The Pacific, Sky Movies
The Man Who Cycled the Americas, BBC1
Steven Spielberg has spent $230m getting his new war epic all dressed up – but is it going anywhere?
Sunday 11 April 2010
The first casualty in war, so they say, is the truth. In the case of the Second World War, there's a pretty good chance that the wounded truth limps into the tender care of Doctor Steven Spielberg, to be tended to, operated on, nursed and returned to its feet looking, one suspects, better than it ever did. But whether that's entirely in the interests of the patient is another question.
In the film Saving Private Ryan, the TV series Band of Brothers and now that series' palm-fringed successor, The Pacific, Spielberg continues his project, with co-executive producer Tom Hanks, to fight the "good war" all over again – albeit with 20 catering trucks and a couple of chamber orchestras just behind the front line. He certainly has the war chest: $230m has been lavished on The Pacific, a 10-part account of the American role in driving back Japanese imperial forces in the Far East, making it the most expensive TV series ever.
Unfortunately, the producers also have another foe to tackle: ignorance of what millions of Allied forces got up to in the so-called "Pacific Theatre" from 1943. (And let's not sneer at the ignorance of American audiences. How many of us have the first clue about the horrific campaign fought by British and Commonwealth forces in Burma?)
The result is that the first episode of The Pacific has all the complexity of a bayonet charge: here's a few US marines, there they are parting from their families in America, look at them hustling ashore from a landing craft on to the beaches of Guadalcanal off the Solomon Islands, here's a map in case you didn't know the Solomon Islands were just north of Australia (I didn't). And then let the fighting begin.
The problem is that Spielberg and Hanks don't have a spectacle such as D-Day to splurge their dollars on. That terrifying landing-craft sequence in Saving Private Ryan is here replayed, knowingly, as anticlimax, the terrified Marines spilling on to the beach to be assaulted by nothing more forbidding than the wisecracks of those already there: "What took ya so long?" And those pesky damned Japanese only come out of their fox-holes at night – the light's terrible and their uniforms are a mess!
Which isn't to say that there isn't much else to focus on. The Pacific conflict was, apparently, characterised by a racial hatred between the opposing sides, quite unlike that in Europe. (Though did anyone tell the Russians and the Germans that?) A couple of American war dead are shown, tortured and mutilated by the Japanese. By way of dutiful editorial balance, a Japanese soldier is toyed with brutally before the coup de grâce is delivered. And the fighting, when it takes place, is as thrillingly staged and choreographed as you might expect.
But in its earnest desire to "educate" its audience and "honour" the undoubtedly immense effort of the Allied war veterans, The Pacific, you might say, succumbs to "friendly fire". Lantern-jawed commanding officers appear to be on secondment from the comic Warlord, and as for the Japanese, they've yet to reach the psychological complexity of Spielberg's comedy caper 1941 (which is curiously omitted from the press notes' official biography).
As one hellish trudge along the Pacific rim began, another was concluding in The Man Who Cycled the Americas. Last week saw Mark Beaumont's third and final film of his 13,000-mile, nine-month attempt to cycle from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, climbing the highest peak in each of North and South America along the way.
The producers, via Bill Paterson's voice-over, repeated ad nauseam that no one else had ever attempted such a feat, prompting the inevitable question: er, why would anyone have ever bothered? And Beaumont's occasional diversions to local attractions (hill-billy music festivals, tequila slamming, coffee roasting) were another distraction.
No, this programme's virtue was Beaumont himself, a sunny, uncomplicated Scot with only the mildest of interest in engaging with anyone he met (he spoke comically little Spanish). He was clearly happiest spinning along in a Zen state of perpetual revolution, and it's been a bit of a late-night treat each week to watch him doing so.
After the recent film of Eddie Izzard's attempt to to complete 43 consecutive marathons, how about a new sub-genre? The physical endurance feat as existential psycho-drama. This one will run and run.
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