April 25th, 2010
It’s been a while (three weeks, in fact) since I’ve checked in with HBO’s miniseries, and I want to go back for a moment to the first scene in last week’s “Part Six.” The episode begins in Mobile, Alabama, where Sidney Phillips nearly gives the Sledgehammer’s parents a heart attack by showing up unannounced. After being graciously welcomed into the home once their fears were put to rest, he sits at the dinner table and informs the concerned parents that Eugene is not in too much danger, and that he isn’t worried about Eugene.
However, just so we’re clear: I am indescribably worried about Eugene, just as I am worried about every character whose name I don’t even know but whose face is etched into my mind. Part of what makes The Pacific, and Band of Brothers before it, so arresting is how it puts faces to people who were marching to their death, who were part of gruesome slaughters and conditions you couldn’t imagine. While special effects and production design work to capture those conditions, the true function of the Miniseries is to force us to look the young soldiers in the eye before they are gunned down while running across an airfield, facing the harsh reality of not only war but death itself. Sidney Phillips, having seen what we have seen (and lived it far more than we could have), is lying to Eugene Sledge’s parents: he may have more faith in Eugene than in the other soldiers, but he is worried about him as much as we are.
“Part Seven” is like a trip through Eugene’s worst nightmares, with brief moments of levity shattered moments later by unspeakable horrors; for every moment of hope on Peleliu there is fifteen moments of terror, and for all of the maturity that the Sledgehammer has portrayed over these past few weeks after entering the conflict there is no one who would not break down under these conditions.
When you tell a war story from one side of the conflict, life and death becomes a game of luck rather than skill – as the soldiers run across a series of rock formations in order to bring back an injured superior, who lives or dies is dependent on who the Japanese soldiers camped in the hills happen to aim at, or who happens to step in the direction of an incoming mortar round. When they were crossing the airfield on Peleliu, the people who died were not the people who were making mistakes but rather the people who were unlucky enough to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What strikes me about “Part Seven” is that Peleliu is a wrong place, period: once they started moving into what were effectively catacombs, with thousands of Japanese camped in tiny caves and hidden bunkers, they were always in danger of being attacked, and the eerie presence of calm was enough to break down any soldier. All it takes is one mistake, like the soldier who left his foxhole to pursue a fleeing Japanese soldier, and you’re as like to die at the hands of one of your own soldiers as you are a Japanese attacker. Similarly, if the Japanese don’t get you, the death of the beloved Skipper or the courageous Hillbilly will be just as likely to do you in mentally. And it’s not like Guadalcanal, where the soldiers didn’t know that it was going to be as bad as it was: while we were following the first group who arrived on that island, Eugene’s battalion was following the 1st Marines into the hills, and we saw Chesty emerging bandaged and broken at the episode’s opening. They knew what they were climbing into, and that only made things more harrowing.
The miniseries has largely been in “action” mode for the past few hours, but this time around the stakes managed to feel higher than before. The entire Bunker sequence was brilliantly captured, from the moment where Eugene realizes that there were Japanese still in the Bunker (which contradicted their intelligence, a mistake which nearly cost them their life) to the moment where the flamethrower enters the equation. Eugene Sledge had killed people before that day, no doubt, but he had never had to watch the man die right in front of his place, and he never had the body fall down beside him as he tended to an injured soldier. The scene nicely captured the realization that there was no surrender for the Japanese, a fact which made this sort of bloody carnage a necessary component of their future.
Joseph Mazzello has slowly built Eugene into an enormously compelling character, and this was really his episode to “shine,” so to speak: the character went through numerous ordeals, always forcing himself to ask how he would handle the same situation. He watched the roughest marine of the bunch break down at the death of another, and he watched the commanding officer who was so kind and gracious with him from his first day in the Pacific get brought down in a stretcher. But when he eventually tries to take out his anger on a dead Japanese soldier, his former tormentor stops him: while Eugene can take up smoking, and he can become disillusioned with it all, there are some things that a war should not make a man do. Eugene went into the war being told that he couldn’t be part of the conflict, that his heart murmur was going to keep him out of conflict: now, surrounded by war, the last thing he wants is to be told that he can’t do something he so greatly desires to do, and yet sometimes people (like his father way back when) are trying to protect him for the sake of his future sanity.
We can tell, at this point, that John Basilone is anything but sane: while the life of a celebrity was serving him quite well when we spotted him with Anna Torv a few weeks ago, the character has now gotten to the point where he’s noticing the inconsistency between the story people tell and the nightmare which still haunts him. Just as Sledge wants to take out his frustration on the dead soldier, Basilone heads to the driving range, his hands bloodied by hours upon hours of trying to live down what happens on Guadalcanal. He never had the chances that Leckie had to contextualize his own experience by spending time in a hospital, nor does he have anyone to talk to who can in some way understand his terror (as Eugene has with his fellow soldiers). Separated from the conflict, Basilone has only his nightmares to keep him company, and the result is arguably as harrowing as what we see on Peleliu.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has lived through this sort of conflict: Basilone’s handlers turn on the car lights in order for him to keep hitting golf balls rather than trying to talk to him, and the Marines are welcomed with attractive young women with lemonade rather than counsellors prepared to talk through the trauma. I’m not suggesting that talking about it would fix anything, or that psychiatry would in some way solve the dangers of PTSD, but rather that these soldiers were surrounded by people who knew less of this conflict than we do now, extending their terror in ways which may have been just as damaging. Thus far, the miniseries is doing a really spectacular job of capturing that struggle, and as we head towards the end I’m guessing that will become even more clear.
- A very intelligent choice in terms of not actually seeing the Skipper’s death: I spent the past few episodes wondering when this supportive and compassionate commanding officer was going to die in a morale-killing tragedy, and so to have it happen off-screen (where the soldiers’ disbeliefe is supported by their disconnect from the action itself) really sold the reaction within the troops.
- Leckie seems to be headed home, having been injured and sent off to a first aid ship during the crossing of the airfield in “Part Six,” and we don’t even check in with him here. That’s a bit of a strange decision, although the isolation of Eugene helped drive the episode’s atmosphere home.
- I thought the fiery Japanese soldiers emerging from the bunker was going to be the image that shows up in my nightmares, but then there was the game of “toss the rock into the open head cavity!” *Shivers*