'The Pacific' is a gripping tale of war and sacrifice

March 11, 2010

Some things about combat are unchanging. In one way or another, war is always hell.

But for those who fight, there can be different varieties of hell, different ways in which their courage is tested.

The lavish and gripping HBO miniseries “The Pacific” (8 p.m. Central Sunday, HBO) does many things well, but one of the things it does best is clearly delineate the ways in which the battles fought in World War II by Marines in the Pacific were particularly searing and brutal.

They endured not only ferocious battles (often at night), but they were also sometimes short of food. Their boots rotted off their feet. They frequently caught tropical diseases. Even trying to walk in the thick sand of Iwo Jima was difficult, according to Stanley Horonzy of Brookfield, who served in the Marines during WWII.

“I was born and raised in Cicero,” said Horonzy, 86. After the war, “I went back to Cicero and forgot about everything. I didn’t think about the war much until I was 65.”

Before a recent Chicago screening of the first installment of the 10-episode miniseries, WWII veterans such as Horonzy and their friends and families mingled with active-duty Marines and two actors who play characters in “The Pacific.” Horonzy showed Gunnery Sergeant Shawn Doty a 35-year-old-Chicago Marine, a vial of sand that Horonzy brought back from Iwo Jima, and he shared photos from WWII with Rami Malek, who plays Merriell “Snafu” Shelton in the miniseries.

“As a kid, I knew more about Vietnam than anything,” Doty said later. “Those were the movies that were around.”

Now that Doty, who has served in Iraq, knows more about what those Marines went through, he said he has a more profound appreciation of the men who fought on Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa and other islands in the Pacific.

“They’re humble about their service. But these World War II veterans — they were gone for two or three years at a time,” Doty said. “We have modern technology. Over in Iraq, I watched my kids open up their Christmas presents. We weren’t in the best area, but I had Internet access.”

Marines in the Pacific, on the other hand, sometimes watched the ships carrying their supplies and ammunition get sunk by the Japanese navy. Sometimes the men went days without access to fresh water.

When America entered World War 2, maps of Europe weren't exactly hard to come by, but the Marines who invaded the Pacific islands held by the Japanese had little idea of what they were getting into. As Robert Leckie wrote in one of his many military histories, "Strong Men Armed," Marine intelligence about Guadalcanal was skimpy at best. According to Leckie, a Jack London short story written in 1918 supplied some of the little information the Marines had.

"If [the First Marine Division's] General Vandegrift had been asked to land his Marines upon the moon, he could not have had less knowledge of the battleground," Leckie wrote.

Robert Leckie’s war memoir, “Helmet for My Pillow,” as well as the autobiography by Eugene B. Sledge, “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa” and the life story of war hero John Basilone were used to create the 10 episodes of “The Pacific.” Like “Band of Brothers,” the new miniseries was produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Through those three men’s stories and the stories of their friends and research done with other veterans, the writers, actors and directors of “The Pacific” were able to capture not only the epic sweep of the Pacific campaign but the private turmoils endured by Leckie, Basilone, Sledge and other Marines.

Ashton After the acclaimed “Band of Brothers” came out in 2001, Hanks and Spielberg heard from those who felt that story of the Pacific war was never adequately told, given the islands’ distance from the home front.

"Here's an example of what your average soldier would see," Hanks said in press materials provided by HBO. "In Europe, he saw paved streets, churches, banks and bridges. He saw houses that were not unlike the houses and churches and streets of the town where he came from. In the Pacific, there were raw beaches. There were primeval forests. There were rain forests or sun-baked coral atolls. In some cases, there were no real structures whatsoever, but just grass huts, houses made of wood and paper and bamboo bridges. It was an alien environment to these guys."

As actor Ashton Holmes researched the role of Sledge’s best friend, Sidney Phillips, Holmes was able to talk to Phillips, who still lives in Mobile, Ala., and has written his own memoir of his time in the Marines.

“When I first called him, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to pry or overstep my boundaries,’” Holmes said in an interview before the screening. “But he just made it clear that (it was OK). ‘We can talk about whatever you want, son.’” (A Wall Street Journal piece on Phillips is here.)

Sledge and Phillips were best friends growing up in Alabama, but they enlisted at different times and their service in the Pacific theater only overlapped by a few weeks. Still, they had endured similar experiences, which they talked about often after the war, Holmes said.

"Sid was much more sort of at peace with what happened over there than Eugene was," Holmes said. "He said they would talk about it for hours. He said it was more for Eugene's sake. Sid felt comfortable talking about it, but Eugene only felt talking about what happened over there with someone who had been there."

Sledge passed away in 2001 but before that, served as a pallbearer at Shelton's funeral. Malek, who played the idiosyncratic Shelton in the miniseries, met Sledge's relatives at a recent HBO event and got to speak with them about the men's wartime bond.

Shelton "always seemed like a man of mystery to me," Malek said. "In the book, you're not sure what's going on in his mind. You know he's seen a very brutal, harsh side of war and it's turned him into something I don't think he ever set out to be when he joined the Marines. So to hear [from relatives] that he was revered by Eugene Sledge brings some comfort."

Having gone through an arduous 10-month shoot in Australia, during which they were often cold, wet and exhausted, Malek and Holmes had a small taste of what those men went through. Near the end of the shoot, the recreation of the Okinawa battles had the cast, including Joe Mazzello (who played Sledge), particularly on edge.

Jonseda Mazzello and Malek had “a scene where we’re at wits end, and it didn’t take much to get there,” Malek said. “We’re in that environment, getting rained on for hours. I remember getting sick — there’s only so much your body can handle. They had to shut down production for a day. I can't imagine how much money that cost."

That may have cost a few dollars, but one sick day is not what bumped "The Pacific's" budget up to the $200 million range. It's a cliche to say of a big-budget production that every dollar is up on the screen, but "The Pacific" truly is a stunningly made work. The producers clearly spared no expense in re-creating the grinding battles, and there are also handsome home-front scenes involving Basilone (Jon Seda), as well as depictions of the memorable Australian shore leaves experienced by Leckie (James Badge Dale) and Phillips.

Still, the heart-stoppingly intense battle scenes are probably what will stay with viewers longest.

“It didn’t really feel like acting,” Holmes said. “It was just like, we were responding to our environment. It was so realistic. They really created such a war-like environment, with the explosions and the sets and the rain. They made such authentic surroundings that it wasn’t like acting.”

Both said, despite the hardships, participating in “The Pacific” was the high point of their careers.

“It is extremely rewarding and gratifying to celebrate and honor these men who gave everything for us,” Malek said. “If that meant a few grueling days or months, that’s the least we could do.”

My review of "The Pacific" follows.

"The Pacific" (8 p.m. Central Sunday, HBO; four stars) has two agendas: To depict the unique realities of combat in the Pacific in World War 2, and to supply the kind of recognizable war stories that will keep viewers tuning in each week.

"The Pacific" weaves those two goals together remarkably well, and a few slow patches and awkward transitions don't notably detract from the miniseries' many other accomplishments. The series' most notable achievement is that, in depicting the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Peleliu and Okinawa, the creators of "The Pacific" have come up with some of the most visceral, intense, affecting war footage ever committed to film.

The episodes that focus on the Marines' liberty in Australia or on the home front come as something of a relief after the intensity of the battle-driven hours, and at every turn, the attention to detail is unparalleled. There's a lavish, epic quality to "The Pacific" that you don't much see in the movies these days, let alone on television.

"The Pacific" addresses, with some success, the main problem with the otherwise excellent "Band of Brothers," which came from the same producers: Some of the most interesting characters faded out of the picture well before the miniseries was over.

"The Pacific" focuses throughout on the experiences of Robert Leckie (author of "Helmet for My Pillow"), Eugene Sledge (author of "With the Old Breed") and decorated Marine John Basilone. But, as was the case with "Band of Brothers," the most memorable characters in "The Pacific" are the ones played by the actors with the most charisma ("Brothers'" Richard Winters could have seemed impossibly prim and perfect had he not been played by the effortlessly interesting Damian Lewis).

Leckie was demoted to private so many times that he once joked that his superiors should attach bars denoting higher rank with a zipper. It's that kind of rebellious attitude that makes him the most interesting of the three men, and he's missed when he's not around. Those who only know James Badge Dale as the colorless Chase Edmonds of Season 3 of "24" may find themselves surprised by the range he shows as Leckie here.

As Basilone and Sledge, Jon Seda and Joe Mazzello are more than competent, but Basilone's story is stuck in neutral for some time and Sledge's journey is most interesting when it is depicting the battles he and his friends endure. It's certainly not the actor's fault that, at certain points, especially in Episode 7, the passive reaction shots of Sledge become a bit repetitive. Fortunately Sledge is usually accompanied by Merriell "Snafu" Shelton (Rami Malek), an oddly compelling presence in his own right.

It's to the credit of the creators that they avoid the obvious story of the Iwo Jima flag-raising (not that the story isn't worth telling, but as executive producer Steven Spielberg has said, it's been told very well in other films and books).

Joemazzello But there's still an old-fashioned flavor to "The Pacific"; we get the familiar tales of the cynical intellectual reverting to his books between battles, the naive recruit learning the of the horrors of war, the noble and non-noble officers who orchestrate the chaos, the flawed hero, etc. Certain moments may verge on cliche (and once in a while, the dialogue is a little corny), but overall, "The Pacific" is crafted and acted with such loving devotion that it's hard to find fault with its sincerity and sentimental forays.

That's not to say "The Pacific" is easy to watch: It's not. Episode 9 is intensely disturbing, but then so were the battles fought on Okinawa.

It's to this miniseries' great credit that it doesn't turn away from the reality of what these men endured. If you watch this entire series, you will wonder, as I still do, how they resumed their civilian lives. It's astounding that so many did so well later in life, given the visible and invisible scars they must have carried forever.

By Mark A. Perigard

Source : Chicago Tribune