The Smithsonian Channel has assembled some remarkable color footage of the years leading up to—and the years of involvement in—the Pacific theater in the Second World War. (I will note that seven of the eight parts were made available by press time, and that eighth episode’s probably pretty important.) There are treasures in this lengthy, detailed series that any American (or Asian, or Asian-American) history buff should check out. Like the personal home movies of General MacArthur, and the first PanAm flight across the Pacific from San Francisco to Manila (via Honolulu, Midway, Wake and Guam: the first leg alone took over twice as long as it does now.) Oh, and the only known color footage of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For starters. The entire program is comprised of archival footage, almost all of it in color and quite a bit of it rare or never before broadcast. Some of it is really gory. Some of it is touching. Most of it is sad. Accompanying this are voiceover narration and collages of quips and comments from soldiers who were in the field (usually delivered by actors; there are occasional moments when you hear the voice of, say, Eleanor Roosevelt).
Visually, the series is excellent. I mean, there are places where it feels long. So long it almost feels meta-textual, like you are slogging through knee-deep sand too. But there are innumerable fascinating images and I get why it would have felt wrong to leave any of them out.
The script leaves a lot to be desired. The quoted first person sources (soldiers’ and travelers’ journals or letters, presumably) are for the most part distractingly ineloquent, there seem to be approximately three voice actors speaking for this large diverse group, and the production team made the really… interesting choice to give people “accents.” Like, Australian soldiers have Australian accents, which doesn’t honestly seem weird until you notice that an American soldier with a Latino last name speaks English like he went to Iwo Jima straight from a small town outside Guadalajara. And Japanese people, whether they are Hawaiian or mainlander Japanese-Americans or actually from Japan, all speak like the people who did the dubbing for Iron Chef. You might not find this perplexing and distracting. I did.
What arose for me over and over as I watched all this combat footage (I had no idea there was that much film of the Pacific theater) was, “Yes, but who’s holding the cameras?” And I mean that at a number of levels. Embedded journalists in war zones are completely standard in 2018, but in 1944 they had to have been relative rarities, and in a conflict model where combat was very much face-to-face, and the men in the field depended on each other for survival, it’s hard to imagine how the 30 guys holding rifles and grenades viewed the one guy who couldn’t because he was holding a camera.
I wondered what this war would look like if the footage we had was taken by other people. I wondered about the choice to place so little emphasis on, for example, the decision to place huge numbers of Japanese-descended Americans into internment camps “for their own safety.” (One poignant first-person reminiscence stands out: “If they were protecting us, why were the guns facing inward?”), or the 100% game-changing presence of women in munitions and aircraft manufacturing, not to mention the WASP pilots, some of whom, including Jacqueline Cochrane, went on to train for the space program. I wondered what we would have access to if the cameras had been held by residents of Okinawa, or Manila. That isn’t what we have and that’s not Smithsonian’s fault; it’s a marvelous effort to concatenate the documents we do have and try to present a coherent overview from them. The documents we have are the documents we have. They’re valid. They’re poignant. They tell a story. They tell one aspect of a really, really complicated story.
Yes, watch this. But bear in mind that, as much as they’ve managed to capture, it’s barely scratching the surface of what really happened in the Pacific, or for that matter, on our own soil.
The Pacific War in Color premieres Sunday, June 24 at 8 p.m. on Smithsonian Channel.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.