Updated: Apr 28
It’s been twenty years since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Think about that. Twenty years. It was the film that really changed what you can do in a war film; its intuitive shaky-cam style being relentlessly copied in subsequent films and video games ever since. And, of course, that initial 24 minute Omaha beach landing section is still widely considered one of the greatest cinematic opening sequences in the history of commercial films.
The Second World War has always been fertile ground for televised and cinematic storytelling. However, the critical acclaim and financial success of Spielberg’s movie led many studios to believe they could emulate that success. Yet, few really captured it. In the year 2001 particularly there were varying degrees of success with Enemy at the Gates receiving very mixed reviews for its decent performances and tension but its forced love story and questionable historical accuracy saw it slaughtered by many critics. And the less said about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour the better.
But where cinema failed in 2001 to capture the essence of Spielberg’s 1998 film, the televised 10-part mini-series Band of Brothers did not. And the reason for this could be down to Spielberg himself (he was afterall an executive producer, collaborating again with Tom Hanks ). But it would be unfair and misguided to lay all credit solely on him considering the amount of writing talent, directors and performers involved.
Based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s novel of the same name, the series told the story of Easy Company (2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division, to give the full military designation) during their experiences in the Second World War, beginning with their jump training in America and then England before the invasion of Normandy, as well as battles and skirmishes throughout Europe before culminating in the defeat of Germany. The episodes generally focussed on a particular character and at the beginning of each the real veterans the book was based were shown giving some insight into their experiences (their names hidden until the final episode ending so as to avoid spoiling any tension for the audience).
Spielberg and Hanks chose to transpose Ambrose’s novel into a ten hour mini-series format which allowed the screenwriters and creators more freedom to explore different veterans perspectives (given there were so many troops with interesting stories it meant the writers had to merge facets of some characters and due creative licence was used effectively to make the show work). It would be unthinkable now to imagine Band of Brothers the Movie with the entire running time of the series condensed, edited, spliced into a two-hour action film. The mini-series format was the correct choice and, due to it being a joint production between HBO and the BBC, each episode was nearly a full hour and so they actually felt more like ten well-crafted miniature films.
Now, it is beyond cliché to describe the togetherness that soldiers feel when fighting in war; that familial bond has been explored countless times in all forms of media for decades if not centuries. And Band of Brothers (as the title suggests) was most definitely a show with that as the primary constant but was also one of the most engaging, powerfully performed iterations of that theme.
Easy Company are introduced as fresh-faced recruits; young Americans that have signed up to be parachute infantrymen because they heard it paid a little better (and not for a moment concerned how dangerous it would be jumping out of a plane thousands of feet in the air and landing in enemy territory). However, as the series progressed that zest for action waned as the toll it had taken on the troops worsened, not only from the dwindling numbers as many perished during engagements with the Germans - or in the case of poor Hoobler, his own trophy Luger- but the surviving soldiers became hardened, weary, battle worn and, in some cases, shell-shocked (the episode Carantan told from Blithe’s point of view showcased what little was known at the time about the effects on soldiers of being in constant battle).
Having so many characters and viewpoints to explore the series needed a focal point for the audience to follow throughout. Although not explicitly obvious, the central character is Richard Winters (Damien Lewis) as the show charted his progression through the ranks from Private to Major. Introduced in the first episode Currahee (the company’s motto which translates as We Stand Alone) as a platoon leader, he is a respected, intellectual soldier but over the course of the series he displayed true leadership skills, was a great tactician and was not afraid to do a tough job himself. Lewis, a likeable everyman type, was perfectly cast as the mild-mannered resourceful trooper. When showing vulnerability (in Crossroads Winters struggled to type a report due to recurring flashbacks of the young German he killed hours prior) his performance was layered enough that you can sense a maelstrom of inner conflict.
Furthermore, his character was surrounded by a litany of memorable supporting roles, most notably Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingstone) and his dry comedic asides while clearly dealing with alcoholism; ‘Wild Bill’ Guarnere (tough talking Pennsylvanian played by Frank John Hughes), Lynn ‘Buck’ Compton (Neal McDonough), Carwood Lipton (an understated compelling performance from Donnie Wahlberg) and literally an entire platoon of other fantastic characters. Look out also for many guest spots throughout or small parts filled by actors who would go on to become massive stars (Simon Pegg, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Stephen Graham and James McAvoy, to name a few).
Structurally, the episodes followed Easy Company’s exploits in the war. Currahee was the training camp episode, which dealt with the strict command of 1st Lieutenant Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer, think Ross from Friends but severely unlikable), Day of Days opened with an excruciatingly tense and disastrous air drop as they came under German artillery fire and Easy Company was scattered throughout Normandy, their battles at Carantan followed before the Company arrived in the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden in episode four (Replacements). By the time they entered Bastogne for the Battle of the Bulge in episodes six and seven the company were depleted, exhausted and frozen in the Belgian woodlands as they held out the area from an impending Panzer assault. The final three episodes dealt with the closing stages of the war in Germany with the ninth episode Why We Fight standing out as a master class in storytelling as the troops came face to face with the realities of the Nazi regime’s final solution.
Even years later, the series still stands the test of time. The battle scenes, much like Saving Private Ryan, were effectively choreographed, (the sequence in The Breaking Point as the Americans were relentlessly bombed by German artillery in the Ardennes forest is awe-inspiring). And despite the setting’s horrific nature, the scripts also had a delicate balance of humour - some favourites being George Luz’s impersonations, Buck’s story about the Visigoths, and Nixon’s dogged reliance on his favourite Vat 62 whiskey - that didn’t betray the sadness and pointlessness of the death and destruction throughout the series.
Whereas many televised shows usually flag towards their end or feel like there is at least one ‘filler’ episode, Band of Brothers retained a constant tone, pace and remained consistently well-executed that it is almost without peer. Though it isn’t completely without fault, of course. Odd historical inaccuracies (Blithe was bizarrely reported to have died after the episode Carantan however he actually lived on until 1965), slightly overly-stereotypical English soldiers only speak in nonsense cockney slang and the computer generated visual effects shot in episode two which slowly revealed the depth of aeroplanes in the night sky hasn’t aged particularly well. But, these are the tiniest specks of mud on an old M1 carbine rifle, easily wiped off or ignored.
Overall, the series is still arguably one of the greatest Second World War pieces produced and is an immense tribute to those veterans particularly (imaginably less so for Schwimmer’s Sobel and Peter O’Meara’s Lieutenant Dike). A series with so many interesting scenes and memorable characters that it rewards multiple viewings is not very common and Band of Brothers is unequivocally one of those types of shows. It perhaps even surpassed Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan if not from a production side but as a more rounded, fleshed out experience and certainly more historically accurate. The final moments of the series were probably some of the most emotional, when the names for the veterans appeared. Richard Winters signed off the series with the final memorable quote: “One day my grandson said to me, ‘Grandpa were you a hero in the war?’ And I said to him, ‘No, I'm not a hero, but I have served in a company full of them’.”
To that, currahee!