The Wars On Film: The Pacific and War as Horror

The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various  tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention it in the comments.

“War is Hell” – General William Tecumseh Sherman

We’ve all heard this quote. Whether in history class, in casual conversation, on television, or from some other source, this quote has been seared into our brains. It is thus curious that for the majority of our history, across the wide variety of entertainment mediums available to us, war has been depicted as a glorious and honorable endeavor, cleaned up and punched up in order to sell us on it’s glory and necessity. However in the last thirty-five years or so, a new trend emerged, as more and more filmmakers began to make the conscious decision to depict war as it is, not always eliminating the heroism but leaving all of the horror and cruelty preserved. These films, known by many cinephile’s as “anti-war war films” include such classics as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, Full Metal Jacket and many many more. It is within this specific sub-genre that we find Spielberg and Hanks’ Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and while both feature their fair share of brutality, The Pacific takes it to a whole other level, as it repeatedly hammers away at the horrors of war.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Isn’t this series “The Wars on Film”, shouldn’t you be doing a film for your second piece instead of another mini-series?”, and you would be right, except after watching Band of Brothers, I really wanted to watch The Pacific, and my fellow writers did a horrible job dissuading me, so, here we are. There’s a good deal to dissect with this mini-series so I’m going to dive right in and do my best to not go too long.

When discussing The Pacific it is important to acknowledge the things that it did differently than it’s predecessor Band of Brothers. The primary difference between the two is the scope of the two mini-series.  When producing The Pacific Spielberg, Hanks,and the rest of the creative team managed to both simultaneously widen and narrow the scope of the story in comparison to Band of Brothers.  While the latter focused in on an entire company and followed them throughout the various campaigns and battles that they fought in the war, the former instead zeros in on three Marines: Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone, and hops between their individual stories throughout the war as they intersect and branch off, with the camera rarely being away from at least one of them for more than a few minutes. As such all other characters in the story are for the most part only focused on to the extent to which they interact with and impacted the stories of Leckie, Sledge and Basilone. As with it’s predecessor, all soldiers depicted in The Pacific share the names and stories of the actual soldiers who participated in this specific theater of war, with the bulk of the story being based on the specific memoirs of Leckie and Sledge, with additional materiel being pulled from the writings of those who knew Basilone, who (spoilers ahead if you have not watched it) was killed during the initial landing on Iwo Jima. With a budget of $200 Million, The Pacific was even more expensive than it’s predecessor and remains to this day the most expensive mini-series event of all time, and the most expensive television series in history based on average per episode budget, though a third series by Spielberg and Hanks may soon surpass it by what is reported to be a significant margin. It is because of all of these things that when compared to it’s predecessor, The Pacific is indeed a unique beast; wider in scope and ambition, yet at the same time far more personal, and while Band of Brothers was not all sunshine and rainbows by any stretch of the imagination, The Pacific still finds itself the darker, more brutal series. I should also add before I move forward that this mini-series does in fact take on special significance to me, as my great grandfather actually served alongside Eugene Sledge in the Battle of Okinawa, though I cannot confirm if the two ever met.

By far the most fascinating thing about The Pacific is the choice made in how to depict The War in The Pacific and it’s impact on the soldiers that fought in it. The horrors of war that were present in the European theatre, are magnified, with new ones emerging as well. The soldiers who fought in the Pacific theater faced an enemy unlock any American forces had faced before, one from a culture that did not place value on individual human lives, to whom articles of war were of little interest, and who viewed death on the battlefield to always be preferable to surrender. This can be seen in the various battles and engagements fought throughout the series, which occurring most often at night, featured wave upon wave of Japanese forces throwing themselves against the American lines, often leading suicide or “banzai” charges in which with bayonets affixed and swords drawn, they would attempt to charge and overwhelm the Marines, which while not producing much in the way of physical results, inflicted deep psychological wounds on the Americans. As the series goes on we watch as these young men,  almost all of whom enlisted, and were once so gung ho about the prospect of facing the enemy and fighting for their country, are pushed to their breaking point. We see through the eyes of Leckie, Basilone, and Sledge as their fellow Marines, are slaughtered, maimed, or simply break under the immense psychological torment of combat. Through Leckie’s eyes we see a marine commit suicide, we witness a psychiatric hospital for the broken Marines, and through both his and Sledge’s eyes we witness as their fellow Marines, having fully dehumanized their enemy, lose their grip on their own humanity and commit the types of atrocities of war that we associate with wars like Vietnam, not the righteous wars of the earlier age.

There are a few key aspects of how combat is depicted in this mini-series that are worth focusing on as well. As previously mentioned many of the battles and engagements in which our protagonists take part occur at night. During these nighttime battles, often initiated by the Japanese at these times for maximum psychological impact as well as in hopes of catching the Marines off guard, each wave of the assault and hail of gunfire is preceded by the firing of a large flair high into the night sky. After of few of these instances we begin to see the utter terror dawn on the faces of our protagonists as they see the flairs rise into the sky, as they know combat and death come with them. This also serves to ratchet up the tension significantly as any scene occurring at night rapidly becomes a waiting game, as both the audience and the Marines look for the flairs and the horrors that they bring. Another matter of note is the way in which the combat is shot. Unlike Band of Brothers which tended to shoot the combat more intimately focusing in on the faces of the individual soldiers and insuring the coherency of each sequence allowing us to know what is happening to each of our many characters, The Pacific opts instead for a wider angle, in order to play off the utter chaos of battle. We witness full scale invasions as Marines are gunned down by the dozens as they charge up the beach, and watch the eruptions of blood and severed limbs, cutting back to the faces of our protagonists as they react in horror to the utter chaos and pandemonium around them. These battles are not coherent, they are not clean, they are the stuff of nightmares.

The psychological angle of combat and the effects of combat on the psyches of soldiers is a key point of focus in this mini-series. Decades before anyone would ever utter the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we see it’s formation and effects on the minds of our protagonists first hand, as they are scarred not only physically but mentally as well. Beginning the mini-series so eager to fight and kill for their country, these men are slowly beaten down until in the end, all they want is to go home. The only one of our protagonists seemingly unaffected by this appears to be Basilone, who, having been brought back stateside after receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions in his first battle of the war on Guadalcanal, chose to re-up his enlistment with the Marine Corps and elected to deploy once again, a choice that would lead to his death, just seven months after marrying a female marine who he met while training troops at Camp Pendleton.

The final episode of the mini-series deals with the survivors returning home and the aftermath of the war, and the specific fallout that occurs in their lives. We see Leckie manage to compartmentalize most of his experiences and move forward with his life as he reclaims his pre-war job as a sports-writer and finally asks out the girl next door, to whom he had written many letters while overseas, letters that he never sent out of fear that he would not make it home. For Eugene Sledge however, the transition was not so smooth. Unable to cope with the enormity of what he had witnessed, we see see Eugene struggle to re-assimilate into society. Plagued by nightmares of what he had seen, and struggling to find a new purpose for his life. It is in an encounter with a clerk at what would become Auburn University that he lays bare the heart of his wartime experience. When asked if the Marine Corps taught him anything that he could continue with at Auburn, he replies “They taught me how to kill Japs: I got pretty damn good at it” and walks out in discuss. It is in this moment that we see the man that Eugene has now become, unable to completely reconnect with society, left fractured by what he did and witnessed, and unsure as to where he would go from there.

The Pacific is an amazing work of television film-making, and an essential piece media for anyone attempting to engage with and understand World War II. It does not always reach the creative highs of it’s predecessor Band of Brothers, as it’s wider narrative focus does result in us spending less time with, and thus connecting less with all of the characters. This however is offset by the stunning stylistic and thematic choices made by the production team,as their attempts to lean fully in to the horrors of war result in a distinct work within the genre, as it hammers home a message that even the most just wars have more than their share of horror and cruelty. It is the embodiment of the “War is Hell” maxim to it’s fullest and forces the audience to fully engage with this in a manner that few works have. Combined with it’s attention to detail, and it’s respect for history and the men who fought this war, the result is a singular work of sufficient cultural and historical significance that it deserves to be remembered.