Preview: The Pacific

TV Having annunciated the European theatre of World War II in the mini-series Band of Brothers, producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks turn their attention to the opposite end of the Earth with The Pacific, based on the memoirs of two soldiers, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie.

It’s the story of their war and that of legendary US marine John Basilone and the first two episodes, which I was able to watch on preview disc tonight, describe (although frankly that’s an understatement) the Battles of the Tenaru and Henderson Field in which US forces defended a tiny speck of an island from Japanese assault.

Despite being the most expensive television series ever produced according to the publicity materials (around $230 million or the entire year's drama budget for the BBC), The Pacific is still fairly generic, invoking decades of screen mythology from Hell In The Pacific right through to John Woo's underrated The Windtalkers and the Eastwood Iwo-Jima duology.

War film enthusiasts are unlikely to find much that will surprise them and in adapting the material, Bruce McKenna doesn’t offer a revisionist approach; readers of Commando comics will be well served by the heroism on display and at this early stage, the Japanese (with the exception of one poignant scene) are largely the faceless enemy they must have seemed from a rank and file soldier's POV.

All of which said, it’s still bloody exciting and excitingly bloody. Most of the giant mechanical elements of the campaign, the opposing navies attempting to sink each other’s ships happen off screen or in the very distant view of the soldiers we’re embedded with allowing us to understand the hierarchy of war, its parallel fronts and how the big campaign picture was inevitably obscured for those on the found.

We’re witnessing the fragility of these men’s lives and how walking to the left or right could lead to a random fatality. As in the Omaha beachhead opening of Saving Private Ryan, characters die with such rapidity that like the marines we're almost afraid to make friends or have favourites in case they don’t make it through to the next skirmish or scene.

The mechanisms of war are also exposed in a detail I’ve not seen before. We’re shown how one section of the US force was better supplied by another, not just with food but equipment leading to inter-departmental looting, demonstrating that the narrative shortcuts presented in too many films of well stocked battalions were a fallacy even then.

We’re also very aware that weapons these men carried were cumbersome and designed for use in the kind of optimal situations that simply didn’t exist on the ground. Most often they dwarf their carriers and when a machine gun has to be repositioned, it’s still hot from firing and lifting it in the desperation of conflict in order to provide cover elsewhere will lead to third degree burns.

Judging by these first two episodes, the rest of the series should also demonstrate the repetition of these soldiers lives, the relentless shift from one horrible situation to the next and in the Sledge character (played by Joe Mazzello who was the boy in Jurassic Park grown up) who is just signing up at the close of these episodes the gap between the dream of fighting for one’s country and the horrific reality.

The Pacific is on Sky Movies from 9pm on Easter Monday (and hopefully dvd, blu-ray and free to air television some time after).

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