Fury in the Pacific

In this Hollywood season of Iwo Jima fantasies, a 20-minute documentary from 1946 about two Pacific Theatre battles hits hard to the gut. Although sometimes falsely attributed to Frank Capra, who directed the seminal seven-part Why We Fight documentary series during Second World War, Fury in the Pacific is actually an unrelated documentary, co-produced by the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps in 1945, on the subject of two hard-fought World War II battles in the Pacific Theatre: Peleliu and Angaur.

The film is composed of riveting, brutal footage of the bombardment and assault of the two Japanese-held islands overlaid with a present-tense, all-knowing narration delivered by Richard Carlson, the actor. Sometimes the two components clash and produce a jarring, ironic effect, as when the narration calls for the “softening up” of the enemy over stark images of exploding bombs; at other times, the narration supplements the visuals by communicating either the qualitative facts or a greater context to place the immediate action in.

One of the most startling facts, from a film perspective, comes about three-quarters of the way into the film, as American forces descend on the final Japanese position on Angaur. Using a nonchalant manner that might, in a fiction film, give his words the quality of a throw-away line, the narrator calmly mentions that nine cameramen “fell” while capturing the footage for the film—the footage we’re watching. After seeing fifteen minutes of carnage and death, perhaps this should not have the effect that it does; but it does have an effect! Especially for an audience reared on realistic depictions of violence, raised on Saving Private Ryan, much of the violence in Fury in the Pacific may very well have passed nearly unnoticed were it not for that remark, for that blatant moment of realization that these battles, these soldiers, these rifles and explosions, these deaths, are real. When, moments later, the combat cameraman zooms in on the face of black soldier and that soldier spins around and—for a few brief seconds—his bulging, defiant, afraid eyes stare into the camera lens, into your eyes, you cannot help but be moved.

It would be fascinating to see how audiences reacted to a film like Fury in the Pacific in 1945—not so much for the content, as for the barrage of information, sounds and images that the film throws at the viewer. Even for someone with brain a reprogrammed by MTV, someone used to fast cuts and ample noise, Fury in the Pacific can prove an intense and challenging watch, purely on the stylistic level.

A final point should also be made about the film’s depiction of the Japanese soldiers, “our” enemies, or “the Japs”, as the American narrator repeatedly calls them. World War II was an incredibly racial conflict, and much of World War II propaganda was overtly racist, on all sides. In the United States, images of the Japanese as demonic, dehumanized apes predominated. Hence, it is somewhat surprising to see Fury in the Pacific devoid of this type of caricature. The film does end on a close-up of a dead Japanese soldier’s face (an image that is immediately followed by an appeal to buy war bonds), but, before that, it does something quite strange; it praises the Japanese. Maybe in an attempt to emphasize the heroism of the victorious American Marines, or perhaps in the spirit of that lofty ideal of honourable combat, the narrator pays tribute to “smart, experienced veterans from China and Manchuria campaigns.” It is just another detail in a complex twenty-minute experience.

It is difficult to recommend a film like Fury in the Pacific as entertainment. It is a document of death. However, when you watch the film, there is no denying: Hollywood fare like Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima can only ever be lifeless imitations. Fury in the Pacific is war. And war should never be.

Rating: B