Review: ‘The Pacific’ (HBO)

Contributed by Joanne Mc Entee

The sphere of operations has shifted. The theatre no longer resides in the Pacific or Europe: it occurs amongst the audience of HBO’s latest miniseries ‘The Pacific’.  Tensions are high regarding the changes in the 2010 war series from its precursor ‘Band of Brothers’ (2001). Although structurally similar to ‘Band of Brothers’, the ‘The Pacific’ has left many die-hard fans of the forerunner up in arms.

‘The Pacific’ follows marines Sledge, Leckie, and Basilone in Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Parallels with ‘Band of Brothers’ emerge as soon as the opening sequence rolls. The voice of Hanks provides information on the war in the Pacific, while contemporary black and white footage, coupled with veteran accounts, brings the narrative to life. The opening credits echo the ‘Band of Brothers’ formula, both visually and melodically, while the type-faced of the title of each episode mirrors its predecessor. All these structural similarities merely fuel a desire to compare content. Yet it is here, at the most fundamental level that variations emerge. In direct contrast to the action packed, bloody, assault of the prequel’s ‘Day of Days’, the beachhead in the ‘part 1’ confronts a deserted strand, while ‘japs’, though often alluded to, rarely emerge on screen. Aiming small stones into the severed skull of the enemy and forcing gold fillings from the dead are Marine acts which fly in the face of the heroic US military rhetoric of 2001.

While the reception of ‘The Pacific’ has been mixed, it is imperative that the series is not misunderstood. ‘The Pacific’ needs to be placed in context. Firstly, the audience of 2010 differs significantly from its 2001 counterpart. The War in Afghanistan, or the War on Terrorism, only started in 2001. Viewers, especially American audiences, were not jaded by the soldiering experience after the relative lag in the post-cold war years. Secondly, the inglorious war of the Pacific is not as palatable to viewers as the more nobly portrayed European equivalent. By shining a spotlight on Allied brutality, embodied primarily in the character of Shelton, by revealing blunders such as the depiction of the unfortunate first Marine casualty who lost his life after a member of his own forces took aim at him mistakenly when he went to relieve himself at night, and by emphasising the intermittent loneliness and bewilderment of the individual solider, the series has produced a rather bleak, yet wholly realistic, snapshot of war. Consequently, a notable departure in themes between the two productions is in evidence. Nowhere is this more evident that in the contrast between titles and promotional images employed in both productions. The passive singularity of ‘The Pacific’ is in direct contrast to the camaraderie of the brothers in the European theatre. The passive singularity of ‘The Pacific’ is in direct contrast to the camaraderie of the brothers in the European theatre. Finally, audiences have become somewhat immune to the spectacle of war on screen due to such innovations as HD DVD, blu-ray disc, and unquestionably the development of  digitised warfare with an ever expanding library of battle based Xbox games such as Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

While technological developments may have tarnished the allure of the series, HBO’s ‘The Pacific’ website will not have left traditionalists disappointed. Once again, unsurprisingly, comparisons with ‘Band of Brothers’ emerges. However, this is where the rookie series decisively triumphs proving a more polished, comprehensive, and interactive site than its predecessor. Features range from the staple (links to facebook, twitter, screensaver, wallpapers, of course the opportunity to peruse HBO’s shop containing the usual selection of branded paraphernalia) to the sublime.The most stimulating feature on the site has to be the interactive map section – ‘interact with history’. Here, with a simple click, the user can enter any of the battles in the series and then travel on a basic virtual tour of the Pacific region where the battle occurred. An introduction by Hanks, augmented by historian comment, contemporary footage, excerpts from memoirs, and veteran reminiscences further illuminates the Pacific experience.

‘The Pacific’ is not a physical but a mental war. From the debates emerging it transpires that today’s audiences are clinging desperately onto the notion of the morality, and not the madness, of war. Clearly, there will to be no ‘Happy Talk’ – rather ‘Bushido’- in discussions arising from HBO’s depiction of combat in the south Pacific for some time to come.

Joanne Mc Entee is completing doctoral research on the nineteenth-century Irish landed estate, as part of the Texts, Contexts, Cultures programme in the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. This project is funded by PRTLI 4.

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