WWII Film Guide: War in the Pacific - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, July 10, 2021

WWII Film Guide: War in the Pacific

*This post is part of a film guide on World War II. Click here for the main page
*For more context on the process behind this guide, click here for an introduction

Overview: After exploring the best of films in the European campaign, let's turn now to the Pacific. You'll notice that there are less films here than the last guide. I think there are two main reasons why there are less films about the war in the pacific 1) The depravity seems to be worse, especially in the case of the land battles. The casualty rate for the American military is at all-time high here. Few people want to be reminded of this and given censorship issues I think this likely led to film more about the naval battles or aerial battles of the Pacific - you can distance the violence and suffering while differentiating from the more land-based European films. 2) I think we found ourselves able to relate more to having Germans and European settings than with the Japanese in Asia. It was easier to portray Germans (you could get Hollywood stars to do it, like Jackie Mason playing Erwin Rommel, or Orson Welles playing a sympathetic German officer) but portraying the Japanese was more difficult, there seemed to be much more hate for them.

In order to get you to the thing most of you came for, "What's the best in this category? I've put my recommendations for you below. Following that, if you'd like to learn more about the 12 films in this section, then you can find each film in this category organized by release date (oldest to newest) with a brief commentary, a link to its IMDB page, and my grade.


Recommendations
The Basics: Similar to the European campaign, there is a one-two punch here represented by a film and a mini series and a film that just can't be beat. First, you have to begin with 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora! which covers and recreates in great detail the Pearl Harbor event that kicked off America's active involvement in World War II. From there, you can't get better than following 2010's The Pacific to get a taste for how the rest of the pacific land battles went from a view of the soldier. In viewing both you have the inciting event of the Pacific campaign and most the highlights on the long haul.
  • Best Blockbuster Recreation: Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
  • Overview of the Horror: The Pacific (2010)
Deep Dives: If you are looking for a deeper dive and analysis I still recommend beginning with my basics. From there I would recommend 2019's Midway as the turning point in the battle for the Pacific. I'd recommend a double feature of The Thin Red Line with Hacksaw Ridge for two films that try and make sense of the troubling violence of war in very different ways. For an insight into the psychology of those Japanese who died by suicidal attack, those who surrendered, and those who held out - I'd recommend a double feature of Letters from Iwo Jima and Oba: The Last Samurai. Finally, if you would like a look into one of the more colorful generals of the campaign who featured in many of the key decisions and moments than MacArthur might be worth a view.
  • Aerial Spectacle/Turning Point: Midway (2019)
  • Reflections on Violence: The Thin Red Line (1998) / Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
  • Japanese Perspective: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) / Oba: The Last Samurai (2011)

Individual Film Commentary (Oldest to Newest)
  • A+ = All-time Classic
  • A   = Excellent Film
  • A-  = Excellent Film, but some minor faults
  • B+ = Very Good film
  • B   = Good Film
  • B-  = Good Film, but some key faults
  • C+ = Average with some redeeming qualities, but major faults
  • C   = Mediocre Film
  • C-  = Poor Film
  • D+ = Bad Film
  • I don't usually rate anything lower


1. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) IMDB
- When people talk about a "traditional" film - this has to be the first to come to mind. In a rarity for an early WWII film, the film covers a marine infantry squad, their training, and their landings/battles on Tarawa and Iwo Jima. The action sequences are competent, large-scale, and interspersed with real war footage. For its time, these are very well done and must have been pretty awesome to sit in a movie theater in 1949 and watch them. The action however, is not the main feature of the story. The film is mostly remembered for John Wayne as Sgt. John M. Stryker giving definition to the "I'm a hard Commander, but that's just cause I'm preparing you for war in the best way I know how" trope. This is the central element of the film and I find it stiff, not very nuanced, and fairly unsuccessful. The film is a bit too jingoistic and filled with tropes for my taste - but still worth a watch. GRADE: C+

2. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) IMDB
- "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was the call sign the Japanese pilots were to send back to their officers if they were able to achieve the surprise they so desperately wanted and regrettably were able to achieve. The surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor is one of the major turning points in American and world history - bringing the United States fully into World War II. It's not a surprise then that the event has been covered many times in several films. No film has covered it better than Tora! Tora! Tora! and it is easily the best of the mega-budget large scale event recreations to come out of the 60s-70s. The leadup to the attack takes up the first half of the film and sets the stage perfectly; introducing the key figures and mindsets on the American and Japanese sides. The second half of the film pays off in a sequence that is allowed to build and feature multiple facets of the attack. Being before the age of CGI, there’s a commitment to doing things practical that payoff in ways that films today just can’t pull off. Sweeping aerial shots have a different feel when we know the planes in them are real and the damage being done is practical. There’s some jaw dropping stunt work and large-scale explosions here as well. Mixed in with the real location work is some hit and miss miniature and rear screen projection work. Despite some distracting miniature and rear projection work and the lack of the more dynamic CGI shots of Michael Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor sequence, this one remains a cut above. I might like a couple of the eye-popping CGI shots, but it completely lacks the cheesy Hollywoodization that Bay’s “let’s get revenge on them Japs” version lets run throughout the sequence. This 1970 version is the single richest recreation in terms of scale and it is immensely benefited by allowing the sequence to speak for itself without filling it with cheesy glamorous supporting roles that only serve to distract. Most action films need it, but war recreations like this one certainly don’t. This is one of the gems of not just World War II cinema, but war cinema in general. GRADE: A-

3. Midway (1976) IMDB
- This is the ugly stepsister of those mega-budget, all-star, recreations of turning point events. This films begins with the destruction and fallout of the Doolittle raid over Tokyo. The Japanese want to deal a decisive blow to the American fleet, prevent repeats of air raids over Japan, and force the US to sue for peace in the Pacific. The behind the scenes build up to the battle is decent stuff that gives you a good idea of the background on both sides. There are two glaring flaws in the film. A subplot love story about Japanese girlfriend to one of the U.S. participants in the battle is under federal suspicion. The entire subplot feels forced, out of place, and not integrated well into the overall story. Second, the battle of Midway itself - and this is the biggest strike against the film. The production struggled finding authentic planes to use for this film and so many aerial shots were repurposed from Tora! Tora! Tora!, other war films, and stock war footage. This isn't a horrendous fact as many other films in the 40-60s did this along with actual war footage, but for such a big budget recreation it feels cheap and distracting. Sometimes, a single plane is represented by several different planes from different forces and even German and British planes (who took no part in the battle) are used for dogfights and crashes. Despite these flaws and frustrations the producers put together something that is workable, though not very accurate or as dynamic as it could be. There's no "great" film about the Midway events to point, but I'd recommend the 2019 film over this one. GRADE: C+ 

4. MacArthur (1977) IMDB
- This biopic of the famous American General Douglas MacArthur roughly covers the time period between his 1942 withdrawal from the Philippines to his dismissal by President Truman during the Korean War. Lots of events in this time are covered (think the strategy behind New Guinea and Philippines campaigns) and it is nice to see them reflected upon and connect to other films. Little connections are kind fun like watching MacArthur telling a Philippine soldier to join the resistance which would play out in 1945's Back to Bataan, MacArthur leaving the Philippines on a PT boat which featured were featured in 1945's They Were Expendable. or hearing MacArthur argue that defense of Australia strategy was going on offense and thinking of the the "Gloucester/Pavuvu/Banika" episode of The Pacific. One recreation I particularly liked, and hasn't been featured in anything I've seen yet, was the recreation of the infamous Pearl Harbor Pacific strategy meeting with Roosevelt and Nimitz where MacArthur pushes hard for a strategy ensuring the capture of the Philippines before the island of Formosa (Taiwan). MacArthur's stubbornness and wily character comes across nicely here, played well by Gregory Peck. In the end, it's a pretty static affair whose best achievements lay in filling out and connecting moments in history that haven't received full cinematic treatment. Beyond that, there isn't much deeper here to the man that challenges the audience or asks us to reconsider. GRADE: C+ 

4. The Thin Red Line (1998) IMDB
- In 1998, Terrance Malick released The Thin Red Line, his first film in decades, focusing on the Battle of Guadalcanal. After a short first act introducing our main characters and their struggles, the film settles into a fairly long sequence (occupying 40 minutes or so) that plays out the drama and action of taking a Japanese defended bunker as if it were a miniature movie itself. The sequence plays out from multiple perspectives, from overall commanders, to the individual squad commanders. The camerawork highlights the natural beauty against the violent slaughter as men go through panic attacks, refuse orders, die in an instant, or suffer greatly for all to see. The final portion of the sequence features a squad clearing out a bunker that kept an entire company pinned down. Malick uses this well-staged and violent war sequence as a contrast to nature. Are men beasts in whom war and violence is inevitable or are they more like the beauty and purity of nature? You can see this contrast and struggle play out as Nick Nolte's iconic commander continues to encourage and command the advancement at all costs to life as other commanders and soldiers and others attempt to keep their sanity and humanity. This whole 40 minute sequence is probably my favorite thing Mallick has ever done, the only time I've felt his "tone-poem" style connected, and one of the best sequences in any war film ever. In The Thin Red Line, the there isn’t any glory because to be at war is to be disconnected from our natural state. Thus, the men crawl through beautiful natural landscapes, with painterly shots of waving grass that would make Monet jealous. Within that landscape erupts moments of violence and moments of conflict between men, commanders, and within themselves gasping to remain normal. To Malick, no one is fit for war. 

Unfortunately, once the narrative about the line of battle moving forward ends, the film still has an hour or so to go. This final hour feels to me redundant, too slow moving, and entirely unnecessary. It's the kind of stuff that frustrates me most of Malick's work. If the film had nailed the landing this would be a war classic in my mind. As is, I think the 40 minute sequence, comprising the second act of the film, is worth the viewing alone and could be a mini-movie in and of itself. GRADE: B

5. Pearl Harbor (2001) IMDB
- I was a young teenager who was blown away by the special effects of Michael Bay's 1998 sci-fi action film Armageddon and the trailer for Pearl Harbor promised even greater visual effects wonders set to the background of a major historical event. I remember hearing some pundits think this was possibly going to be the next Titanic event. I was so excited, I bought tickets to see it on opening day...twice...with two different groups of friends. Needless to say, after seeing it the first time time - I was regretting that I'd already committed to a second viewing. To be fair, the actual treatment of the attack is mostly well done. It features some of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring special effects shots of all time. However, the attack is embedded between a godawful love story and a godawful epilogue about the Doolittle raid. Rendering the Pearl Harbor events a kind of subplot to a soap opera-esque love triangle story is an incredibly bad idea and glossing it up with Michael Bay's machismo and whiz bang only exacerbates it. Outside of the titular action sequence, you can skip this one.
GRADE: C+

6. Windtalkers (2002) IMDB
-  In this mediocre WWII film director John Woo attempts to tackle an American war film about the use of Navajo Marines in cypher and code work during the Pacific campaign – specifically the invasion of Saipan. The film just isn't in the right hands here; it's miscast (Nicholas Cage is pretty bad here) and John Woo, who seems like a slam dunk for this action material, doesn't prove a good match for this material. Unfortunately, Woo does not adapt his iconic style enough to the material; the bombastic, stylish, and heroic flourishes that defined his previous work doesn’t quite work with a serious war film about the horror filled battles in the Pacific campaign. Much of the film feels like a styles clash that comes off as way too "Hollywood" and frankly, it's often pretty cheesy stuff. If this had come out in the early to mid-nineties, it would likely have been looked upon better, but coming out post Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers it feels like its from another world that just doesn’t understand war. GRADE: C

7. Flags of Our Fathers (2006) IMDB
- This film covers the famous flag raising event on Mount Suribachi a few days into the Battle of Iwo Jima and how the famous photo of that raising would go on to be change the lives of all the men who were thought to be part of it. A few of the soldiers who were part of the raising (and one who was not) are sent home to be part of bond raising campaign where they struggle with the demons from battle and their roles as "heroes". Unfortunately, this side of the story is just not as compelling and interesting as the actual battle side. Flags of Our Fathers spends 12 minutes overviewing the initial landings on Iwo Jima and this sequence does a better job of telling the overall story of an amphibious landing in the Pacific War than any other I’ve seen. It spends money on CGI for a convincingly realistic and epic landing convoy, with destroyers blasting the island, and landing craft driving ashore along with other support craft. The land battles are good and feature the gamut of realistic explosions, violence, and machine gun action that any war film post-2000 is expected to have. I particularly appreciate the couple of aerial dogfight shots that showcase the battlefield geography and give a wonderful dynamism to the sequence – and give it a nice way to transition between land and sea sequences as well. It’s excellent as an overview – feeling like I got a good sense of the battle. Outside of these compelling war sequences are the less compelling dramatics back on the home front, as well as a framing device about a son investigating his father's past military service. None of it gels together in a way that is more than the whole. Part of the reason is that early on the creatives decided their story was too big and they needed to create a second story. This film would go on to be Letters from Iwo JimaGRADE: B

8. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) IMDB
- This was filmed right after Flags of Our Fathers by Clint Eastwood as a companion piece to that film that would tell the Japanese view of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The story begins with the arrival of General Kuribayashi, played by Ken Watanabe, to the island well before the American forces land there. Kuribayashi surveys the defenses and makes significant changes, bucking the older more traditional officers on the island. We also get the viewpoint of several foot soldiers as they prepare for the invasion and deal with the battles. later in the film As the battle begins, Kuribayashi is shown to be an able commander and resists the urge to throw soldiers into fruitless banzai attacks for no good reason, despite what his older officers urge him to do. This is a more cohesive narrative than Flags of Our Fathers, but it suffers from the exclusion of the extremely effective war action sequences found there. I wish that the “flag” plot of Flags of Our Fathers would have been held to a small epilogue and the two narratives would have been intercut between the American and Japanese sides of the battle. As one story, these two films contain an interesting look into Iwo Jima, separately though they both feel lacking to some extent. GRADE: B

9. The Pacific (2010 – Miniseries) IMDB
- Without a doubt, this is the most miserable war film I’ve ever seen. Since it is a mini series instead of a 2 hour film, the experience lasts nearly ten hours. To be fair, a miserable experience does not equal a bad film and as you can tell by my rating, this is not a bad film at all. After the success of Band of Brothers, most of the same creatives came together to make another miniseries covering the Pacific side of World War II. In doing so, they had a small problem to address, Band of Brothers was iconic and already cemented great tales of leadership, courage, and heroism in the popular imagination. Heck, "Band of Brothers" men's groups became popular in many churches I was part of. Was this new miniseries just going to be another Band of Brothers but with palm trees instead of European hedgerows? How could The Pacific differentiate itself? 

The one area that Band of Brothers covered but did not dwell upon fully and certainly did not make its goal, is the "War is Hell" aspect of battle. It seems clear to me that the producers and writers purposefully wanted to counterbalance the public reverence of Band of Brothers by stripping the battle scenes of tactical stories, conventional shows of heroism, and comradery. In its place, The Pacific crafted sequences that drove home to the viewer that this campaign was a nasty business that changed its participants forever. Even the musical theme is more somber and doesn’t have the nostalgic heroism of the Band of Brothers. The series covers Guadalcanal, a layover for restoration in Australia, then back to many key island battlefields including Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. We do grow to know the characters, but the episodes are tougher to watch for a couple of reasons: the characters and issues they have chosen to highlight, mostly the ugly side of war, aren’t as compelling, rousing, and redeeming as the viewer expects. The entire thing is educational, but it feels like having to eat your vegetables without a lot of dessert or meat to balance it out. In the depiction of the Battle of Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, the high production standards are still there, but the framing is more claustrophic, with epic scenery almost always in blur behind our characters. It feels like the directors had two goals: to educate the viewer on the basic geography of the battle and to make you sick to the stomach at the violence of it. There is little comradery (in fact they seem to focus more on combative relationships), there is no conventional heroism (outside of John Basilone on Iwo Jima), there is little technical prowess or tactical excellence, there is only suffering and death. 

By the time the Battle for Okinawa has completed, the war action becomes overwhelming - there's no comic relief or typical redemption. This kind of war film is harder to view because it's not as entertaining or fun as others, but it does provide a necessary pendulum swing. The creators likely would not deny that conventional heroism existed in these battles and that tactical brilliance could have easily have been shown. What they have done instead is fill in the blanks on our World War II experience maps that are only lightly sketched - the intense dehumanization of war. It's a bear, but it's greatly appreciated. We need to be reminded that war is hell and that it ends up taking from everyone involved. GRADE: A-

10. Oba: The Last Samurai (2011) IMDB
- The American invasion of the island of Saipan (imagine this film picking up where 2002’s Windtalkers left off) is nearing its end with a determined remnant of Japanese soldiers holding out in the mountains. Told from the Japanese perspective, we witness their last banzai charge attack for death and glory…except that some soldiers survive. Rather than die, they see their job as joining other holdouts on the island and protecting as many Japanese civilians as possible in the process. One of the more fascinating stories of Japanese imperial army is their unwillingness (not uniformly, but certainly widespread) to be taken prisoner, preferring to die by suicidal attacks (or straight up suicide). This is a helpful film in understanding the psychology of those Japanese who died by suicidal attack, those who surrendered, and those who held out. Its not perfect, some on the American side are a bit caricatured (like Daniel Baldwin’s officer), but it’s a fairly balanced dramatization of the reasoning and emotions on both sides of a difficult issue that caused a lot of death and extended the war beyond the major actions. GRADE: B-

11. Hacksaw Ridge (2016) IMDB
- Mel Gibson directs this portrayal of the first man to earn the Medal of Honor despite never firing a gun and killing the enemy. Desmond Doss is a pacifist and conscientious objector who wants to serve, but not as a front-line "killing machine" soldier. His superiors don’t appreciate this and throughout boot camp believe they can bully the pacifist out of him. By the time Doss arrives at the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa Island he’s at the front lines but not wielding a gun. The battle sequence that follows is one of the best depictions of charging into a battle and having to survey the landscape, take cover, and fight from position to position, bunker to bunker. It covers the gamut of emotion and it feels like a genuine back and forth fight. The hell of the violence here is similar to what we found in the 2010 series The Pacific - it's grotesque and overwhelming. If Terrance Mallick argued in The Thin Red Line that war is at natural conflict with and corrupts our human nature, then Gibson argues in this film that within the hell of war can be found roles that are redeeming. Even though Desmond Doss won't fire a gun, we see his courage and bravery as he seeks to save as many on the battlefield as possible – going beyond the job of a medic and using the cover of night to personally rescue men off a dangerous battlefield. Yet, the film argues we also need people willing to pull the trigger as well. Yes, war is hell, we can have different beliefs and different views, but we can each find our natural place within it - some as rescuers, some as soldiers, some as leaders, etc. This is a good film, not without some faults, and Doss’ story really is one of the more remarkable ones to come out of this war. GRADE: B+

12. Midway (2019) IMDB
- Roland Emmerich, creator of films like Independence Day and The Patriot, tells the story of the major turning point in the Pacific campaign, the air and naval battle of Midway. The first two thirds set up the main battle by covering Pearl Harbor and other run ups to the circumstances before Pearl. The film does a good job portraying the mindset of the Japanese officials and their planning going into the battle, but the attempt to dramatize the American soldiers involved is a huge misstep. The portrayal is accurate to the basic history but is so stereotypical and poorly written that it weighs down the better portions of the film. The final third of the film is a collection of sequences covering the the air and naval battle. If you can put aside the cheesy drama and character portrayals, you are treated to the greatest CGI World War II Navy battle ever put to film. The sequence is fairly comprehensive of the actual battle, but the meat and potatoes begin with US torpedo squads spotting the Japanese fleet and failing in their first run. Eventually the U.S. dive bomber squads arrive and take on the fleet with great success. These bombing runs are beautifully shot, tense, and the gem of the entire film. The visuals are breathtaking: an ocean packed with naval vessels, a sky packed with planes and flak, bomber runs going for carriers with flak flying all over. This is director Roland Emmerich’s greatest achievement as the bombing runs on the Japanese carriers do justice to being a dynamic action sequence, accurately portraying a real-life battle, and cover the emotions and worries of the commanders and pilots on all sides. Skip the 1976 version and give this one a view - as you look past the cheesiest elements. GRADE: B-

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