How HBO's 'The Pacific' Changed My Life

The final episode of the HBO mini-series “The Pacific” will air on Sunday. I’ve watched it all the way through the last nine episodes, most of them twice.  For me it’s been one of the most profoundly moving productions I’ve ever seen, and I’m a different person for the experience. 

What’s changed is my perspective.  I believe that great narrative cinema should draw you in, seduce you, pull you out of your limited perspective and challenge your assumptions.  My viewpoint, like that of many Americans, is limited with respect to the sacrifices made to preserve our freedom. Historically so far removed from the events of World War II, all I have is book knowledge supplemented by documentaries, and that can bring you only so close to what really went down.

“The Pacific” is based on the memoirs of men who served in the Pacific arena, each of whom fought in multiple battles.  I have two of these memoirs: “With the Old Breed” by E.B. Sledge, and “A Helmet for my Pillow” by Robert Leckie.  Combined, they were witness to four of the bloodiest battles of the war– Peleliu, Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Okinawa.

Sledge and Leckie, who both died in 2001, were gifted writers and their memoirs are exceptional.  What they captured in words is what “The Pacific” communicates in graphic, often horrific detail.  You are watching the war through their eyes.  Though film can provide only a hint of what really happened, it’s enough to convey that what these men experienced changed the whole of their being. 

Beyond being well-written and skillfully produced, the true value of “The Pacific” is to bring us closer to what men like Sledge and Leckie had to endure and do in the worst imaginable conditions, fighting an enemy they didn’t understand, in a war with everything at stake. You can feel their disbelief as they witness atrocities no one could have  imagined before being plunged into the war, and their confusion as they face wave after wave of a relentless enemy unafraid to die.

The feeling I’ve had while watching the mini-series is the same I had when I first walked through the WWII memorial in Washington. If you’ve been there, you already know what I mean.  It’s a feeling that works through you and overtakes you, and for the time you are there you forget about the ups and downs of your life and focus on the massive sacrifice made in every battle of the war up to its bloody end. Standing among the memorial columns is humbling, knowing that you could never show enough gratitude to honor a sacrifice most of us rarely even think about.

I know some critics have said that it’s time for Hanks and Spielberg to move on from the War, but I can’t agree. The memorial in Washington wouldn’t have been built without their help, and cinematic memorials like “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” wouldn’t exist without their dedication to making sure we don’t forget what happened 65 years ago.  If this is their artistic obsession, I understand it fully and applaud them for it.  Yes, it’s also profitable, but so are mindless popcorn movies they could just as easily be making instead of choosing this path. 

For me, “The Pacific” has had its intended effect. My perspective has changed, and my level of appreciation for the sacrifices made on those islands half a world away has grown. That’s the influence of powerful narrative in any form–it doesn’t let you leave the same person as when you arrived.


4 thoughts on “How HBO's 'The Pacific' Changed My Life

  1. I felt this after visiting the WWII graves of Canadian soldiers in France, so close to the ocean you could smell it. I was totally overwhelmed by the reality of their youth and how many there were and how, as they wished, they were buried within a few miles of where they were killed. My American sweetie (whose uncles fought there) brought me there to educate me. It was painful but it, too, changed me for good.

  2. I’ve been watching this each week with my husband, and I have to say I’m not really that enamored with the production. It’s not clear to me why this series needed 10 episodes–I’m finding it repetitive. I get it–war is hell. People who go to war and survive are forever changed. Even “just” wars just plain suck. This from a woman whose father was a WWII pilot in the China-Burma-India theater who never spoke one word about his experiences, presumably because they were so rattling.

    What I think is missing from this is the political context; without it, all we’re seeing is a recollection of the horror, which was more than justly illustrated in Spielberg’s other movies, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” (and I’ll throw in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”, too, which covered The Pacific Theater). Did this really need to be made? Just asking.

  3. Mr. DiSalvo,

    My father served in the Pacific, on Saipan and Tinian. However it took me years to realize that he had actually been in combat, all he would talk about was being on the troop transport or his time in San Diego after the war but before he was discharged. To hear him tell it, he was just a barber. I was on occasion able to coax out a few details but when I did, they were eliptical, never direct. Once he told me, very reluctantly, about the story of Japanese suicide mission to the airbase on Tinian. A small bomber (a Mitsubishi G4M or a “Betty”) had been converted to carry troops and landed on the air strip. Out poured a bunch of Japanese soldiers. He just stopped at that point. When I asked what happened then he just said “They were all killed”. He looked at me and then he just looked away. He felt very bad about the whole thing, even many decades later.

    I have to agree with inmyhumbleopinion, this is little more than “war porn”. Like “Band of Brothers” and “SPR” it is long on great visuals and superb technique but short on great story telling. I am always open to a great story, war related or otherwise, but take away the visuals and what is left. A bunch of guys killing and suffering, being killed and causing suffering. For me, without some broader moral, literary, or spiritual point, a movie like this is just more glorification of war.

    Ernest Hemingway, who served in WW I, once noted, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

  4. Thanks for the comments and insights.

    Davidlosangeles – On the issue of The Pacific being “war porn,” I couldn’t disagree more. The main characters, particularly E.B. Sledge, have a definite arc, and it runs the narrative gamut of moral and even spiritual issues. Perhaps it’s because I have rewatched the episodes and paid special attention to Leckie and Sledge’s development, but I strongly believe that the story is character-driven much more than being a mere visual/effects feast. The visuals are stunning, but the characters are what makes the story engaging.

    So, my answer to inmyhumble is, yes, I think this series needed to be made. The memoirs of these men deserved to be shared with a broad audience. As to the length of the series, that’s debatable. I could see perhaps 7 or 8 episodes instead of 10, but I’ve been so absorbed by the story that the length has not mattered to me at all.

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