Understanding Screenwriting #44: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, & More

In the first two chapters the Palestinians yell at each other. In the third chapter the Israelis yell at each other.

Understanding Screenwriting #44: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, & More
Photo: Kino International

Coming up in this column: Ajami, Green Zone, Nights in Rodanthe, The 39 Steps, White Feather, You Only Live Twice, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Parenthood, The Pacific

Ajami (2009. Written by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. 120 minutes)

It might have worked: This is an intriguing idea for a movie. Copti and Shani, who also co-directed, are Palestinian and Israeli, respectively. The film is set in the multi-ethnic Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. So we get storylines of Palestinians and Israelis both by themselves and together. The film is divided up into five chapters. In the first two chapters, we are introduced to the Palestinian characters, particularly Omar. Omar was the target of a hit man from another tribe, who was aiming to kill him because Omar’s uncle had killed one of the other tribe. Unfortunately the hit man kills a friend of Omar’s. Omar enlists the aid of Abu-Lias, the neighborhood fixer, to negotiate a settlement between Omar and the tribe. The negotiation scene is probably the best scene in the picture: dramatic, funny, and with great Middle Eastern texture. Omar goes to work for Abu-Lias to pay off the debt, and we meet several other characters Omar hangs out with. In the third chapter we meet an Israeli policeman, Dando, who is disturbed by the disappearance of his brother, whom he assumes has been killed. The fourth chapter brings the Israelis and Palestinians together, and the fifth chapter ties the stories together. So what went wrong?

In the first two chapters the Palestinians yell at each other. In the third chapter the Israelis yell at each other. In the fourth chapter the Palestinians and the Israelis yell at each other. In the fifth chapter every single character behaves as stupidly as they can so the filmmakers can have a tragic ending. Now from what we hear out of the Middle East, all that yelling at each other may be socially and politically accurate, and certainly stupid behavior is not unheard of in the area. But it just gets exhausting to watch. Yes, I know it is exhausting for those in the area to live through, but as writers they need to give us a little counterpoint. I have the same problem with this script as I did with the script for the 2005 film Crash (see US#9). I don’t know the Ajami neighborhood like I know Crash’s LA, so maybe they do behave that way. But that does not mean I have to watch them.

Green Zone (2010. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekara. 115 minutes)

Green Zone

More Middle East yelling, and not just among Middle Easterners: You probably know the rule of three in joke telling: never tell more than three jokes on one subject. You may not be aware of the rule of three in screenwriting. To establish a pattern, you need three activities. The first one is an event. The second is a coincidence. The third tells us there is a pattern. Green Zone opens shortly after the American invasion of Iraq. An army unit, run by Chief Warrant Officer Miller, is trying to find the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction. Their intel (intelligence; Helgeland gets the terminology and the military attitudes right) says one load is in a warehouse. Which the regular army has not secured. At least one sniper is still active, along with the general chaos. Miller and his unit go in, taking out the sniper. There are no WMDs; there is only rusted machinery with ten years of pigeon shit on it. Nice opening scene, and now we need two more, right? Did you forget that Helgeland also wrote L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003)? OK, he also wrote The Postman (1997), but his draft of that had more than a little humor in it. When the area is secure, Miller says this is the third time they have come up empty. So you know you are going to have to run to keep up with the story, which I for one always love.

Miller goes to the administrators living in the Green Zone (if you don’t know what that is, start reading newspapers, or Chandrasekara’s book), who really don’t want Miller to look into this too deeply. But Miller is a traditional American hero, standing up to the establishment. I saw Green Zone in the afternoon, and that night I showed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) in my History of Motion Pictures class at Los Angeles City College. Mr. Smith, meet CWO Miller. Miller is often as quiet as Smith, and he does not stutter as much, but he knows the right thing to do. Helgeland has created a great character, and he and Matt Damon make Miller one of the most convincing American military men I have ever seen on the screen. A lot has been made in the promotion for the film that it is by the director of The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and the direction of the action scenes proves it, but Miller is no Jason Bourne. Bourne is only trying to figure out who he is; Miller knows who he is.

Miller and some of the American bureaucrats yell at each other, especially the Pentagon rep Clark Poundstone. Poundstone is one of those young neo-cons who went into Iraq with high ideals and even higher assumptions, nearly all of which turned out to be wrong. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority during the time the film takes place, is mentioned but never shown. I can’t help but believe, however, that Greg Kinnear was cast as Poundstone because he looks like a younger Bremer. Lawne Dayne is a woman journalist who wrote a number of articles claiming inside information on the intel on the WMDs, an obvious variation of the New York Times’ infamous Judith Miller. CWO Miller’s best American ally is an old C.I.A. hand Martin Brown. Marjorie Miller, who covered Iraq before, during and after the invasion for the Los Angeles Times, notes in a great commentary piece on the movies about Iraq that is “Interesting to see Hollywood play C.I.A. agents as the good guys.” She’s right. And given all the warnings the Agency gave the Bush Administration, it’s certainly deserved.

Helgeland also handles the various Iraqi characters very well. Look at what he takes “Freddie,” who becomes Miller’s source and translator, through. After my problems with all the yelling in Ajami, I was delighted to see how subdued some of the discussions among the Iraqis were, particularly in the scene where the Baathist General Al Rawi has a conference with those of his associates who have not yet been captured. Look at the variety of reactions Helgeland gives to the different associates. Some yell, some don’t.

The script does run into problems toward the end. As Marjorie Miller points out, the film suggests that the promotion of the idea of WMDs was a conscious conspiracy, rather than as she more accurately notes, a willful belief by the Bush Administration in the bits of intelligence they wanted to be true. The film also, in the Mr. Smith tradition, assumes that one guy will set everything right. CWO Miller writes up a report and emails it not only to Lawne Dayne but to many other reporters. The implication is that this will blow the lid off the whole war, much in the way Mr. Smith’s sincerity in his filibuster made Senator Paine break down and admit his corruption in the Senate. Well, when have you ever seen an actual political figure admit to that? Listen to Rep. Massa and his explanations of “tickle houses” and the like. In real life, the news that much of the intel on the WMD came from a thoroughly discredited source did not appear to change the Bush Administration policies one bit. And the American public voted the following year to keep him in office.

Marjorie Miller deals with the issue of why the films about the Iraq war have not done well at the box office. She points out all the lies the Bush Administration told us going into the war, and says, “Maybe that’s why Americans haven’t been breaking down the doors to see these movies. The films serve as an uncomfortable reminder of our own gullibility, or fallibility.” She is dead on right about that. The film may be too late to help cause policy change on the one hand, and too soon for us to deal with the issues it brings up. The late Marvin Borowsky, my screenwriting teacher at UCLA, said that once when he pitched a baseball story to Darryl Zanuck, Zanuck told him it was too late for the last baseball movie cycle, and too soon for the next one.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008. Screenplay by Ann Peacock and John Romano, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. 97 minutes)

Nights in Rodanthe

You had me for the first hour: This is one of those that was sort of on my list to see when it was in theaters, but I never got around to until it showed up recently in the HBO rotation. Adrienne, a mother of two, is separated from her husband. Christopher Meloni plays the ex-husband in a picture that stars Richard Gere, so I am not sure how much writing you need to establish he is up to no good. Adreinne agrees to inn-sit for a friend of hers for a few days. The inn has one guest, Dr. Paul Flanner, and it is not clear at the beginning why he is in the North Carolina neighborhood. We eventually learn he is trying to visit the husband of a woman who died on his operating table. Paul and Adrienne talk and develop a friendship. Wait a minute, this is from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, who has made a fortune writing love stories. But that’s what nice about the first hour of the film: they are just friends. Adult friends. There is not a hint of romantic tension between them.

Then the storm hits the inn, which is seemingly isolated (although not so much as many shots would indicate; if you look closely at the reverse angles on the driveway you will see some signs of civilization) on a stretch of beach. And suddenly Paul and Adrienne are kissing. A lot. The scene ends with them still kissing and we have no idea if they slept together. They seem in love the next the morning, but we have not heard them say it to each other. They lark about hand in hand, and she convinces him to actually listen to the dead woman’s husband, although the writers (or the film editor) cut out the crucial scene where the two men make a breakthrough. I mentioned in writing about United States of Tara in the last column that sometimes you do not have to show everything that happens, but you have to be smart about what you do show, and the writers here are not. The writers, who have given us a lot of very precise detail about their growing friendship in the first hour, are now slacking off on the details about their love. We get nothing but movie conventions about their love affair and how it works out for them. Who would have thought that the friendship scenes would be more interesting than the romantic ones in an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel?

The 39 Steps (2008. Screenplay by Lizzie Mickery, based on the novel by John Buchan. 90 minutes)

The 39 Steps

And yet another version: This is a British television version of the Buchan novel that popped up on PBS recently. No, it is not as good as the 1935 Charles Bennett version, but it has its moments. It is set in 1914, the period of the novel, and since the writer this time around is a woman, Richard Hannay is portrayed as the sexist gentleman he probably would have been. So Mickery matches him up with a smart suffragette, not just a smart blonde, as Bennett did. The Buchan novel has no women at all. Mickery’s choice produces some interesting conversation, although it is not as romantic and charming as Bennett and his dialogue writers created. Mickery carries her character even further, making her—spoiler alert!—one of the secret service operatives tracking down the German spy ring. This leads to several rushed twists and turns in the final minutes that become a bit tricky to follow, but it also helps explain how inventive the woman is at getting her and Hannay out of jams. And it means Mickery does not have to handcuff them together as Bennett does.

Mickery does make one dreadful mistake. When Hannay is being chased across Scotland, he is attacked, on an open hillside, by a bi-plane. That makes several passes at him. Firing machine guns. I suppose we can take that as a slight nod to Bennett’s fat little English director, who had a much better version of the scene in one of his later works. But still. Why would you even want to call attention to something the Master of Suspense did so well, knowing that on a television movie budget there is no way you can match it?

White Feather (1955. Screenplay by Delmar Daves and Leo Townsend, based on the story “My Great Aunt Appearing Day” by John Prebble. 102 minutes)

White Feather

A favorite example of mine: In my 1982 book Screenwriting I used this now mostly forgotten western as an example of “Do not promise what you are not going to deliver.” It is 1877 and surveyor Josh Tanner comes to the Wyoming territory. The first thing he finds is a white man with an arrow in his back. A Cheyenne arrow. He gets to Fort Laramie and learns that while the other tribes have signed the peace treaty moving them off their lands, the Cheyenne have not. In other words, we are going to get a big battle with the cavalry and the Cheyenne at the end of the film. The opening scenes promise us that.

So the colonel at the fort has Tanner go out and talk to the Cheyenne. Tanner and Little Dog, the chief’s son who is spoiling for a fight, become friends. Tanner sees the preparations the Cheyenne are making in case there is war. More promise of a big battle. Broken Hand, the chief, decides to sign the treaty. Little Dog and his buddy American Horse object. The Cheyenne are moving out, accompanied by the cavalry. The two younger Indians show up and taunt everybody. American Dog is killed. Boy, now we are in for it. Nothing happens. Little Dog makes an attack on the cavalry and is killed. The chief’s son, for God’s sake. Broken Hand accepts his son’s death and the Cheyenne ride off. No battle. Yea for civilization, maturity and peace among peoples, but the movie has not delivered what it promised us from the beginning. When I saw the film in 1955, audiences literally threw things at the screen at the end of the film.

In 1970 I did an oral history interview with Robert D. Webb, the director of the film, and naturally I asked about the ending. His take on it was that “The big climax of the picture is the defense of the two young Indians, and the sacrificing of themselves, against what we would call today the Establishment.” I can see his point, but they still threw things at the screen.

For those of you in film production, you might want to take a look at this movie as to how to get the most for your money. It was essentially a B-picture budget that Webb, his art director Jack Martin Smith, and his great cinematographer Lucien Ballard made look like it cost a lot more than it did. And if you get the DVD, do not even THINK about watching the full-screen version. Flip the DVD over and watch it widescreen. The script is, by the way, a very sympathetic look at the Cheyenne. And, unlike the better Broken Arrow five years before, Debra Paget as the Indian girl does not die tragically, but gets to marry the white guy. But, it’s still Debra Paget…

You Only Live Twice (1967. Screenplay by Roald Dahl, additional story material by Harold Jack Bloom, based on the novel by Ian Fleming. 117 minutes)

You Only Live Twice

Widescreen DVD #1: I mentioned in US#42 that this was one of the DVDs I picked up when my neighborhood Blockbuster was having its going out of business sale. Yes, it looks great on DVD on my large-screen TV. After all, its cinematographer was Freddie Young. OK, now that we have that out of the way…

This has always been one of my favorite Bond movies because it does so many things well. We have not only Young’s cinematography, but Ken Adam’s great set design (especially the volcano interior, one of the best-used gigantic sets in movie history), the action sequences (do not even think about watching the duel between Little Nellie and the helicopters in a pan-and-scan version), and the views of not only the Japanese landscape, but also of Japanese culture (everything from Sumo wrestling to small island weddings). All of that reminds that while some movies are stars’ movies, and some are directors’ movies, and some are even writers’ movie, the Bond pictures have always been producers’ movie. A film critic a few years ago suggested that to revitalize the franchise, the producers should bring in a name director. Among the names he dropped were Martin Scorsese (“You looking at me, Mr. Bond?”), Quentin Tarantino (“We in the SPECTRE-killin’ bidness, Mr. Bond, and bidness is good”), and James Cameron. Well, maybe the younger James Cameron. I remember coming out of an opening day showing of Cameron’s True Lies (1994) and heard someone behind me say, “That’s the best James Bond movie I ever saw.” On the other hand, I do not see Bond on Pandora. The point is that to put together a Bond film, you need producers who know how to make a movie of that kind, more than specific writers, directors, or stars. The reason the Bond franchise has continued so long is that it has had those producers. Originally it was the team of Harry Saltzman and Albert C. “Cubby” Broccoli, especially the latter. They had made a pile of low-budget films in the mid-’50s, and Dr. No (1962) was just another one of those kinds of films. Until it took off. Broccoli basically ran the franchise until he passed it off to his daughter Barbara Broccoli and his stepson Michael G. Wilson in 1990. Just like any good family business.

According to Raymond Benson’s very informative The James Bond Bedside Companion, Saltzman and Broccoli were going to make the next Bond novel in Fleming’s series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the next film, but they thought the plot was too similar to Thunderball (1965). So they went with You Only Live Twice, which was more recently on the bestseller list. Ooops. Twice is about Bond tracking Blofeld to a castle in Japan and killing him for killing Bond’s wife in Secret Service. But if you haven’t made Secret Service yet… So this becomes the first Bond film to depart almost completely from its source. The producers loved the idea of location work in Japan. Broccoli toured the country and could not find a castle that would have fit the original story. He did find volcanic islands, and decided the SPECTRE headquarters should be in it. That was all he handed over to Roald Dahl, the novelist friend of Fleming’s who had never done a screenplay before. Well, not all, as Dahl recounted in a Playboy interview Benson quotes from. Broccoli told him he cannot mess with either the Bond character or “the girl formula.” We are only five films into the series, and the formula is set. There are three girls: the first one is an ally of Bond’s who gets killed early on, the second is anti-Bond whom he seduces, and the third helps Bond. Look at how Dahl handles them.

Since Dahl was writing for a producer, he was writing for all the production skills and techniques that Broccoli and his crew brought to the project, i.e., all those things I mentioned in the first paragraph that I liked about the film. The screenplay and the producers’ skills then orchestrate them into a rousing entertainment. Roald Dahl never wrote another Bond film.

I once talked to a college classmate of mine, Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote three of the Bond films of the ’70s. He said that on the first one, you are all excited. You get to write a Bond film! Come up with all the gadgets and witty dialogue! On the second one, you have some stuff left over, but it’s a struggle to make it as good as your original ideas. And on the third one, you are just thinking all the time of who you have to screw to get off the project.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976. Screenplay by Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus, based on a novel by Forrest Carter. 135 minutes)

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Widescreen DVD#2: Bruce Surtees’ great cinematography. Watch it. Enough said.

Then listen to the movie:

“We thought about it for a long time, ‘Endeavor to persevere.’ And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.”

“When I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long.” “I notice when you get to DISlikin’ someone they ain’t around for long neither.”

“I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

“You a bounty hunter?” / “A man’s got to do something for a living these days.”

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”

“How did you know which one was goin’ to shoot first?” / “Well, that one in the center: he had a flap holster and he was in no itchin’ hurry. And the one second from the left: he had scared eyes, he wasn’t gonna do nothin’. But that one on the far left: he had crazy eyes. Figured him to make the first move.” / “How ‘bout the one on the right?” / “Never paid him no mind; you were there.” / ” I could have missed.”

“You know, we’re sure gonna show them redskins somethin’ tomorrow. No offense meant.” / ” None taken.”

“I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”

If you are a Clint Eastwood fan, you probably know most of those lines by heart and use them in everyday conversation. I used to work with a guy who said, “Endeavor to persevere” at least once a week. I have no idea where they come from: the novel or the drafts by Cernus and Kaufman. The novel was privately published and sent to Malpaso, Eastwood’s company. Robert Daley, Eastwood’s producer, picked it up and got hooked by it, as was Eastwood’s story editor Sonia Chernus. Chernus asked to be allowed to write the first draft, which she did. When Philip Kaufman was brought on to direct (Eastwood eventually replaced him), he did a draft. While the Writers Guild rules generally give the top credit to the first writer on the script, Kaufman asked Chernus if he could have it. It made no difference to her (as she told me in a 1984 interview I did with her), so she agreed. The novel had more about the politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction (not surprisingly since it turned out that “Forrest Carter” was really Asa Carter, a segregationist and speechwriter for Governor George Wallace), but Kaufman cut that, and he also solved the structural problem of the novel. In the novel Wales is chased by the Terrill and the Union Redlegs only until the middle of the book. Kaufman continued the chase until the end, when Wales kills Terrill. This gives the very episodic story a stronger structure, including the thematic structure of how the war affected everybody, as seen in the last line of dialogue quoted above.

Although no critic I’ve read noticed it, the film essentially retells the story of Virgil’s Aeneid in the post-Civil War period. Instead of escaping from Troy after the Trojan War, Josey Wales is escaping from the South, and like Aeneas he is collecting a new family to replace the wife and son who were killed by the Redlegs. Part of the strength of the script is the gallery of characters Wales meets, including the old Indian Lone Watie, who gets a lot of the best lines. They also pick up the Indian girl Little Moonlight, but with two twists. First, she is not played by Debra Paget, but by the Native American actress Geraldine Keams. Second, she does not fall in love with Wales, but with Lone Watie. Another member of the community is Grandma Sarah, a cantankerous Kansas woman who hates Southerners. The script’s twists include not only characters, but story turns. In writing about White Feather above, I gave it a hard time because it does not deliver a big battle. The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of the few films I know that builds to a shootout and then does not deliver it. Yes, we do get a gun battle when Terrill and his men show up at the farm Wales and his “family” have settled on. Yes, Wales does track down Terrill and kill him. So that satisfies our bloodlust. But then Wales goes into the saloon in the town and sees Fletcher, his former commanding officer who has ridden with Terrill. The two men avoid killing each other. It is a nice little “nothing happens” scene of the kind I talked about in US#43 in the item on The Messenger.

While there were a few positive reviews of Josey Wales at the time of its release (although almost none of those got that the film was Eastwood’s Bicentennial-end of the Vietnam War movie—look at that last line of dialogue again), most were terrible. The worst was in the New York Times. It was short, and being a Yankee paper, it noted that the film was more sympathetic to the southerners than the northerners, adding, “There is something cynical about this primitive one-sideness in what is not only a historical context, but happens to be our own historical context.” As I wrote in the chapter on Eastwood in my book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, “The man who wrote the review, Richard Eder, later won the 1987 Pulitizer Prize for his book reviews. I will leave it to you to decide what that tells you about the connections, or lack of them, between the east coast intellectual establishment and the mainstreams of American life.”

Parenthood (2010. “Pilot” and “Man vs. Possum” episodes written by Jason Katims. 60 minutes each)


It’s no Modern Family: This is about the third time around for this material. First it was the 1989 feature of the same name, then the short-lived 1990 television series. This time the showrunner is Jason Katims, who kept Friday Night Lights afloat, so he knows from multi-story dramas. Here we have the extended Braverman family. Zeek is the cranky patriarch, just like Jay on Modern Family. Except instead of a Latina trophy wife, he has a wife his own age, who so far has not said much. Their son Adam seems like a nice enough fellow and like Phil on Modern Family he has a smart blonde wife, Claire there, Kristina here. But Adam does not have any particularly distinguishing characteristics, unlike Phil’s insistence that he is the coolest dad in the world. There is a slacker son, Crosby, but he slacks. There are a pile of smaller kids/grandkids, but not one has the personality of Manny on, yep, you guessed it, Modern Family. And there is no one the equivalent of Cameron and Mitchell and their daughter.

OK, this is not a half-hour comedy, so I don’t expect as many laughs, but as you can see from the previous paragraph, there is not much characterization in Parenthood. Since they have brought in a heavyweight cast (Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, Peter Krause, Monica Potter, and Lorelei Gilmore herself, Lauren Graham), you keep hoping they will give these actors something to do to earn their money. I have loved Bonnie Bedelia for forty years, but here she’s an extra. And unlike The Good Wife (see US#4 and especially US#35), the show is not giving me a sense that it has ideas on what it is going to do with all these characters. Or the situations, which so far have been fairly conventional. The scenes in which the young Max is being diagnosed as having Asperger’s are about as flat and literal as you can get. In the first episode, Katims sent Sarah, the daughter who has moved back in with her parents, out on a date recommended by her sister. The date and the sex scene that follows seemed rushed, as if Katims was in a hurry to get on to some other story. Subsequent episodes have shown no improvement.

The Pacific (2010. “Part One,” episode written by Bruce C. McKenna, based on the books Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge, with additional material from Red Blood, Black Sand by Chuck Tatum and China Marine by Eugene B. Sledge. 60 minutes)

The Pacific

And they got there how?: We did not have HBO when Band of Brothers ran and I have not caught up with it either in reruns or on DVD, but being an ex-Navy man, I thought I would give The Pacific a look.

The miniseries is based on three real guys who fought with the Marines in the Pacific in World War II, and we meet all three in the first episode. One problem is that so far, they are not particularly interesting characters. I suspect McKenna fell into the trap I thought Julian Fellowes got caught in on The Young Victoria (see US#41): assuming that because they are real people they will be interesting on screen. They are not, or rather you have to make them interesting. And there are virtually no secondary characters so far, other than a quick cameo by Chesty Puller, a legendary Marine officer. And his cameo shows another problem with the writing. He is given the second scene in the film as he explains to a bunch of non-commissioned officers what the war is going to be about. His speech may be a literal transcription of what he said, but he was a Marine, not a writer. Look at the speech William Goldman gives General Horrocks in A Bridge Too Far (1977), in which the British general describes his unit’s job as like the cavalry riding to the rescue in a western. Where is Goldman’s wit when you need it?

That also suggests another problem: the series, based on the hype for it and the first episode, is so solemn and ponderous that it may just put you to sleep. Yes, it may be better made than, say, Battle Cry (see US#39), but it is not nearly as compelling. I know that Hanks and Spielberg want to pay tribute to the Marines who fought in the Pacific. God knows the Marines deserve it, but having known a Marine or two in my Navy days, I can guarantee you they are not as solemn nor as ponderous as The Pacific makes them out to be.

Here is another objection, which probably won’t bother you, but it bothered me. The reason I knew Marines in the Navy was that I served on an Attack Transport during the late unpleasantness in Vietnam. That is one of those big ships that carry a ton of Marines to where they need to go, then put them out in little boats and take them ashore. We get a couple of special effects shots of the ships, and a brief scene of the Marines going down the nets on the side of the ship to the boats, but no real sense of what an amphibious operation entails. It is one of the most complicated military procedures there is, and the United States Navy did it better than any other country’s Navy. Americans had the combination of the technology, organization, and skills at improvisation needed. The war in the Pacific was a naval war, and it took the Navy to get the Marines to all those islands you will see in the rest of the series. Yes, I know the series is about the Marines, but I’d buy it a lot more if there were at least a little acknowledgement of the Navy’s role. On the other hand, Hanks and Spielberg can tell that story next. The only film I know of that deals at all with the amphibious force is the 1956 Away All Boats, and it is not terrible, but merely adequate.

One other thing in favor of The Pacific. I was concerned that with Spielberg involved, the series would have been shot in that crappy desaturated color he used in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and which seems to have infected every film made ever since. If you look at the color films from the war in the Pacific (where most of the government’s color film stock went during the war), the color is eye-poppingly vivid. There is some desaturation in some scenes in The Pacific, and in the first episode, we never see how blue the sky in the Pacific is. On the other hand, they have had the digital colorist make the greens of Guadalcanal iridescent. I am not sure that is enough to drag me back to the series, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, except your eyes if you look at it too long.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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