HBO Series Review: Band of Brothers
Salvatore R. Mercogliano is ABD from the University of Alabama and is completing his doctorial dissertation, entitled "Mariners, Sailors, and Civilians: American Military Sealift during the Cold War." He is a visiting lecturer at East Carolina University and an adjunct professor at Campbell University. He served as a deck officer in the merchant marine for seven years, after graduating from SUNY Maritime College.
From this day to the ending of the World,
. . . we in it shall be remembered
. . . we band of brothers.
This quote, from William Shakespeare's Henry V, described the English Army on the morning of its heroic struggle with the French on the muddy field at Agincourt in 1415. Over half a millennium later, Stephen Ambrose used this verse to describe a company of Americans going into battle, also in France, to fight, in the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Great Crusade. The recent attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon have conjured up images and comparisons to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and our subsequent involvement in World War Two. It is perhaps timely that HBO premiered Band of Brothers in September 2001, a ten-part mini-series based on Ambrose's book of the same title, depicting the exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division the famed Screaming Eagles from their formation in the United States to the capture of Berchtesgarten, home of Adolf Hitler's mountaintop retreat, appropriately known as the Eagle's Nest.
The acclaim of Saving Private Ryan in 1998 led director Stephen Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks to collaborate once again and executive produce this television adaptation. Similar in style to Hanks' earlier HBO production, From the Earth to the Moon, which followed his success with Apollo 13, Band of Brothers is based on actual events and memorializes the actions of those GIs in their campaign across Northwest Europe. Ambrose, a noted historian whose works include biographies of Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, accounts of the opening of the west by Lewis and Clark and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, is perhaps best known by military historians for his books that deal with the saga of the common foot soldier during the Second World War. D-Day: June 6, 1944, The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994), Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944 May 7, 1945 (1997), The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II (1998), and Band of Brothers (1992), all use first-hand accounts, along with documentation and research, to provide a narrative of events from the soldier's perspective. While some historians have criticized his popularization of history, there is no denying the success that Ambrose has had with the general public, along with veterans. His recent efforts in establishing the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, along with the World War Two Memorial in Washington D.C., demonstrate his desire, among many others, to educate the country about the efforts and sacrifices of "The Greatest Generation."
Band of Brothers premiered on September 9, 2001, with the first five episodes taking Easy from the hills of Georgia to the outskirts of the small Belgian town of Bastogne. Each part begins with several unidentified veterans of Easy Company discussing an experience that relates to that particular show the anonymity is used to preserve the suspense. The series itself opened with Easy Company preparing to jump into Normandy, but delayed by weather. Two of the principal characters of this ensemble cast, 1st Lieutenants Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) and Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston), reminisce about the unit's early days at Camp Toccoa, Georgia under the leadership of the ubiquitous Captain Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer of Friends fame). Winters and Nixon, the best of friends, have remarkably contrasting personalities. Winters is soft-spoken, even accused by one of his non-commissioned officers of being a teetotaling Quaker, yet he proved to be a courageous and intelligent leader. On the hand, Nixon is an alcoholic, promoted from platoon commander to operations officer for the battalion. Yet, throughout the war they remained close after having experienced the wrath of Sobel.
This personal interaction and realism is what makes Band of Brothers so captivating for the viewer. Easy Company's original commanding officer is hated by his men but loved by the brass. He is the classic tin-plated soldier, but even though Sobel continually berates his men for the slightest infraction he punishes the company by having them run Mount Curahee, while he shouts, 'three miles up, three miles down, Hi Ho Silver' one comes to see that all the training and hardships that he doled out proved essential to creating a cadre of well trained non-commissioned officers to lead Easy throughout the war. Nixon even calls him a genius at one point, while Winters fails to see the logic in his style. As casualties mount and new replacements arrive, it is the Toccoa veterans those who survived under Sobel that provide the cohesion and unity that keeps the company together.
Similar to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks use special effects, along with a vast array of props, to visually transport the viewer back to Europe of 1944-45. As part of Operation Overlord, Easy Company was assigned to land behind Utah Beach and secure one of the causeways elevated roads that were essential since the Germans had flooded the lowlands behind the beachhead so that American troops could advance inland. The scene of the C-47 transports and the German anti-aircraft fire leaves little doubt in the mind of anyone why the paratroopers landed so scattered and disoriented on the morning of June 6. After watching that particular segment, even those afraid of parachuting would be willing to jump from any aircraft to escape from the danger and feeling of helplessness that those men must have felt. Even the most hardcore military enthusiasts will be impressed at the lengths that the producers go to detail the battles and ensure the historical accuracy of the series. The whizzing of bullets, along with the fall of leaves and branches, all convey what it was like to be in an actual firefight. Beside the usual surplus Sherman tanks used in many war movies, ungainly British Cromwells, with their distinctive large turret and rivets, along with German self-propelled guns and half-tracks, were reconstructed to provide an authentic backdrop to the series. The filmmakers took their episodes on location to Georgia, England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany to capture the requisite imagery. This realism and accuracy makes Band of Brothers remarkably different other recent World War Two movies, in particular Enemy at the Gates and Pearl Harbor.
Even with all the effects and props, the heart of the series is the interaction of the men of Easy Company, and this is where the series excels. Winters, who progresses from platoon, to company, and eventually 2nd Battalion commander, provides the cohesive thread for the storyline. From their initial training in the United States, to the landing in Normandy, to the attack on Carentan, to Holland, the Battle of the Bulge, to Alsace, and then Germany, the viewer watches as the original members of Easy including their company commanders are slowly whittled away, and replaced by green soldiers who lacked the training and camaraderie of the original Toccoa group. Perhaps the most powerful scene from the first half of the series that captures the horror of combat is when Sergeant Don Malarkey goes to pick up his uniforms after returning from Normandy. The English laundress asked the sergeant if he could assist her by delivering some packages left by other members of the company prior to their jump on D-Day. As she reads off their names, starting with their company commander, one realizes that these are men either wounded, missing, or killed. In the book, Ambrose would recount the number of men that remained in the company after each campaign, but this visual device proved more powerful than merely a caption.
The combat scenes are perhaps the most exciting aspects of the series. In the second episode, Day of Days, Lieutenant Winters and a handful of men from Easy Company are ordered to take out a German artillery battery that threatens the invasion. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the paratroopers demonstrate their superior training and unit cohesiveness by successfully capturing one gun after another, and destroying them, while suffering only light casualties. The battle, although identified as a textbook style attack, is not without faults. The first member of Easy Company wounded, Private Robert "Popeye" Wynn, was hit in the buttocks an ironic statement about war and he apologized profusely about letting his comrades down. During the engagement, Lieutenant Lynn "Buck" Compton, who appears to be the standard war movie-type hero tall, blond hair, and a friend to the average soldier had difficulties clearing a jammed Thompson machine-gun that almost cost him his life. Later in the battle, he fumbled a hand grenade and nearly blew up Corporal Joe Toye, who had already been dazed by a near miss from a German grenade. The sequence demonstrates that even though these were not super-human soldiers, their ability to work as a unit allowed them to overcome superior odds, and even their own mistakes, to destroy an enemy battery that could have hindered the unloading at Utah Beach.
The most controversial aspect of the series, to date, deals with prisoners of war. In both the book and the series, references are made to an event that involved ten Germans captured after D-Day and a platoon commander from Dog Company, Lieutenant Ronald C. Spiers (Matthew Settle). He is alleged to have 'hosed' down the prisoners with his Thompson, along with shooting one of his own men for drinking on duty and failing to obey his orders. The series never confirms these allegations, but Spiers appears periodically throughout the first half and is noted for his bravery and at times recklessness. There are other portrayals of harsh treatment toward prisoners; Toye hits one German with brass knuckles after he surrenders, while another member of Easy Company shoots another surrendering German in the streets of Carentan with his sidearm. Spiers will later take a more prominent role when he is appointed company commander for Easy Company. The greatest insight into his character comes with a discussion he has with Private Albert Blithe, who had suffered, temporarily, from hysterical blindness. Spiers tells Blithe that his problem is that he still thinks there is hope and once he lets go of that, he can function as a soldier, a stark and chilling reminder of the horror of combat, particularly since Blithe did not survive.
The series is not without limitations. The portrayal of a company of soldiers necessitates a large cast and even with ten hours of film, it is difficult to keep track of who is who at all times, particularly during combat. Even with a copy of the book, there are sequences that do not seem to flow well, or are never fully explained. Since many of the veterans assisted in the filming, there are several sequences that do not appear in the book and this tends to make for some additional gaps in the stream of events. Each show is capable of standing on its own, but to truly appreciate it requires the viewer to watch all the previous parts to understand the complete storyline, and this is a large commitment of time for some. In defense of the producers, it is nearly impossible to avoid these faults, and in some cases, they add to the realism the confusion of battle, the lack of information provided to the soldier, and the uncertainty of warfare. These limitations pale in comparison to the accuracy, detail, and scope of the effort put forth by Spielberg, Hanks, the directors, cast, and crew of Band of Brothers.
To overcome some of these problems, the producers have gone to great lengths to provide resource material on the series in the hope of educating the public about the exploits of the American soldier. Simon & Schuster have re-released Band of Brothers, with a new forward by Ambrose. HBO created an extensive web page www.hbo.com/band that includes information on each episode, the principal characters in the series, clips on the production methods, and a four-page teaching and eight-page student guide to be used as a reference for educational purposes. HBO has also consented to the use of the series for in-class presentations. I recently showed several of the episodes to my World Civilization sections and their comments were as diverse as the students. Some were offended by the depiction of combat and the foul language used by the soldiers. Others believed that this showed war as it actually was, without an effort by the filmmakers to clean it up. Several ex-servicemen commented about the realism, from the use of hand-signals, to the proper terminology used in the targeting and firing of mortars. The large majority rated the show highly and expressed an interest to view the other episodes, although they will have to do this out of class. A minority also asked if it was appropriate to be viewing this type of program following the recent tragedies in New York and Washington. They wondered if some Americans were not in similar predicaments in the hills of Afghanistan, and this is perhaps the best question that could have been asked. Realizing, appreciating, and attempting to understand war can perhaps influence this newest generation to avoid war and maintain eternal vigilance in the future.
The most encouraging effect of the shows was the discussion it generated. Students wanted to find out more about the soldiers. What happened to them? Did Guarnere or Winters survive? My grandfather was in World War Two, and he never talked about combat like that? Where can I find a copy of the book? All of these are positive and tangible responses to the mini-series and demonstrate that history can be entertaining, while still being educational, without having to be altered for the expense of a storyline or sappy love affair. The first half of Band of Brothers is a must see for all historians of the era, along with the public in general, and has set the new standard for depiction of war on both the small and large screen.