"Everybody's heard of Guadalcanal and the 1st Marine Division. You guys are on the front page of every newspaper in America. You're heroes back home." -The cookThe particular kind of heroism on display for much of "The Pacific" is very different than what we most often saw in "Band of Brothers." "Band" was largely about advancing - moving forward, achieving objectives, saving your buddies. "The Pacific" is largely about the heroism of simply enduring - of getting through a brutal artillery barrage by night, knowing you're going to have to go out and face the enemy again come morning, of trying desperately to keep your body and (as Dr. Sledge notes to Eugene) soul intact.
Part Two certainly has a lot of the latter brand, and you can see Leckie and his pals (who spend most of the hour just hanging on) feeling sheepish and confused to hear themselves described as heroes(*). But it also offers us a concentrated burst of the more traditional form of heroism as we follow Basilone through one of the most terrifying, amazing, and 100 percent heroic nights any Marine has ever been through.
(*) In a conversation the real Leckie had with a cook shortly after leaving Guadalcanal.
There's a danger in all the movie action we're exposed to that we might become desensitized to true, extraordinary feats of bravery - that we might look at a night like Basilone had on October 24, 1942 and either shrug it off as too Hollywood or (worse?) not Hollywood enough.
But as directed by David Nutter (who helmed the "Band" episode "Replacements") and played by Jon Seda (doing wonders with what I have to assume was a lot of less-is-more direction from Nutter and others), Basilone's night - fixing one machine gun in the dark and under fire, carrying another without benefit of the special oven mitt to protect his skin, running back and forth for ammo and engaging the enemy hand-to-hand, leaving his machine gun nest to clear bodies so his comrades will have a better field of fire, and just shooting and shooting and shooting until the enemy stopped coming - is incredible both as a piece of filmmaking and as a sequence that makes Basilone stand out among the many brave men who served on Guadalcanal.
When I talked to "Pacific" head writer Bruce McKenna, who also wrote the script for this episode, I asked him about the fear that Basilone's night might seem implausible. He said:
"The first hurdle you have to get over is the innate skepticism of the 21st century citizen of what those guys could do heroically. The problem is you only have 8 minutes of film time to show 18 hours of Basilone's life. There are a lot of conflicting accounts of what happened that night, but we talked to as many people as we could. Showing him running out in the line, clearing the bodies, that was crazy. And a lot of people saw him do it... What Basilone did that night was way beyond what the average Marine in combat would have done. He was extraordinarily brave.That Basilone managed to do all that - to help hold off a regiment of over 3,000 Japanese troops with only a handful of men and a couple of machine guns - is a testament to his bravery, skill and determination. But it's also a mark of luck. When he's out clearing those bodies, the Japanese shoot at him and miss, for instance.
At several points in Part Two, Basilone and his buddies remark on the small margin of error that separates life and death in combat. Manny, surveying a foxhole destroyed by a direct hit, notes that if the women in the artillery factory had included slightly more or less gunpowder, things might have gone differently. And after Manny himself dies while serving as a runner on that terrifying night, Basilone is consumed with the notion that if Manny had just stepped left instead of right, or moved a second slower, he might have survived.
"Yeah, but he didn't," says J.P., trying not to dwell on the randomness and danger of it all. "He was where he was and he did what he did."
And after the hell that was Guadalcanal, the Marines return to their boats - and their ascent up the rope ladders is bathed with a heavenly light by director of photography Remi Adefarasin - to discover that while they were hot, and hungry, and terrified and wondering why they were likely to die on this tiny speck of Earth they never heard of, the people back home were reading of their exploits and calling them heroes. In that moment, Leckie and his buddies are tired and filthy and so very, very much older than they were when they landed a few months before, and they're not sure how to react to being considered heroes when they were just barely holding on half the time. But you can also see that the word means something to them - that their sacrifices, and the ultimate sacrifices of the comrades who didn't make it off Guadalcanal alive, weren't happening in a vacuum. People in 1942 knew of the heroism of the 1st Marines and now, 68 years later, they know it again.
Some other thoughts:
• Nutter's episode of "Band" featured a scene where Nixon gets shot in the head but survives because the helmet takes all the damage, and a similar thing happens here to J.P. And, of course, there was a similar gag in the Normandy sequence of "Saving Private Ryan" (only there, I believe, the soldier dies because he's shot in the head again after taking off the helmet to admire his dumb luck). I know the head shot happened to Nixon during Operation Market-Garden, and I'm sure it happened to countless other soldiers and Marines, but it's kind of funny to imagine it as a kind of stylistic tic that Nutter and/or Steven Spielberg enjoys.
• Once again, we see both the Marines' esprit de corps and their utter devotion to Chesty Puller in the scene where he orders them to shave and clean themselves up before the Army arrives. And we see, with the wonderful way William Sadler later delivers the line, "We don't have enough men," just why Chesty's men adored him so much: because their lives and deaths really mattered to him as something other than statistics and strategical elements.
• Speaking of the Army's arrival, "The Pacific" isn't a particularly light miniseries (it certainly doesn't have as much room for comic relief as "Band" did with characters like Luz, Guarnere and Perconte). This episode, though, has some very amusing moments revolving around the Marine/Army rivalry, with the Marines stealing as much Army gear as they can get their hands on, Leckie enjoying his stolen mocasins, and Leckie getting sick on the peaches (and briefly earning a new nickname). About the stolen equipment, by the way: I've been getting a lot of e-mails and old-fashioned letters from Pacific veterans since I started writing about the series, and one was from an Army vet who wrote, "If they had equipped the Army like what I saw the Marines had, the Army would have done better or as good as the Marines did most of the time." I'm guessing he's not going to love this episode.
• Our visit back to Sledge's home in Alabama is even more distracting here than in Part One. At least there, it happened during an extended sequence with all three leads still on the homefront, and also helped introduce Sid Phillips. It allows us to keep track of Sledge in these episodes before he gets to the Pacific himself, and this visit lets Dr. Sledge spell out the torn-souls theme of the series, but I think I would have been okay with him being absent for a few episodes.
• I've been skimming James Brady's book "Hero of the Pacific: The Life of Marine Legend John Basilone" and couldn't find any mention of either Manny or J.P., so I asked McKenna if either or both were composite characters. (While many of the figures in the miniseries are real, McKenna and company had to combine some others, or in some cases attribute one person's words or actions to another for simplicity's sake.) He said, "Manny is a composite of two or three characters, one of whom died that night on the Canal. J.P. is real and was one of Basilone's better friends before and during the war."
Finally, let me again repeat how the No Spoiler policy is going to apply to this series. History on a big scale is not and should not be considered a spoiler. If you don't know the larger points of World War II and/or the Pacific campaign, then you and your high school history teacher need to have a chat. But the lives and military careers of Basilone, Leckie and Sledge, for our purposes, will be considered spoilers. So if you know more about one or more of them going in, or read up on them over the course of the miniseries, do not share any of that info in your comments, okay? We were able to get through the "Band of Brothers" reviews without giving away who lived, who died, who got promoted, transferred, etc., and I'm sure we can do that here as well. So until we get to the final episode in 10 weeks, no talking about anything that took place after the events depicted in a given episode (and that includes no talking about what's in the previews for next week's episode). Okay?
What did everybody else think?