In part 1 of The Pacific, Pfc. Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and the rest of his company land on Guadalcanal Island as part of the first U.S. offensive of World War II. Meanwhile, we meet fellow Marine Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda), a non-commissioned officer who spends Christmas with his family before heading overseas, and Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), whose wealthy father won't let him enlist because of a heart murmur. As Leckie & Co. adjust to their surroundings in the jungle, they must ward off an overnight attack by the Japanese at Alligator Creek.
"It is a Garden of Eden. The jungle holds both beauty and terror in its depths, the most terrible of which is man. ... There are things men can do to one another that are sobering to the soul." — Pfc. Robert Leckie
Back before every other TV show featured a tropical locale or James Cameron created a 3-D universe called Pandora, the jungle probably did feel like another world. So it's fitting that the production team went to such great lengths in some of the opening scenes to make the overgrown jungle — the stage for much of this bloody tale — as intimidating as the encroaching Japanese enemy. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's start with the players, and how we meet them. Though Part 1 (and I'm sure and the subsequent parts) offers several memorable supporting turns, the stars of this show are:
We first meet Basilone at a briefing with Lt. Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller, who tells all the non-commissioned officers that they will be the ones to win this conflict with the Japanese. (I love William Sadler, and I look forward to much more of him in this role). Before shipping out, Basilone and his buddies spend Christmas dinner with Basilone's family, who clearly fear for his safe return. Basilone's father's long gaze at his son says much more than his little brother's toast.
A son of priviliege, he wants nothing more than to put on a uniform and head to the jungle. But his father, who happens to be a doctor, refuses to let him enlist because of his bad heart. Though we only get the briefest introduction here, rest assured that Sledge will see combat. For now, he can only wish the best to his buddy Sidney Phillips, who as it turns out ends up stationed with...
Leckie is a writer who has enlisted to do his part. As he says a prayer before shipping out, he runs into his neighbor Vera, who he promises to write once he's got his feet settled in the mud. Leckie's father (see the trend?) is also distraught about his son's departure and supposes the best way to deal with his emotion is to complain about a broken axle on his car. In any case, the story of the first hour belongs to Leckie.
Before we go any further, I must admit to being only an incidental fan of Band of Brothers — that is to say, I saw some of it and enjoyed it, but I didn't watch it from start to finish. It's clear that this project — despite sharing a subject and creative team (Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, etc.) with Brothers — is quite different in scope and in narrative style. This story will be told from three points of view, forgoing the team element we got from Easy Company in Band of Brothers.
The biggest departure for me is the way these soldiers feel about the enemy. Part of the beauty in Band was the parallels that the young men saw between themselves and their German counterparts. So far, the hatred for the "yellow monkeys" hasn't revealed much more than just hatred. Even Leckie — who, to be fair, does have a moment of realization, but we'll get to that in a second — writes to Vera: "We've met the enemy and have learned nothing about him."
This mentality is established in the first scene that introduces the other men in Leckie's company. The biggest mouthpiece is Pfc. Lew "Chuckler" Juergens, who says he joined up for one reason: to unleash his machine gun on the enemy in a "real turkey shoot." When asked for his rationale, Leckie prefers to quote The Iliad: "WIthout a sign, his sword a brave man draws. And asks no omen but his country's cause."
The truth is that many of these boys aren't sure where they are or what they're fighting for. To wit: One of the hour's most humorous moments comes when the men are storming the beach in their small boats. Rather than walking into the hell that was the Normandy we know from history books (and Saving Private Ryan), the soldiers are confused when they land on the beach only to find their fellow soldiers laying in the sun. There is then some talk of poisoned coconuts before the action really kicks in.
After some first-night jitters (the medic is accidentally shot when he gets up to go to the bathroom), Chuckler gets his wish for a turkey shoot at Alligator Creek. The Japanese attack at night, and the battle is fierce. To his credit, Chuckler knows how to move around the battlefield to get the drop on his opponent, and ultimately his efforts land him a promotion to corporal. The sun rises to show hundreds of dead Japanese, and the sobering effect Leckie refers to in his letter is clear on his face.
One surviving Japanese soldier takes out a few men with a hidden grenade and two remaining soldiers hop out of the bushes. The men decide to toy with one of the surviving soldiers, shooting him, but not mortally wounding him. Leckie puts an end to the game when he shoots him through the heart with his sidearm. The real question: Was he acting nobly by putting the Japanese soldier out of his misery? I'd like to think it was that, rather than the alternative: the blind hatred I discussed before.
Leckie's moment of discovery comes shortly thereafter as he searches through the dead men's packs. He finds a picture of one dead soldier's wife and perhaps a toy made for him by his child. Leckie is reminded that most of these corpses had their own Vera back home awaiting their next letter.
The episode ends with the miniseries' other two protagonists coming back into focus: Basilone arrives in Guadalcanal with his battalion of reinforcements. And Sidney reads a letter from Sledge back in Alabama. Sledge clearly is beating himself up for not being able to be on the front lines, but wanted to pass along birthday wishes to his buddy. And as the boys sing Sidney a chorus of "Happy Birthday," they tuck on an extra verse as they head deeper into the jungle: "How f---ed are you now?" they sing.
Some other thoughts:
• I at first didn't love the Hanks-narrated mini-documentary at the opening of the episode. (For the record, Hanks and his fellow creators were reluctant to do them as well.) But upon a second viewing, it added quick insight about what the show then presented in the first hour. That helped dust off the cobwebs covering the portion of my brain that contains high school U.S. History. In short: Guadalcanal could not be lost to the Japanese, because the U.S. would then have no place to stage their offensive in the Pacific.
• Like Leckie, who quoted Homer, Sledge quotes Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din" in his letter to Sidney. I wish these two poetry lovers would cross paths on the battlefield, but Sledge was a mortar man in Peleliu and Okinawa.
• I've already mentioned that the jungle was ominous, but did anyone else expect the Smoke Monster to pop out at any moment?
What did you think of Part 1?
In part 1 of The Pacific, Pfc. Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale) and the rest of his company land on Guadalcanal Island as part of the first U.S. offensive of World War II. Meanwhile, we meet fellow Marine Sgt. John Basilone (Jon Seda), a non-commissioned officer who spends Christmas with his family before heading overseas, and Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello), whose wealthy father won't let him enlist because of a heart murmur. As Leckie & Co. adjust to their surroundings in the jungle, they must ward off an overnight attack by the Japanese at Alligator Creek...