HBO’s Emmy Award winning miniseries, The Pacific, will be released in a smartly-boxed six DVD set on November 2. Beginning in December of 1941 and going through the end of the war in 1945, the series looks at the struggles in the Pacific theater through the dramatization of the real life experiences of three representative Marines and their comrades. It is not simply the story of the battles, although there is some of the most realistic depiction of the horrors of those famous battles—Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; it is also the story of the effects of these brutal struggles on the men who fought them.
The three central figures are Medal of Honor winner John Bosilone played by Jon Seda, Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale). The journeys of these three men provide a convenient point of departure and an excellent source of first person information, since both Sledge and Leckie wrote about their wartime experiences after the war: Leckie in the 1957, Helmet for My Pillow and Sledge in With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Bosilone, on the other hand, after his heroic actions on Guadalcanal, was ordered back to the United States to take part in the war bond drive and became a well known celebrity whose life was well documented. The series portrays the high, almost naïve, expectations of the men as they leave for the war zone, their reactions to the horrifying deaths and mutilations of their comrades and the fanaticism of the enemy, and the difficult adjustment to ordinary life after they return home.
The Pacific is not a glamorous, romanticized picture of war. There is heroism certainly, but it is the heroism of conquering fear and charging up a beach into the face of machine gun barrages; it is the heroism of trudging through mud in the heat of tropics with little or no water or time to rest; it is the heroism of doing what needs to be done to kill the enemy and to stay alive.
It is impossible to watch this series without tearing up at what these men went through. “War is hell” may have become something of a cliché, but every once in awhile we need to be reminded that what may be a cliché for those of us who never had to experience that horror, may well be a truth for those who do. With our armed forces fighting even now, it is a reminder clearly of the moment.
The series doesn’t shy away from some of the philosophical questions raised by war. For example, there is a discussion in the fifth episode between the newly arrived Sledge and the more veteran Leckie on the question of evil in a world created by a just God. The question of ends justifying means is raised when a soldier loses it in the middle of the night, begins screaming, and needs to be silenced before he gives away their position. They also need to deal with an enemy trying to kill them even as they tend his wounds. There is even some implied explanation and justification of the use of a nuclear bomb to end the war.
War brutalizes everyone involved in it, and the series doesn’t sugar coat the brutal behaviors of either side. We are shown how the Japanese used civilians as shields on Okinawa, and how, for example they turned one woman and her baby into a human bomb. But we are also shown marines digging gold teeth out of the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. We see them taking pot shots at an enemy soldier who seems to be surrendering. While these things are not quite morally equivalent, they do suggest that there is inhumane behavior on both sides.
Still when all is said and done The Pacific is most importantly a testament to the self-effacing courage of the marines that fought and died for their country. One extra included in the DVD is a set of profiles of some of the men featured in the film. Friends and relatives talk about them. Those still living talk about themselves and the others. They explain what it was like to be there and how it felt to come home. To a man, they declined to call themselves heroes; to a man they questioned why they were the ones that made it out alive. To a man they talk about the nightmares that still haunt them after fifty years. It is to the series’ credit that their service and the sacrifice of those who didn’t make it home are never trivialized; they are presented with honesty and integrity.
Other bonus materials included with the set are a feature on the making of the series, a special section on what they call the “Anatomy of the Pacific War,” and short historical narratives that can be played before each of the ten episodes. The first shows the care the production team took to create an accurate picture of what it was like on those islands, whether it was in creating a beach that looked like the real thing or trying to emulate the torrential rains. Actors were put through a boot camp to give them an insight into what the men they were playing actually went through. The “Anatomy” talks about the Japanese soldier and the Japanese attitude toward surrender. It focuses on the cultural attitudes fostered both in the East and the West that may well have been responsible for the brutality of the war. It tries to provide a larger perspective through which to view the events. The historical introductions are narrated by Tom Hanks and include clips from interviews with some of the veterans.