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But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition. – Henry V, William Shakespeare
14 years ago this month one of the most important events in television history occurred. On Sunday the 9th of September 2001, two days before 9/11, HBO aired the first two episodes of Band of Brothers, the Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg produced 10 part World War II miniseries following the soldiers of Easy Company of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Television history was made as the most expensive television show ever produced hit screens on both sides of the Atlantic and would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest television series ever created, noted for its powerful recreation of some of the most iconic battlefields of World War II.
But why is Band of Brothers so good? The reasons are 5-fold.
The Variety of Locations
One of the greatest achievements of Band of Brothers is the realisation of the European theatre in which the battles of World War II were fought. The story starts with the recruits of Easy company as they go through training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia before being shipped off to Britain to prepare for the “day of days” – D-Day and their introduction to war. What follows over the next nine episodes is a huge variation in these backdrops – the warmth of France and Carentan, the sepia tones of Autumn in Holland, the bleak frozen forests of Bastogne and the Ardennes, the renewed growth of Spring in Germany and the victorious Summer in Austria. Each episode has a unique feel generated by these differing locations, all of which reflect on and empathise with the trials of war that the men are undergoing. Defining each individual episode was a key reason why the series is so memorable, and something Band of Brothers follow-up The Pacific was sorely missing.
It is funny to think that David Schwimmer, who played schlub Ross Gellar in the sitcom Friends, was the most famous name of the cast of the most expensive TV show ever made. His portrayal of Capt. Herbert Sobel was short lived, and it was quickly evident that he certainly wasn’t the best actor on set. The main cast of about 10-15 actors was perfectly cast across the board with Damien Lewis (Dick Winters), Ron Livingston (Lewis Nixon), Neal McDonagh (Buck Compton) and Donnie Wahlberg (Carl Lipton) in particular putting in great and thoroughly honest performances. Each episode somewhat concentrated on a different character which meant that all men were regarded as equals, fighting the same battles albeit with varying levels of responsibility. The unity and camaraderie of the men of Easy Company is one thing that the producers desperately wanted to translate onto the screen and the large cast and shifting points of view give a universal sense of what these men went through on the battlefields of Europe. It should be noted that Band of Brothers also featured a number of Hollywood’s current A-list actors including Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy and Simon Pegg, along with the likes of Colin Hanks, Stephen Graham and Dominic Cooper.
The Source Material
Based on the brilliant book Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by non-fiction author, biographer and World War II historian Stephen Ambrose, the TV series had an undeniably detailed and well researched source from which to draw its tapestry. The book, along with the memoirs of Easy Company paratrooper David Webster, gave wonderful insight into the inner workings of a close group of soldiers as they fought across Europe and formed the basis for much of the emotional context which permeates every episode throughout the series. Ambrose’s writing, in particular, is exciting to the point of nail biting, and both accurately and immediately recreates iconic historical moments. There is a paragraph in the Ambrose’s description of Easy Company’s first jump into France on D-Day that is so well written that the actual on screen adaptation, when Lt. Winters jumps from the plane, is actioned nearly verbatim. Further to this, producers Spielberg and Hanks concentrated on maintaining a high level of historical accuracy from the actions of the soldiers to the costumes, vehicles and props. Adding to this sense of realism is the opening talking head interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company at the beginning of each episode which firmly places the events in a proper historical context.
“The Breaking Point”
In a series of outstanding individual episodes there is one that stands out for a number of special reasons. Episode 7 is “The Breaking Point” and marks the events that defined the men of Easy Company who, at this point, were entrenched in the frozen forests of Belgium awaiting an attack on the town of Foy. This episode serves as a reminder of how horribly violent and emotionally tortuous the trials of war are and as soldier after soldier of Easy Company are forced to face the consequences of battle, they find the only comfort they have is their unity. It is significant also as it marks the point that Winters reluctantly withdraws from the front lines as the men of Easy Company endure constant artillery bombardments at their positions in the forests of Belgium. While many of the 10 episodes show the harrowing reality of war, “The Breaking Point” is as emotionally poignant as it is viscerally brutal and is the high-water mark of the series in terms of its ability to show the reality of war and the reality of brotherhood in the most violent of circumstances. The inevitable final battle is brilliantly rendered and as the men of Easy Company finally withdraw from the battlefield they have changed, as have the viewers. The brotherhood, as described in the title of the series, is at its most realised.
The Portrayal of the Germans
In terms of film making, the Nazis are essentially the best bad guys ever and many famous films since World War II have had an analogous evil comparable to Hitler’s ranks. Seriously sharp uniforms, a megalomaniac leader, genocide, world domination – they had it all. And in many World War II films and TV series they have been portrayed as such with even the previous works of Spielberg having at least one German to detest (Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List and the character Steamboat Willie in Saving Private Ryan). How Band of Brothers portrayed the German soldiers is significant, as rather than simply showing a Nazi stamping on a puppy, they showed that many of them were just soldiers fighting for their country just like the men of Easy Company. Band of Brothers decided not to singularly identify anyone as a face of the atrocities that the Nazis undoubtedly carried out. Towards the end of the series when the full scale of the concentration camps is discovered, it is the German civilians of the local town who are brought in to clear the bodies, mirroring the citizens of Germany who had to bear the responsibility of what the Nazis did once the war was over. When a German battalion surrender to the 101st Airborne, a German General addresses his men:
Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond, that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.
This poignant scene closes the book on Easy Company’s battle with the German army, both have fought and died together and there is honour in that.
The ten part miniseries won numerous awards and currently sits as the best rated TV series of all time on IMDB. Through its examination of the men on the front line and its poignant journey from the neophytes of Georgia to the battle hardened men of Bastogne to the victorious soldiers in Hitler’s Eagle Nest, Band of Brothers struck a chord with viewers across the globe for many reasons but what is key is that it is a thoroughly wrought examination of the darkest days of our civilisation, and describes the humanity found and the bonds made in this inhumane time.
“I cherish the memory of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he said: ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said, “No. But I served in a company of heroes.” – Dick Winters, Band of Brothers
Featured image credit: HBO