Now that HBO has aired all ten episodes of The Pacific, it's a lot easier to see how hard it was for the team put together by executive producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman to find a way to tell the story and just how impressively they managed to pull it off.
Their much-beloved Band of Brothers series in many ways had an easier task. Based on a book by historian Stephen E. Ambrose, most of the complicated storytelling decisions were worked out even before the screenwriters outlined the script.
The Pacific doesn't try to give a comprehensive overview of the Pacific campaign, limiting its focus to the stories of three men who served in the First Marine Division, all of whom try to follow orders with honor but never really have anything to do with the broad strategic decisions of the war. There's an attempt to give context before each episode, but viewers will have to turn elsewhere for a comprehensive history lesson.
Even though his star had faded somewhat over time, John Basilone was possibly the most famous Marine during the war after he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service on Guadalcanal. His experiences as a stateside war hero selling war bonds and his return to action on Iwo Jima made him an obvious starting point for mapping out the series.
However, it's the inspired decision to base most of the rest of the story on a pair of memoirs gives The Pacific much of its power.
Robert Leckie served on Guadalcanal with Basilone and returned to action on Cape Gloucester and Peleliu. Having worked as a sportswriter before the war, he returned after his service and spent years as a reporter with the Associated Press. His 1957 memoir Helmet for My Pillow forms a backbone of The Pacific's story.
The story's other main thread comes from Eugene Sledge's 1981 memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, a book that revealed stories that Sledge had never shared with his friends and family.
Marine Sidney Phillips, familiar to anyone who's seen PBS and Ken Burn's documentary The War, connects the three main characters. Phillips was lifelong friends with Sledge and it's the combination of friendship with Phillips' service alongside Basilone and Leckie on Guadalcanal that ties the entire enterprise together.
Both Leckie and Sledge are literate men and it's their ability (and decision) to tell their stories in books that gives them a chance to help define the history of World War II. Each suffered breakdowns caused by his service, Leckie during the war and Sledge after. The Pacific wisely focuses on each Marine's unique experience and never makes the mistake of trying to make individual characters symbolize the experiences of all Marines in the Pacific theater.
The video at the top of this post captures what's almost certainly a fictional encounter between Leckie and Sledge on Pavuvu. Leckie's heading home and Sledge has just arrived, about to face combat for the first time. Of course the two men talk about books, since it's their own books that will tie their lives together over half a century later.
HBO is running a marathon of The Pacific for Memorial Day weekend, five episodes on Saturday May 29 and five episodes on Sunday May 30. The DVD and Blu-ray releases are due in November.