Midway through the first hour of Band of Brothers, HBO’s 2001 mini-series about a company of paratroopers during and after 1)D-Day, there’s a scene on a troop ship that’s 2)jam-packed with new recruits on their way to hard fighting in the European 3)theater. “Right now some lucky bastard’s headed for the South Pacific,” one soldier says to another, envious.
Now comes The Pacific, an HBO mini-series by 4)Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the rest of the Band of Brothers crew that spends 10 5)grueling hours and almost $200 million showing just how inaccurate that newbie’s idyllic image was. The series follows three real-life Marines from Pearl Harbor to homecoming after 6)V-J Day. There are battles against well-fortified enemies on small islands. There are 7)heroic deaths and random ones; 8)unrelenting rainstorms, tropical diseases, nervous breakdowns.
That whole story was of a war that many Americans could not fully visualize, then and now. The 9)pivotal moments of the European war featured 10)locales people had heard of and been to—the bombing of London, the liberation of Paris, and so on—and there was a central 11)villain, Hitler, who was known to all. As in Band of Brothers, the enemy is a 12)remote, mostly 13)dehumanized 14)presence—or a15)charging, immediate one that the 16)complicit viewer is only too happy to see shot down, blown up, or stabbed clean through. But the troops sent to try to stop the Japanese from taking over the South Pacific were, for the most part, going to obscure islands.
How obscure? Before 1940 17)Guadalcanal, site of the first major Allied initiative, had been mentioned by name in The New York Times only about a half-dozen times. Mr. Hanks confessed that he knew nothing about 18)Peleliu before beginning work on The Pacific.
“All of us knew we had to do the whole war,” Mr. McKenna, the writer, said; this would not be a simple story of a single battle. Eventually the decision was made to focus on three members of the First Marine Division: Eugene B. Sledge and Robert Leckie, both 19)privates, and 20)Sergeant John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal. Mr. Leckie and Mr. Sledge, who both died in 2001, wrote memoirs that became cornerstones for the series; Sergeant Basilone’s story was well documented in the news media at the time.
“We love the truth,” said Mr. Goetzman. “We think that’s where the best stories come from. You just can’t make up things that are any more exciting or any more compelling than what’s actually happened in this world.”
Combining the three men’s stories allowed Mr. McKenna and the other writers to take full advantage of the mini-series format, exploring their characters in a way that a standard two-hour war movie doesn’t allow. “What war movie have you ever seen where the main character was in a mental institute for half an episode?” Mr. McKenna said of a fate that 21)befalls the Leckie figure. “And yet that’s a big part of war.” The physical and mental 22)toll that the Pacific war took on the men who fought it is the mini-series’s defining feature.
“If Band of Brothers was an examination of what we thought the Greatest Generation went through as a group, then this was more an examination of the personal cost to the individual,” said Tony To, who served as a co-executive producer on The Pacific and directed Part Six. That meant creating an even more expansive 23)canvas than in Band of Brothers, in terms of both time and geography, to show the accumulation of pressures physical and psychological. It also meant few shortcuts.
For instance, Mr. To said, 500 coconut trees were brought to Australia, where 24)the bulk of the filming was done, to create a particular setting; a less-25)conscientious production might have shot the actors in front of a blue screen and added the trees later. “We wanted the environment they were acting in to be as close as it could be to the actual experience,” Mr. To said, “so that they weren’t acting the experience, but actually experiencing it.”
If you want to watch The Pacific, it will repay you with a brutal but 26)eloquent story that’s finally less about how men fight and die than what happens to them when they fight and survive. It will show you how character and sheer, unfair randomness combine to produce cruelty or decency. And it will make you feel deeply for the men who return, 27)tentatively coming back to peaceful towns, exploring their souls like men checking their body parts after a 28)mortar explosion, anxiously feeling themselves out to see what’s still there.