HBO’s The Pacific: Revisiting a War Epic

HBO's 2010 mini-series The Pacific, a follow-up to Band of Brothers, captured the visceral nightmare of war with powerful storytelling...

Warning: contains spoilers for The Pacific.

When the horrors of armed conflict are being portrayed on screen, one idea often incorporated is the notion that ‘war is hell’. From Apocalypse Now and Platoon to Generation Kill and Jarhead, there have been plenty of memorable examples of movies and TV series depicting men taking a journey into the heart of darkness during wartime. When it comes to capturing the sheer unrelenting hardship, despair and terror of war however, one of the most powerful examples in recent years came in the form of HBO’s epic 2010 mini-series, The Pacific.

The Pacific is of course a companion piece to the immensely successful 2001 mini-series Band of Brothers, with many of the same team working behind the scenes. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were both again on board as executive producers and alongside them, and something of a focal point for the series as a whole, was one of Band of Brothers’ chief writers, Bruce C. McKenna. The involvement of these key figures ensured that a similar aesthetic and a similar commitment to authenticity would also be found in this new venture. With HBO, Playtone and Dreamworks all involved in its production, and with its budget of an estimated $200 million making it the most expensive miniseries of all time, it was truly a colossal undertaking.

While Band of Brothers focused on the European theatre of conflict and the Parachute Infantry’s battles with Hitler’s Germany, this series instead focuses upon the war in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. Specifically, it charts the progress of the 1st Marine Division as they battled their way across various little-known islands in an attempt to push back Imperial Japan. It’s certainly arguable that in terms of the public consciousness, this sphere of conflict is considerably less well known than its European companion. The locations and historical events of the European war are much more firmly ingrained in our minds. As a result, some who fought in the Pacific theatre, including veterans interviewed for this series, have been known to refer to it as a something of a forgotten war.

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Most people are familiar with the war against Nazism and while there have also undoubtedly been notable movies depicting the war against Japan, they are nowhere near as abundant as those depicting the former. It remains in this regard a distant war, fought on little-known specks of land many thousands of miles away.

In terms of series structure, The Pacific takes a notable diversion from its predecessor. Band of Brothers memorably charted the movements of the same group of men, Easy Company in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, showing their experiences from preliminary training and on through their landing on D-Day and their battles through Holland and Belgium into Germany. This time, the focus is far more personal, with the episodes revolving around the experiences of three Marines from separate regiments and the toll the conflict takes upon them.

Just as Band of Brothers was based upon real-life accounts of veterans and their written memoirs (including those sourced by historian Stephen Ambrose in his book of the same name), The Pacific also sourced its content from true-life accounts. The two primary sources being With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie. These Marines are two of the primary focuses of the series, with the third focal point being Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone. The Pacific also follows in Band of Brothers’ footsteps by opening each episode with surviving veterans sharing their first-hand accounts of what happened. This remains a powerful and incredibly effective concept that really brings into focus the historical reality of the events we then see unfold.

John Basilone

John Basilone is truly a bona fide American hero. During World War Two, he was the only enlisted man in the Marines to be given both the Medal of Honour and the Navy Cross. Basilone earned the former for his actions during the battle of Guadalcanal, a battle shown in The Pacific’s second episode to devastating effect. John (played here by Jon Seda) and the rest of his men are left isolated on the island of Guadalcanal after their naval support is forced to beat a hasty retreat under enemy attack. The men are left with low ammunition, little clean water and meagre, maggot-filled rations. As one of the veterans at the episode’s outset states, the men were thrust into a situation where they could do nothing but “pray and hold on.”

Initially the enemy is conspicuous by its absence, but when the Japanese do finally arrive, they come in full force, leaving the Marines overwhelmingly outnumbered. The attack comes at night and the added chaos and confusion which this brings is captured perfectly by the showrunners. Despite the enemy being barely visible, bullets relentlessly fly past soldiers’ heads and mortars are exploding constantly. It’s a visceral and frantic engagement and we as viewers are plunged straight into the middle it all. Amidst the firefight, Basilone in particular shows extreme heroism when he holds off unseen numbers of Japanese soldiers and even moves a smoking hot machine gun with his bare hands in order to obtain a better position. He also makes a deadly mission to obtain ammo for his squad, all the while dodging bullets and fighting off the enemy.

The true extent of Basilone’s actions in this battle are perhaps even more extraordinary than the show suggests. Basilone and around 15 other men faced as many as 3000 Japanese soldiers in an astounding onslaught that lasted nearly two days. Eventually only Basilone and two other Marines were left standing, yet they still held their position and virtually wiped out the Japanese forces. Jon Seda does a stellar job of capturing the bravery and dynamism that Basilone showed that night, looking every bit the all-American hero as he charged headlong into danger.

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Once word of Basilone’s heroism reaches top brass back home however, he is immediately pulled off the lines and instead turned into the poster boy for America’s war bonds drive. As this sideshow plays out, John begins to feel increasingly guilty for leaving his fellow Marines behind. Despite mixing with film stars and receiving superstar treatment wherever he goes, over the course of the series we see John become increasingly restless. Even after falling in love and marrying Lena, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve he meets whilst training new recruits, he still pushes for a return to battle and is eventually sent off to help take Iwo Jima.

When Basilone and his green recruits land on Iwo Jima in episode eight, John once again shows bravery and leadership, driving his petrified men on and up the beach. This hellish battle may only be relatively brief on the show, but it shares many similarities with Spielberg’s own unforgettable recreation of the Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan. Most crucially it shows the terror and confusion that engulfed so many of those involved. The showrunners do a great job of making Basilone seem nigh-on indestructible as he charges into battle, leading by example and inspiring awe in those around him. It’s his courageous and unselfish actions however that make his subsequent death all the more powerful.

When he is finally hit, it’s a wonderfully shot moment as the camera slowly pulls out and upward, framing John lying in the mud as the chaos and destruction continues to whirl on around him. He died a revered national hero and to this day, John’s home town holds a parade every year in his honour. 

Robert Leckie

The second central character we follow is PFC Robert Leckie, played by James Badge Dale. Leckie starts out the series as a literary, smart and jovial guy who is instantly likeable and popular with his fellow men. It’s in Leckie though that we see the first signs of the psychological impact the conflict has upon the Marines.

Leckie and his friends are first put into action on Cape Gloucester before moving on to Pavuvu. During episode four the show highlights the role that the terrible conditions found in these locations played in grinding down the morale of the men. The men face torrential tropical storms and lived in constant discomfort and squalor; this leads to a range of diseases and ailments constantly befalling them as they all struggle to simply survive. As one veteran put it at the episode’s outset, “now our enemy is the jungle itself.”

Leckie eventually suffers from nocturnal enuresis (bed wetting) brought about by the stress of war. While this is of course embarrassing and troubling for Leckie, we also see one officer commit suicide during their time on Pavuvu, a testament to the harrowing and dehumanizing impact the war was having on these men. Leckie himself was forced to take time away from the front line to recover at a nearby hospital. Much like with John Basilone however, his time away leads him to feel guilty at being apart from his friends, and he struggles to identify with the comfortable life people continued with away from the front. He eventually returns to the lines and joins up with his buddies in time for perhaps the series’ most unforgettable moment, the battle on Peleliu.

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Eugene Sledge

It’s on Peleliu that we first follow Corporal Eugene ‘Sledgehammer’ Sledge, played by Joseph Mazzello. Mazzello is perhaps the stand out performer in the series and of all the characters we see; it’s Sledge who goes through the biggest transformation. At the series’ outset, he is filled with a sense of duty but nevertheless has to stay behind and watch while his childhood friend, Sidney Phillips, goes off to war. His father, a doctor, at first keeps him from enlisting, but eventually a determined Sledge persuades him to let him go and fight. His father remembered treating veterans from the First World War however and his prescient words echo in both Sledge’s and our ears:

“The worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War wasn’t that they had had their flesh torn, it was that they had had their souls torn out. I don’t want to look in your eyes someday, and see no spark, no love, no life. That would break my heart.”

The battle for Peleliu spans the bulk of episode six and seven and tellingly one of the veterans interviewed describes the experience simply as “a nightmare.” Sledge arrives with a baptism of fire during a brutal beach landing that in itself costs many lives. Worse was to come however when the Marines are tasked with capturing an airfield held by the Japanese. In sweltering 110 degree heat, and with no water supplies, the conditions are dry, arid and utterly inhospitable.

The tension in the moments building up to the charge across the airfield is palpable. The director cuts to various groups of men, smoking their remaining cigarettes, their nerves cut to shreds as they await their fate. After this brief calm before the storm, all hell is then unleashed once the charge begins. Men are mown down left right and centre and it’s a miracle any of them make it through at all. Leckie and his friends are hit hard, with both him and Runner ultimately suffering serious injuries that see them put out of action and returned home. As the charge continues, the sound of screams fills the air and the bodies begin to pile up. It’s utter terror and the show plunges us right into the centre of it. For me, this harrowing sequence is right up there alongside the very best of TV and movie battle scenes.

The airfield battle was shown to be just the start of the nightmare on Peleliu however. Episode seven chronicles what followed after the airfield was finally won and the men pushed on into the island’s hillside. It’s well documented that the tenacious Japanese soldiers were conditioned to never surrender. They fought to the death, seeing surrender as an unacceptable weakness. As a result, the Marines were forced to fight to the last man for every inch of ground.

Much like the events that occurred in Bastogne and The Breaking Point in Band of Brothers, it’s this episode that captures the soldiers finally tipping over the edge. For thirty days and nights they were surrounded by death and constantly facing the threat of attack. As a result, we see them slowly begin to unravel, with Sledge himself losing any sense of the compassion he once had. The sense of duty and pride he initially felt has visibly drained from his face and his father’s words are brought sharply into focus.

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By the time Sledge and his group leave Peleliu, they are shadows of their former selves, numbed and utterly drained. Snafu (Rami Malek) has already earlier shown his cold nature when he stole gold teeth from the heads of dying Japanese soldiers. His own desensitization is further highlighted when he begins casually tossing rocks into the cracked open head of a nearby Japanese body. A shocking moment that reinforces the fact that The Pacific does not hold back one bit from showing the blood, guts and gore which was so prevalent in this conflict.

One of the most shocking revelations in these episodes is the fact that the battle of Peleliu was ultimately completely futile. The island was never actually used in the retaking of the Philippines as was originally planned and served no military purpose. As a result it became something of a forgotten battle, despite it costing the lives of 6500 Marines, nearly a third of the 1st Division’s men.

Sledge takes centre stage again in episode nine, when he arrives on the island of Okinawa. Once more, the conditions the men faced are almost unimaginable. Torrential rain had turned the island into an inhospitable mud bath. The jagged cliffs were a great hiding place for the Japanese and much like in Peleliu, it’s the unseen enemy that causes so much fear.

By this stage, Sledge is a weary veteran, cynical and without any sympathy for the enemy. His breaking point was long ago and he and Snafu struggle to tolerate their as-yet unbroken new recruits. Eugene does experience a moment of redemption of sorts however and we see a rare moment of tenderness when he finds an elderly woman, a civilian casualty of the war, slowly dying in her hut. She gestures at him to finish her off with his rifle, but instead, Sledge simply cradles her in his arms until she passes away, a brief flicker of humanity returning to his face.

The series as a whole is shockingly brutal in places and doesn’t flinch from showing the full extent of what these Marines were witness to. The irreparable psychological damage the war had on these young men is very much one of the show’s key focuses. One of the most clear examples of this and also one of the series’ most moving moments, comes in the final episode when Eugene is finally back home with his parents and is struggling to adjust to civilian life. He’s already had difficulty finding a job and appeared increasingly out of place at social functions. Then when his father takes him out to go shooting in nearby woods, the memories of what he experienced begin to flood back and Sledge simply breaks down in his father’s arms, unwilling to kill any more living things and unable to shake the horrors he has seen.

One thing The Pacific does hit upon which Band of Brothers did not perhaps so readily is the moral grey area which the men in the Pacific theatre faced. We see American soldiers keeping a Japanese solider alive, prolonging his suffering rather than killing him instantly. They tear the gold teeth out of still alive Japanese soldiers and in one scene we see them verbally abuse and physically assault a prisoner of war. This is coupled with the undertones of racial hatred towards the Japanese people that crops up in slurs and denigrating stereotypes.

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The point being made here, however, is that it was the perilous and horrific conditions these men found themselves in which drove them to such lengths. We as viewers are forced to ask, could they be reasonably expected to act moral in such a scenario? Were these occasional acts not borne out of desperation and in many regards a reaction to those of the Japanese army themselves?

As a whole, the series unquestionably suffers by comparison to its phenomenal predecessor. It doesn’t feel quite as linear and dramatically gripping as Band of Brothers, as while that series focused so squarely on one group of men; The Pacific does jump around and spreads your focus much wider. As a result, you perhaps don’t feel such a close connection to the characters on screen and witness as much of their personal journey. That being said, few series will ever compare to Band of Brothers and this remains a truly astonishing piece of TV drama in its own right.

The Pacific is powerful, insightful and unmissable watching. The battle scenes in particular are outstanding and the sense of atmosphere created, a mixture of desperation and constant impending danger, is exceptional.

One of the key themes of the show is a sense of futility experienced by these men, their actions seemingly overlooked by many both during and after the war itself. In some small way, The Pacific stands as a fitting tribute to what they achieved.