Monday, April 19, 2010

Thoughts on The Pacific

As most of you likely know already, I'm a keen student of World War 2 (and even did a RPG on the topic, V for Victory). I think I've read more books about that conflict than any other topic. I'm sure it's no surprise then to learn that I was really looking forward to the new HBO mini-series, The Pacific. The idea was to do a show similar to Band of Brothers but set in the Pacific theater. The producers chose to focus on the classic island hopping match-up: US marines vs. the Japanese.

I've now watched six of the ten episodes and I'm finally fully bought in. I was worried for the first month because it did not suck me right in (unlike Treme, the other new HBO show, which had me in the first 10 minutes). I've been pondering why that is and I think I've figured it out.

Band of Brothers benefited from focusing on one small unit, Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. A challenge of any war movie is that most of the protagonists will be dressed in the same uniform. The film makers thus have to work a little harder to differentiate the characters, since visual cues are often minimal. Basically, one guy in fatigues wearing a helmet looks much like another, at least at first. Band of Brothers was better able to bring out its characters in part because the show was about only one company and there was a core of reoccurring characters.

The Pacific tells the story of the war through three men: Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and John Basilone. They were all in the 1st Marine Division but they weren't in the same company or even in the same battles necessarily. Basilone was on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, Leckie on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu, and Sledge on Peleliu and Okinawa. This means that each of them has a separate cast of supporting characters and that's been problematic. It's often difficult to keep the various background characters straight, especially when you might only hear their names once. I've ended up watching each episode twice. The first time I take in the overall story. The second time I watch for little details and try to make connections I may have missed.

Of the three main characters, two of them wrote books after the war. Robert Leckie wrote "Helmet for My Pillow" and Eugene Sledge penned "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa." Last week I was the bookstore and I decided to pick up Sledge's book, since the show was shifting its focus onto him. I finished it before the latest episode aired last night and I'm really glad I read it. It was much easier for me pick out the support characters. Ah, there's the captain they called "Ack Ack," there's the crazy gunnery sergeant who scrubbed his scrotum with a steel-bristled brush, etc.

By the fifth episode I had already felt like it was cohering better, and that was cemented last night. It seems there will be a third episode on Peleliu and that will help as well. The early episodes did skip around a bit and the pacing was sometimes odd. With only four episodes left, I guess that means one more for Peleliu, one for Basilone on Iwo Jima, and then two for Sledge on Okinawa. I will be interested to see how the whole thing hangs together once I've seen it all and to see if it passes my "random flip" test. Basically, I know I really like something if I'll stop and watch it whenever I'm flipping TV channels and come across it. Band of Brothers passes that test, which is somewhat ridiculous since I own the series and can watch it anytime. We'll see if The Pacific measures up.

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