Thomas Doherty’s accomplished piece of cultural history, “Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II,” has got me thinking again about the miniseries “The Pacific,” which I wrote about, in response to Clive James, in August. Doherty’s book is focused on the movies, and particularly the war movies, of 1941-1945, but he also writes knowledgeably about war movies post-1945. The book ends (in the revised edition) with a long look at “Saving Private Ryan.” Doherty calls that movie “a kind of sacramental rite, the baby boomer sons kneeling before their World War II fathers in a final act of generational genuflection.” I wrote as much in my original post, and argued that “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” should be viewed likewise. Steven Spielberg’s three depictions of American soldiers in combat are civic-minded creations, designed to honor veterans and to educate younger generations in the sacrifice of their elders and the true horrors of every war–even the “good war.” Commercial considerations are part of the story, and all three productions have been profitable (or will be, in the case of “The Pacific”; DVD sales are the prime source of revenue for miniseries), but these considerations are not central.
Doherty’s book is comprehensive when it comes to World War II movies, and it has prompted me to cut Clive James a little slack for wondering why “The Pacific” is not better entertainment; as he writes, the miniseries “fails even to fulfill the elementary requirements of a good adventure story.” To Doherty (and I wouldn’t disagree), “Ryan” is an exemplary action-adventure. It conforms to the standard tropes and themes and narrative turns of every good war movie, though it does everything better than its predecessors. The result is that in some very specific ways, “Ryan” does not fulfill its promise of absolute realism. The example Doherty employs is Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller. He writes, “the certainty that Hanks will die not in the first but in the last reel works against the chaos theory of war.” Miller is a throwback: he’s a “Frank Capra version of the American solder, the antithesis of the Wehrmacht automaton, a schoolteacher who becomes a warrior of necessity not bloodlust, who wants only to finish the job and get back to his wife in smalltown Pennsylvania.” This is a perceptive reading of the movie; it’s Clive James-like.
James can be forgiven for desiring an adventure story in “The Pacific,” because, as I failed to note (or to fully come to terms with), war movies are a genre, or, more precisely, a sub-genre under action-adventure. Realism–fidelity to the logic of war–is often promised by the creators of war movies but is rarely delivered. “The Pacific” comes close though, closer than “Ryan,” because it bucks the narrative conventions of its genre. Yet at the same time it is inevitably an addition to its genre, as well as a response to the hundreds of World War II movies that preceded it, and James cannot be wrong for comparing it to its ancestors and brethren. “Ryan,” after all, is great entertainment. Nevertheless, “The Pacific” remains unique–whether it can be called postmodern is debatable, but in its fragmented action and wave-like emotional crests and troughs, it breaks the traditional molds of genre. Hanks’s captain, shipped off to “The Pacific,” dies in the first reel.