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Spielberg, Hanks revisit WWII in HBO's "The Pacific"

The Pacific


Nearly nine years after HBO aired a popular World War II miniseries based on Stephen E. Ambrose's nonfiction bestseller about a company of paratroopers who fought in Northwest Europe, producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks created "The Pacific," a miniseries about U.S. Marines who saw combat on the other side of the war.

Spielberg and co-producer Tom Hanks share an interest in WWII history
Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

Structured in a similar fashion as its 2001 HBO forerunner "Band of Brothers," "The Pacific" is divided into 10 parts and follows the various struggles of several U.S. Marines during several campaigns of World War II from 1942 to 1945.

Both miniseries share certain elements, including stories about the personal experiences of the young men who fought in World War II, realistic depictions of combat and excellent special effects, scoring and production design.

However, "The Pacific" is very different from "Band of Brothers." It follows Marines fighting against the Japanese instead of Army paratroopers fighting the Germans. The locales are different, too; the various islands it visits are nothing like Northwest Europe. In a narrative sense, "The Pacific" has a totally different storytelling approach from its HBO sibling.

"The Pacific" is based on several memoirs, primarily Robert Leckie's "A Helmet for My Pillow" and Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed." These two accounts were blended with Sgt. John Basilone's story arc, which was adapted from Chuck Tatum's "Red Blood, Black Sand."

"The Pacific" chronicles the experiences of PFC Robert "Lucky" Leckie (James Badge Dale), PFC Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello) and Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda) and some of their comrades in the United States Marine Corps, including Sledge's childhood friend from Mobile, Alabama, Sidney Phillips (Ashton Holmes), PFC "Snafu" Shelton (Rami Malek) and Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller (William Sadler) as they fight their way from Guadalcanal to the doorstep of the Japanese homeland.

Unlike the paratroopers of Easy Company in "Band of Brothers," the three main characters are not members of the same unit, although at times their paths do intersect. Leckie, for instance, serves in the same company as Sledge's buddy Sid Phillips, and they are assigned to Guadalcanal at the same time as Basilone.

And even though Sledge joined the Marines a year after Phillips, the two childhood friends would reunite briefly when Eugene finally gets his first assignment in the Pacific.

The miniseries also gives the viewer a chance to catch a glimpse of life in the Home Front when Sgt. John Basilone, winner of the Medal of Honor for his actions at Guadalcanal, is rotated back to the States and assigned by the Marine Corps and the Treasury Department to go on a nationwide War Bonds tour.

In these brief "back-in-America" interludes, we see Basilone as he first enjoys the perks of being a "celebrity Marine" - nice hotel suites, attractive Hollywood starlets and cheering crowds - then gets restless and longs to be reassigned to a combat unit.

These scenes (as well as others set in Australia and New Zealand) give the viewer a break from the carnage of the island hopping campaigns that take the Marines from the Solomon Islands to New Britain to Peleliu (a battle to which the series devotes three episodes) all the way to Iwo Jima, Okinawa and, eventually, home.

However, "The Pacific" sends its three main characters on a long odyssey full of peril and misery. Here, the Marines are not in the more familiar landscapes of Western Europe facing an enemy with roughly similar cultural and social outlooks, but in a region of the world where the environment is just as hostile - and deadly- as the Japanese.

And because the war in the Pacific was fought by two nations with vastly different world-views and tinged with undercurrents of racism, hatred and a total misunderstanding of each other's cultures, the battles the viewer witnesses while watching this miniseries are far more savage than those in "Band of Brothers."

Indeed, in many ways, the fanaticism of the Japanese and their seeming indifference to death is as confusing and maddening to the Americans of the 1940s as is Al Qaeda's brand of religious extremism and terrorism to us now in the 21st Century. Just as many people now ask how Islamic jihadists can pick a fight with the U.S. and Western Europe, the Marines of "The Pacific" are in turn puzzled and enraged by an enemy who will not surrender under most circumstances.

The DVD Set: Because I don't subscribe to HBO, I did not get to watch The Pacific until HBO Home Entertainment released the miniseries in a six-disc box set on DVD and Blu-ray in November 2010.

I had, of course, read Hugh Ambrose's official tie-in book earlier this year and pre-ordered the box set, which luckily for consumers is not as expensive as the first sets of Band of Brothers were nearly 10 years ago.

The first five discs, of course, contain the miniseries' 10 parts, with two episodes per disc. You can watch episodes one at a time, or if you wish, you can select Play All and watch both parts in one sitting.

Another nice feature included in the DVDs (and I assume the Blu-ray discs as well) is that viewers can choose to watch each part with or without a separate Historical Background introduction.

These intros feature actual 1940s-era documentary footage and a contemporary comment from one or more of the men being portrayed in the miniseries, and help place The Pacific into historical context.

The sixth disc contains all the expected extras which come in box sets of this type, including short biographies of the real Marines portrayed in the miniseries, a documentary about the nature of the Pacific War and a making-of featurette.

Special Features (from the packaging blurb)

Profiles of The Pacific: Delve into the lives of the real Marines featured in The Pacific. Get a personal perspective on their families, their war experiences, and their lives after the war in these intimate portraits.

Making The Pacific: Go behind the scenes and take an inside look at the making of this epic, 10-part miniseries.

Anatomy of the Pacific War: Explore the historical influences and cultural perceptions that led to the merciless brutality in the Pacific theater of World War II.

Reflections on "The Pacific": Being a huge fan of both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' previous WWII-themed collaborations, I knew that "The Pacific" was going to be an excellent bookend to their European-set tales of World War II, even if it was going to be somewhat different in style and in levels of intensity.

The casting choices are part of the reason as to why The Pacific works so well. New Jersey-born Jon Seda does a fine job as Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, an average Italian-American boy from Raritan who finds his niche in the military and finds himself having to choose between an easy life in the States as a national hero and doing what he does best - fight as a Marine.

Also impressive is James Badge Dale (Robert Leckie). Dale has one of the most challenging story arcs in The Pacific as he undergoes the transition from young journalist to Marine, witnesses combat on various islands, falls in love with (and loses) a young Australian woman he meets on a Melbourne tram, then is sent to a Navy mental health ward before being sent out to combat again.

The biggest surprise is Joe Mazzello (Eugene Sledge), a former child actor whose best-known previous role was that of nine-year-old Tim, the grandson of the dino-breeding billionaire John Hammond in Spielberg's 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park.

Mazzello does an excellent job of portraying the quiet and intelligent doctor's son from Mobile as he, too, undergoes the transition from a boy eager to follow his best friend into the Marines into a combat veteran whose war experiences change his outlook on life and will haunt his postwar life for decades to come.

Because the production team has worked on several previous HBO miniseries, everything, from the special effects to the score composed by Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli and Blake Neely, is top-notch. The sets (most of them in Australia) vividly recreate the various locations (whether they are enemy-held islands or Allied cities in the home front) in which the Marines lived, loved, laughed and fought for their very existence.

"The Pacific" Episode List

Part One: Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Tim Van Patten

Part Two: Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by David Nutter

Part Three: Written by George Pelecanos and Michelle Ashford, directed by Jeremy Podeswa

Part Four: Written by Robert Schenkman and Graham Yost, directed by Graham Yost

Part Five: Written by Laurence Andries and Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Carl Franklin

Part Six: Written by Bruce C. McKenna and Laurence Andries and Robert Schenkman, directed by Tony To

Part Seven: Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Tim Van Patten

Part Eight: Written by Robert Schenkman and Michelle Ashford, directed by David Nutter/Jeremy Podeswa

Part Nine: Written by Bruce C. McKenna, directed by Tim Van Patten

Part Ten: Written by Bruce C. McKenna and Robert Schenkman,
directed by Jeremy Podeswa

DVD Specifications

Format: Box set, Color, Widescreen, Subtitled, Closed-captioned, NTSC
Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (DTS 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
Dubbed: Spanish, French
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada)
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Number of discs: 6
Rated: Unrated
Studio: HBO Studios
DVD Release Date: November 2, 2010
Run Time: 400 minutes

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