“THE PACIFIC” (2010) EPISODE SEVEN “Peleliu Hills” Commentary
I wrote this commentary on the seventh episode of “THE PACIFIC”.
In Episode Seven, “THE PACIFIC” finally ended its three-part focus on the Battle of Peleliu. This particular one centered on Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) and his experiences with the 5th Marines regiment in the hills of Peleliu Island in October 1944.
The episode began with a montage featuring Sledge and the 5th Marines battling it out against the Japanese Army for a period of time – a first for the miniseries – until their return to the airfield for a brief respite. There, Sledge has a conversation with his company commander, Captain Andrew “Ack Ack” Haldane (Scott Gibson). As the 5th Marines prepare to head back into the hills, Sledge spotted Colonel Chesty Puller (William Sadler) and the 1st Marines regiment heading back toward the beach. One of that regiment’s wounded turned out to be one Lou “Chuckler” Juergens (Josh Helman), barely conscious, while smoking a cigarette.
As Sledge and the 5th Marines returned to the hills, the episode gave viewers another peek into John Basilone’s (Jon Seda) continuing publicity tour as a war hero. Only this time, the novelty has finally worn off. The war bond drive and celebrity status has driven Basilone into his own personal hell. He also seemed to be haunted by memories of Guadalcanal and the death of Manny Rodriguez (Jon Bernthal). This brief glimpse of Basilone’s dissatisfaction will eventually lead to his decision to request a return to active duty.
But most of the episode featured Sledge and the 5th Marines’ continuing experiences on Peleliu. The horrors that the Mobile native had experienced during the landing and the battle across the airfield almost seemed like child’s play in comparison to his experiences in the Peleliu hills. I say . . . almost. What Sledge and the others had experienced during Episode Five and Episode Sixseemed pretty hellish to me. In this episode, Sledge, his fellow Marines and the Japanese soldiers all seemed, at times, to be experiencing the lowest forms of humanity. And Episode Seven provided it all with brutal combat scenes, gruesome deaths and worst of all, mutilation of bodies – dead or alive.
Earlier in the episode, Sledge had looked upon some of his fellow Marines’ mutilation of dead Japanese soldiers with disgust. One particular Marine even tried to remove the gold teeth from a Japanese soldier, who was badly wounded but still alive. Sledge expressed his disgust aloud, demanding that the enemy soldier be put out of his misery. Later in the episode, he sang a different tune after his company suffered major losses in the command structure. First, a wounded Lieutenant Edward “Hillbilly” Jones (Leon Ford) was killed by stray bullets, while being carried from the battlefield by stretcher bearers. Not much time had passed before Corporal R. V. Burgin (Martin McCann) announced Captain Haldane’s death from a sniper to his platoon. Following Haldane’s death, Sledge finally had an urge to engage in a little mutilation of Japanese soldiers on his own. Fortunately, “Snafu” Shelton (Rami Malek) managed to talk him out of committing an act he would have eventually regretted. The episode ended with the 5th Marines returning to Parvuvu. However, Sledge returned as someone different from the inexperienced Marine that had a reunion with his childhood friend, some four months ago. This was especially apparent in his reaction to the sight of nurses greeting returning Marines on Parvuvu. Perhaps in his mind, they seemed like an illusion amidst the realities of war.
Many fans seemed to view Episode Seven as the best in the entire miniseries, so far. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Some also believe that it is the series’ most depressing episode. At the moment, I believe that Episode Four still holds that honor. But I do believe that Episode Seven was the most brutal in the series so far – with both Episode Two and Episode Six tying for second place. Director Tim Van Patten did an exceptional job in conveying the brutality and chaos of war in the Pacific Theater. Two scenes that really drove home the fact to me were the surprising death of Hillbilly Jones, which took me completely by surprise; and the image of “Snafu” Shelton tossing pebbles into the head of a dead Japanese soldier. By the time Sledge and his fellow Marines had returned to Parvuvu, I felt as if I had experienced the combat version of hell and beyond. However, I do have two quibbles about the episode.
In real life, a Navy corpsman named Doc Caswell had been the one to convince Sledge not to mutilate a dead Japanese soldier. In the miniseries, it was “Snafu”. My problem with this particular scene stemmed from another in last week’s episode, in which “Snafu” had supported Sledge’s pragmatic reaction to Hillbilly’s order for someone to shut up a wailing Marine with a deadly whack on the head. I found it difficult to view that “Snafu” as the same man who stopped Sledge from mutilating a dead Japanese soldier. And I feel that Captain Haldane’s death lacked any real drama. Do not get me wrong. Haldane was probably an excellent leader and a good Marine. But Scott Gibson’s portrayal of the officer made him seem like a 2.0 version of the Richard Winters character in ”BAND OF BROTHER”. I also found it difficult to experience any surge of emotion over his death, considering that it had occurred off-screen. If screenwriter Bruce McKenna could change history and allow “Snafu” to convince Sledge not to commit any mutilation, then surely he could have allowed the Alabamian to witness Haldane’s death.
The episode did feature some superb performances – especially by Joseph Mazzello and Rami Melek. And while I had a slight problem with the idea of “Snafu” convincing Sledge not to mutilate that Japanese soldier, I must admit that this scene has led me to believe that the two actors had given the best performances in the entire episode. But I also feel that Martin McCann did a fine job in developing Burgin into a top-notch squad leader. When I first saw Gary Sweet’s portrayal of Gunnery Sergeant Elmo Haney back in Season Five, I thought it was a bit too exaggerated and something of a joke. But I must admit that not only did he managed to grow on me, I found his portrayal of Haney’s growing sense of despair over the bloodbath on Peleliu very impressive. But I cannot forget Jon Seda’s brief, yet memorable performance as war hero John Basilone. With a minimum of words and a great deal of facial expressions and body language, he did a superb job of conveying Basilone’s despair over being trapped into some kind of celebrity hell. He has grown a great deal as an actor.
Episode Seven capped what I believe to be the best part of “THE PACIFIC” – a three-part glimpse into the brutality of the controversial battle, Peleliu. I suspect that many viewers might find this surprising. Because so many combatants had died on the beaches and in the caves of Peleliu, the island now has a war memorial honoring the dead of both the Americans and the Japanese.
Next, John Basilone is transferred to the Fifth Marine Division and experiences combat on Iwo Jima.