The Pacific vs. Band of Brothers
Ever since I finished watching HBO's miniseries The Pacific a couple of weeks ago, I've been mulling over the reasons why I didn't like it as much as Band of Brothers. Not that I was surprised about that, mind you. After all, Band of Brothers is probably the best war series I've ever seen, and is one of my favorite shows of all time. Aside from which, in my previous experience, stories about the Pacific Theater of the war tended to be less appealing.
(It seems strange to use phrases like "favorite" or "less appealing" in reference to stories about real events, especially events that were, for many of their participants, life-altering and utterly horrifying. This is the vocabulary I have to discuss film and television, and I can't help but approach these particular works in the same way that I do any other sort of story, but it nevertheless feels inappropriate.)
As I was saying, I tend to be less attracted to stories about the Pacific war. That may be in part due to some latent ambivalence about that part of the war, having had some small view of the Japanese perspective of the war through my mother's mother. My grandmother, for example, is still haunted by the loss of her brother in the Battle of Okinawa. Maybe it makes me uncomfortable to see someone that could be my relative presented as the other. Maybe I'm uncomfortable because the picture is inaccurate. Or maybe because it might be true.
Yeah, maybe there's something there.
But I think the greater part of it has to do with the types of stories I like to experience, and the types of stories that are told about the Pacific war and the European war. Stories about the war in Europe often highlight the heroism of the soldiers, the camaraderie of the men, or the particular genius or ineptitude of the commanders and their strategies and tactics. Stories about the war in the Pacific, on the other hand, are often about the awful conditions, the terrible isolation of war, and the alien and brutal nature of the enemy. These patterns play out in the two series just as much as in other movies, and everything from the writing to the combat scenes to the choice of source materials bears it out.
Band of Brothers is, at its core, the story of a community. The series begins with the formation and training of Easy Company in 1942 and follows the group through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, ending shortly after V-J Day in 1945. Things are difficult for them; some men are killed, while others are broken by the strain. Through it all, what comes through is the deep bond that's formed between the soldiers, and how they rely on each other to get through the war. Though the various episodes highlight particular soldiers or platoons, it always feels as though you are seeing different threads of the same narrative, and even now, nearly nine years after it first aired, I can easily call to mind the names of over a dozen of the men in Easy Company--Winters, Nixon, Speirs, Randallman, Guarniere, Foye, Webster, Lipton, Malarkey, Blithe, Heffron, Cobb--and looking over the list of characters on the IMDb page, I can place at least ten more from the names. The closing scene of the series is a montage of the men playing baseball together while the "main" character--Major Winters--tells a bit about what happened to each after the war.
By contrast, The Pacific is a story about individuals. Not all of the main characters are introduced at the beginning, and many of them never meet each other. They're all marines, but they're not all in the same unit, and over time some are rotated home while others come in as replacements. As the series opens, the men haven't yet joined up, and are largely separate from one another. As the series progresses, what becomes clear is that these men lived through a nightmare: unceasing rain, heat, and mud; disease and crushing fatigue; and a vicious, incomprehensible enemy. Nor do their comrades provide much support--indeed, one of the most interesting parts of the series is the weirdly antagonistic friendship that grows between Eugene "Sledgehammer" Sledge and his squadmate "Snafu" Shelton. The episodes flit back and forth between three central characters--Sledge, Sgt. John Basilone, and PFC Robert Leckie--whose stories are quite separate and rarely even touch. Aside from those three characters, I can only remember one or two others; the rest have faded into the mists of "supporting cast" in my mind.
I don't point out these differences as a complaint. The reason the stories are different is because the real life stories of the men involved were different. Each series draws most of its content from firsthand accounts, so if in one story we see friendships and heroism and in the other we see darkness and despair, most likely that's because that's what these soldiers went through. In many ways, it's probably even more important that we see the latter type of story, because we do no honor to our veterans by forgetting their tribulations. If I don't find one of the stories compelling, it's a failing in my own ability to appreciate it.
Having said that, The Pacific does have problems as a film, separate from my preference in subject matter. I think it all stems from the overwhelming success of Band of Brothers. Now, I believe that Hanks and Spielberg are honest when they say that there intention in making The Pacific was to get these stories out there and making sure they're not lost as the men who lived them die. But it's simply unavoidable that the creators of this series would look at the previous one's success and try to replicate it. And that's the problem: The Pacific is too self-conscious in its attempt to be successful. Rather than simply telling the story, it's as though the writers and directors felt that they had to constantly instruct the audience how to feel. They're constantly reaching for our emotions, which ends up feeling clumsy.
I keep coming back to this scene at the end of the second episode. Leckie and his platoon are finally relieved at Guadalcanal. Once they making it back to their ship, they head to the galley, where the cook's assistant tells them that there's no food, but he can get them a cup of coffee. He makes a passing remark about how tough they must have had it, to which one of the marines angrily responds by asking whether he'd ever even heard of Guadalcanal before. The cook's assistant gravely tells them that they've been all over the papers back home, that everyone knows about Guadalcanal, and that they're heroes.
I'm pretty sure that this scene was meant to bring home the marines' situation and to make us appreciate their heroism. For all I know, it may actually have happened. Either way, the cook's performance was so overly emotive, it ended up feeling clumsy. If I were going to feel that these men were heroes, I would have already felt that way from watching them in action. But as much as I respect and admire the real marines of WWII, after watching the first two episodes I mainly felt pity for the characters, not admiration.
Everything about The Pacific seemed to have that instructive quality about it, from the splintering charcoal pen in the opening credits to Tom Hanks' narration at the beginning of each episode, to the emotional swell of music when an important character was killed. Even the ending sequence, showing photos of the marines during and after the war alongside a bit of text explaining their lives, had that feel. And what it accomplished for me was to make me feel more detached from the story and characters, and a little irritated at feeling like someone was trying to manipulate me.
At the end of the day, though, I am glad that a series like The Pacific exists, because I do appreciate the desire to document and disseminate these stories while we can. And despite its flaws, The Pacific was still probably the best and most personally engaging dramatic treatment of the Pacific war that I've ever seen. True, it didn't live up to Band of Brothers, but I doubt there was really any way it could.