But the Second World War was fought on two fronts, and the second – The Pacific – is one we are less familiar with. Now, nearly ten years after the success of Band of Brothers, executive producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman intend to set that right. Their brand new miniseries The Pacific shadows the intertwined journeys of three men of the 1st Marine Division – Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and John Basilone (Jon Seda). Their war takes place in the heart of the Pacific Theatre of Operations, from the Marines’ first battle with the Japanese on Guadalcanal, into the rain forests of Cape Gloucester and the strongholds of Peleliu. The story treks across the bloody sands of Iwo Jima, and through the horror of Okinawa before their triumphant but uneasy return home after V-J Day.
The miniseries is based, in part, on the memoirs of Leckie and Sledge, as well as on original interviews conducted by the filmmakers and other source material. It is not an easy watch. Unlike Band of Brothers we have few points of reference for the images with which The Pacific confronts us. There has been something of a common language used for war films since Saving Private Ryan and indeed that unflinching and bloody viewpoint is here but there are few similarities beyond the superficial. The terrain is as unfamiliar as the tactics of the enemy and we learn the hazards at the shoulders of the men themselves. Each Marine has a unique and distinct experience of his own war, the stories do intersect at times but the common narrative thread of Band of Brothers is absent here. To approach the show expecting a follow-up would be to do it a huge disservice. The scale of the story and the multiple strands of the plot reflect the complexity of this other war – a world away from Europe – which encompassed most of the Pacific Ocean and its islands.
In the morning light, after a great battle on Guadalcanal, a young Marine stands and stares at the bodies tumbled across the ground before him. The rising sun dances over the tips of the bullets on the ammo belt flung over his shoulder until they resemble a necklace of teeth, prehistoric, each one a life – a potential kill. It is a breathtaking moment. Elsewhere a Father entreats his son not to enlist, fearful not that he may die, but that something in him will never return if he lives. From extraordinary panoramas of fighting ships to the claustrophobia of the foxhole and the roulette-random quirks of fate, the series walks alongside these men and lives, bleeds and dies with them. It is an astonishing achievement and truly compelling viewing.
Initially less accessible than Band of Brothers perhaps, the series utterly justifies the investment you will make in its ten part odyssey. Just 24 hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Congress issued a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan and the United States officially entered World War II. The ranks of the Marine Corps more than tripled as patriotic young men flooded enlistment offices determined to do their part. To these young men the islands where their war would take place would have been nothing more than specks on a map. Many of them never saw American shores again. The debilitating environment, as much an enemy as the Japanese themselves, is eloquently depicted. The heat, the claustrophobia, hunger and exhaustion represented as a heartbreaking matter of fact. The brutality of the Japanese too is revealed to us as the Marines experience it, shock by shock and horror by horror.
This is not to say that The Pacific attempts to make heroes of the Marines who fought there. Within two episodes it has been made perfectly clear that, though there may be acts of great heroism, there are few heroes on either side in this war. It presents an “under the helmet” look at the theatre of war from deep upstage. There is no wider discussion of war as concept or metaphor and, though the timing of this series makes parallels with the invasion of Afghanistan inevitable (and poignant), there are few truisms here. There is entertainment yes, startling battles, explosions and violent bloody combat. Beyond that though there is a very contemporary human story. By episode four the true emotional impact is realised through the eyes of one of our main protagonists and with episode five, the assault on Peleliu, the Marines’ real descent into hell begins. Indeed episodes five and six present the most relentless depictions of battle yet to be realised on screen. Yet there is a reverence and intimacy with which The Pacific confides its truths which renders even the most horrific moments mesmerising.
While at the time the stories of these men made headlines, those legends faded with the newsprint long ago. It is appropriate that they be retold because theirs are the true biopics. These men didn’t make music or movies, they made sacrifices. They made history.
The Pacific debuts in the UK on Sky Movies Premiere & Sky Premiere HD tonight at 9pm