It was 15 years ago this month when HBO premiered its World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, a ten part series focusing on the men of “Easy” Company, part of the 101st Airborne Division. The Airborne was a new concept in warfare in which men were trained as paratroopers with the intention of being dropped behind enemy lines. To be part of the Airborne you had to be the best as the training was among the most rigorous in all of American military. This series follows the company from basic training to D-Day to Bastogne and to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at the end of the war.
I never caught the show on HBO or anywhere else until I received the DVD set as a Christmas gift from my brother-in-law. He took a chance, thinking I might like it. I did. I do! I watch the entire series at least once a year. In fact, one time I had just finished watching it and I still had time before heading to bed when I thought, “What the hell?” I started watching the series again right there.
Based on historian Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book of the same name and on interviews with surviving members of Easy, as well as diaries and other sources, the series attempts to be as faithful to the actual events as the production would allow. Some characters, all based on actual people, are shown having experiences that had actually happened to other paratroopers. That was done in order to keep an already large cast manageable. The story is still as accurate as can be possible in such a project.
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were both involved with the production of the series. Hanks even co-wrote the first installment Currahee and he directed episode five Crossroads. And we see plenty of familiar faces that weren’t as familiar in 2001. David Schwimmer would be the most recognizable at the time as he was in the middle of his wildly successful series Friends. He plays the company’s first commanding officer, Lt. Herbert Sobel. Sobel was a demanding, harsh, overbearing, mean, unfair, and cruel instructor who trains his men into one of the 101st’s best companies. Schwimmer’s mainly in just this one episode, but he does turn up at couple times as the series rolls on. And he gets just a little payback in his appearance in the final episode. It’s really satisfying.
Some of the other actors who were less known at the time include Ron Livingston, Damian Lewis, Simon Pegg, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, and Michael Fassbender. Notice something about those actors? Most of them aren’t American. It seems just about half of the cast are English, Scottish, even South African! But there’s a New Kid on the Block in the cast – Donnie Wahlberg! And he is pretty good. Backstreet’s back! All right!
The production is very well done. They had a budget of about $125 million for the series and they used it well. The settings were great. The battle scenes felt authentic. Those tracer bullets whizzing by, sometimes just inches away from soldiers on the move, were a particularly potent effect. Whenever my wife watches with me those tracers always make her flinch.
But what keeps me watching and re-watching this series are the men of Easy Company. I like these guys. The chemistry, the bond if you will, they have is heartwarming, even when they are surrounded by the terror of battle and then confronted by the horrors of genocide. These men have a camaraderie that few people could ever hope to have. This is the best aspect of the series. You can’t help but admire these guys.
Watching it as often as I have, I’ve noticed a few things. Little continuity glitches, such as in episode two Day of Days, during a battle to take out some heavy guns wreaking havoc on the beaches, Lt. Richard “Dick” Winters (Damian Lewis) uses a German hand grenade to disable one of the guns. But, although he tries, he doesn’t manage to actually pull the cord to activate the grenade. It goes by fast, but watch closely you’ll see it.
And there’s the character Pvt. David Webster (Eion Bailey). It is well established in the episode titled The Last Patrol that Webster is fluent in German. However, in the very next installment Why We Fight, when Webster is confronting an angry German baker in a town not far from a concentration camp, he seems to have forgotten the language. Another soldier tells him what the baker is saying. Webster is one of the company translators, why would he need someone else to translate?
Back in January of this year, I blogged about Hollywood’s overuse of characters’ names in film and on TV or HBO in this case. One of my examples comes from episode three Carentan, which focuses on Pvt. Albert Blithe (Marc Warren). That one show had multiple uses of the name Blithe. But, there’s another Hollywood dramatic trope that can bug me: The dramatic stare with an unanswered question hanging in the air. It especially bugs me when one character asks another a direct question and that person just stares. Sometimes the person asking the question will persist, which works better for me. But sometimes they just let the question hang out there, never to get an answer. The episode Bastogne has medic Eugene “Doc” Roe (Shane Taylor) having several dramatic stare moments in which he doesn’t answer questions.
These are small things. Little quibbles are a hazard when you watch a series as often as I watch this one. And if you’re as pedantic as I am.
Before I leave this week’s topic, I want to do a quick comparison of this series to HBO’s miniseries The Pacific (2010). The Pacific is sort of a sister series to Band of Brothers, but it’s like the much less attractive sister. Not because the production was bad or the writing or acting. I think it’s because of the nature of the warfare depicted in that series was so much more brutal and dehumanizing.
The Pacific focuses on several Marines, who were actual people, much like in Band of Brothers. However, the harsh conditions: Tropical heat and humidity, insects, mud and malaria, and an enemy who was far more likely to keep fighting even when the fight was clearly lost, made that campaign seem so much more demoralizing. The Japanese soldier was trained, in some cases since childhood, that to surrender was shameful and dishonorable. Death was preferred by most. If I have my numbers correct, one of the islands the American Navy and Marines fought so hard to get was defended by about 3,000 Japanese troops. When the battle was finally won by the Americans, there were 18 Japanese soldiers left alive.
In the Band of Brothers series, the men of Easy Company seemed to hold onto their humanity better. After all, the German soldier, fierce and well-trained as they were, would be much more likely to surrender when they realized the battle was lost than their Japanese counterparts. Easy’s humanity made it much easier to watch, while The Pacific was too psychologically difficult. It was still a good series, but I’ve only watched it once.
There was a scene in The Pacific that really spells out the difference between the two theaters of war. I might get the wrong character if I try to name him, so I won’t, but I do remember the scene. Late in the series, possibly the last episode Home, one of the Marines is getting a cab ride. The cabbie also served in the war and had been home for a while. The Marine goes to pay for his ride and the cabbie refuses. He tells the Marine to keep his money. He says that he may have fought, too, but he fought in Europe and got take leave in Paris. The cabbie knew the hell his passenger had lived through, so there was no fare.
I’m amazed each time I watch Band of Brothers. What those men did is beyond my comprehension. I don’t know that I could do what they’ve done and what the men and women in our military do now. I’m glad there are those who can.
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