Pacific has been brought about from the same creative team – Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are executive producing – and both series had their impetus from the success of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. That film, in particular its hugely acclaimed and brutally realistic opening act depicting the Normandy landings, set the gold standard for war movies and remains one of the most influential cinematic depictions of war ever made. That’s a pretty hefty track record to have as a precedent.
As if that was not enough pressure on the producers, The Pacific’s subject matter is somewhat more complex. With neither the historical account of Stephen Ambrose’s book that Band of Brothers was based on, nor the straightforward, loosely-based-on-real-events original script of Saving Private Ryan, here we instead find three very different Marines’ memoirs carefully etched together as the basis for a cohesive narrative. It’s nothing if not problematic for the writers who have adapted these real life accounts to have three quite separate central characters interweaving in a ten hour story.
The setting is also perhaps not immediately auspicious as most war films or series. Aside from Michael Bay’s fairly awful Pearl Harbor, and Clint Eastwood’s superb Flags of Our Fathers double release in 2006, it’s difficult to think of many memorable films set in the Pacific war. As a setting it’s been given short shrift by Hollywood which tends to favour the European war – after all, Hitler is the ultimate bad guy. Consequently, the war against the Empire of Japan is not as conspicuous in most people’s minds when they think of the Second World War, sometimes being called the ‘forgotten theatre’ of the war. With all this in mind, could messrs Spielberg and Hanks create something that audiences would take to with the acclaim and admiration they gave its predecessors?
If there was ever any doubt of this nature, there needn’t have been. The Pacific is seriously good. After being lucky enough to attend a preview screening of the first two episodes I feel that ‘mini-series’ is something of a misnomer. This is as epic a series as there ever was, in every conceivable sense – in scale, in vision, in ambitious narratives, in uncompromisingly realistic portrayals of battle and in attempting to once again dissect and understand and horror of war.
As has been noted, this is not Band of Brothers 2, so those expecting a carbon copy might be disappointed at first. The first episode is not devoted to training camp, as Brothers did so memorably with David Schwimmer playing the reviled Capt. Sobel. Instead, we dive right into the action, opening in December 1941, shortly after the fateful Pearl Harbor bombings and America’s subsequent entry into the war. This does have the initial effect of being tricky to relate to the principal characters – we don’t quite join them from the moment their journey begins. The characters here are somewhat disparate; we lose the team element that Easy Company had in Band of Brothers. Coupled with the occasional problem viewers have of distinguishing soldiers on screen when they are helmeted in uniform and covered in dirt, a potential risk arises of losing the affinity between character and audience.
But these are minor concerns. By the end of the second episode I already found myself emotionally attached to three leads. The standout character so far seems to be Robert Leckie (played with thought and attention by James Badge Dale) on whose memoir the series is partly based. Nicknamed the Professor for his unusual eloquence and penchant for poetry, he makes for a robust and fascinating principle.
Jon Seda as the heroic John Basilone is also a first-rate lead character and an inspired choice. In episode two, he essentially defends successfully and single-handedly against an entire Japanese division, willingly receives third-degree burns on a red-hot machine gun in order to lift it to a better position, and mid-battle, clears the enormous pile of bodies deep in enemy territory in order to get a better view for the gunners. His role is all the more powerful as it is very deliberately based on the real life Basilone, who earned a Medal of Honor for his actions (the highest medal given in the US military).
There’s some fine acting on show, from a cast of relative unknowns, who all went through two weeks of ‘full immersion field training’ from Vietnam veteran Capt. Dale Dye (who played the legendary General Sink in Band of Brothers). It shows on screen, too – the camaraderie, the military banter, adds to the sheer believability of it all. At the end of episode one, the soldiers sing ‘Happy Birthday To You’ to you to a marine, followed by the additional verse ‘How Fucked Are You Now’.
The gallows humour never last long, though. One scene sees Private Conley being mocked good-naturedly by his friends as he desperately attempts to fight dysentry and relieve himself behind a tree; his efforts are cut short by a devastating aerial attack from the Japanese. Later, Conley reflects soberly that if a woman in a Japanese factory put just thirty grams more explosive in one of the bombs, “that would be us”.
When we do see battle onscreen, it is full-on shock and awe. The first two episodes are set in the Solomon Islands, on the tiny island of Guadacanal, which is mostly jungle; this naturally evokes the horrors of Vietnam, the dangers of the unknown. The sense of impending doom when a Colonel is told “the entire fucking Japanese army is heading your way sir” is chilling. We’ve had plenty of directors tell us ‘war is hell’ before, but this feels like anything but a retread. It’s both visceral and awful, exciting and terrifying.
And the attention to detail and devotion to accuracy is extraordinary. The sight of thousands of Allied soldiers landing on the beaches of Guadalcanal, or the distant fighting between the battleships is breathtaking and heart-stopping, helped presumably in no small part by some pretty flawless CGI. It’s astonishingly well-shot, entirely in HD, not for a minute lapsing, arguably more impressive and more harrowing than Saving Private Ryan. Realism is the watchword here, and everything looks so real as to be utterly immersive. The anticipation, excitement, claustrophobia and ultimate anti-climax and tragedy of war portrayed is totally absorbing. It left me speechless.
At the close of episode two, when Leckie and his friends are finally relieved of combat after a year and drink coffee for the first time in months, the ship’s young cook informs them: “you guys are heroes back home”. In any other movie or series such a line would seem cheesy, sentimental, crass even. In The Pacific it is not only excusable, it is entirely appropriate, and by the same token incredibly moving. In just two short hours I already felt a strong bond with these characters and at this moment found myself welling up. This is powerful, overwhelming, defiantly cinematic television.
And yet, after just two episodes, it’s clear that the best is yet to come. The series is spanning a long period, nearly four years, so there is a huge amount to cover, and a wealth of character exploration to come. The first two episodes only lightly touched on Eugene Sledge, a young man with a heart murmur whose father refused him permission to go to war. The end of the second hour showed Sledge defying his parents and enlisting; since it is his memoir that the series is also based, we can expect to see a lot more from him.
The Pacific is a series, like Band of Brothers, that people will watch and cherish for years to come. I look forward to buying the boxset and having a weekend episode marathon with friends. It is surely a classic in the making. It has begun airing in the US on HBO already, and in the UK begins on Sky Movies HD on Monday 5th April. I urge you to watch it and, like me, find your petty modern problems pale in significance to the unique experiences of the soldiers portrayed. You will not regret it.