Best Defense

The ugly specifics of ‘The Pacific’

Some readers wanted more details of author Eric Hammel’s objections to the HBO mini-series The Pacific. He generously posted a comment, but I liked to so much I am promoting it here to a second guest post: By Eric Hammel Best Defense TV reviewer … I worked on [writing about] Guadalcanal for years. I wouldn’t ...

Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Some readers wanted more details of author Eric Hammel’s objections to the HBO mini-series The Pacific. He generously posted a comment, but I liked to so much I am promoting it here to a second guest post:

By Eric Hammel
Best Defense
TV reviewer

… I worked on [writing about] Guadalcanal for years. I wouldn’t bother you with the specifics; I wrote four books to get at the specifics. I don’t expect all that to be in two hours of television.

I’m all about giving less knowledgeable viewers a fair shot. A few simple fixes, use of standard techniques, and a little consistency could have gone a long way, but the makers of The Pacific abused you by skipping over inner plot dimensions. They didn’t fulfill their obligation within the confines of their own vision.

Examples: Before the Tenaru battle in Part I, they flashed "Alligator Creek" on the screen. It’s the only tag I can recall. No date was given. On Part 2, no tag was shown for Bloody Ridge, and no date. Most viewers — perhaps all of you here — were not given a fair shot at knowing the Tenaru battle took place in late August and Bloody Ridge 2 (!) took place in late October. A little tag and/or a brief voiceover would have provided a clue about how long the 1st Marine Division held the Lunga Perimeter, how long the Marines were on short rations. It was a very long time.

The only (slim) clue about the point of the whole Guadalcanal effort was a formation of CGI planes passing over a group of Marines bent on stealing from the new Army troops. It was handled within a joke, not as the reason for everything. That’s just plain sloppy bordering on disrespectful of viewers. And the entire joke wasted time that could have been spent on explaining just one event in context.

It was Basilone’s gunners who went out to steal, so why did Leckie pop up in the middle? He was a member of another regiment. Was any effort expended on continuity? It looked to me like scenes that were supposed to lead to other scenes were truncated when the film was edited. There were abrupt transitions, events that led nowhere, events that began without planned preamble.

Puller mentioned that "Hanneken’s battalion" had pulled out to the coast, but at no time was it communicated that Puller’s battalion had to stretch over the two-battalion front. That is, they used up time and dialog to give you information that got you exactly nowhere. "The 164th" was mentioned during the battle (or just after), but that led nowhere. The fresh army troops (with M1 rifles like those shown during the theft scene) were not shown filling into the Marine line, even though we know they had uniforms and extras to simulate them. This is not about the historical details, it’s about the lack of follow-up within the confines of the teleplay. Bad continuity. Oh, bonus info: the Japanese attacked the same front the very next night.

Basilone spent a lot of his big night running along trails paralleling the front line (true) that had no Marines near them (not true), yet the Japanese only attacked machine gun strongpoints, and not the fictionally unguarded areas, where logic, even in movieland, would dictate that passage was free. More disrespect heaped on you.

These Marines were practically starving, but all were clean-shaven?

I say again: selecting main characters who were both machine gunners ended up being awkward and misleading.

Not trained? There’s no reason for anyone here to know, but I’ve done content editing for around a hundred military history books going back decades. It’s been my job to demand fixes when I routinely find gaping holes like the ones I outline here. As an acquisitions editor, I have many times rejected books that had better, clearer storylines than The Pacific offers. The issues I count up in making my deservedly harsh assessment of The Pacific aren’t about the details of the history — LCVPs in 1942, soft covers in 1942? — they’re about the foundation of everything, they’re about the storytelling.

The makers of The Pacific have, in only two segments, proven themselves to be lazy and arrogant, disrespectful of their viewers.

Enough said?

Tom again: If that’s not enough, I watched Part III last night, and thought it was soap opera-ish. I kept on thinking of Hammel’s comment that Band of Brothers was about the nature of true grit, while Pacific is about romance.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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