Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers was on of the great TV success stories of 2001 – a mini series following a US paratroop unit – Easy Company – through their involvement in World War Two: from training, through D-Day,across Europe to the capture of Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Bavaria.
Its executive producers were Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, and it is very much a successor to Saving Private Ryan. It is also much, much better.
I admit to not being particularly fond of Private Ryan beyond the first 20 minutes that depict the D-Day landings. Band of Brothers has the benefits of being a true story, taken from the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose. It also has time on its side – taking place across 10 hour-long episodes each one telling its own small section of the bigger story. It has a large cast of characters, and each episode is told through the eyes of one of them. For the viewer, the lynchpin of the series is Dick Winters (British actor Damien Lewis) who started the war as a Lieutenant commanding a platoon, and ended up as a Major, the executive officer of the battalion. As the episodes progress the viewer becomes more familiar and connected with the core characters of Easy Company – on a second viewing the connections become more immediate, and the losses the company suffers more painful. To add to the interest of the story, the episodes are prefaced by comments by the surviving members of Easy Company – anonymously, so that the story is not in anyway spoiled. At the end of episode 10 'Points' there is an epilogue, in which the fates and identities of the survivors are
All the actors are uniformly excellent – the only weak link being David Schwimmer as Captain Herbert Sobel, Easy's first Commanding officer. It is possible that I was just irritated by the character, but in some ways it does feel as if you're watching Friends
Ross Gellar being a bit of a b*****d in the army. Lewis is a revelation as Winters – and if you didn't know he was British you wouldn't guess (the same goes for Ross McCall as Pvt. Joe Liebgott, a translator who stunned me with his natural British accent in the 'Making Of'). It is a testament to the boot camp training and group feeling of the production that the actors are hidden behind their characters.
The battle scenes of the show are filmed in shaky hand-held style, with grainy pictures that emphasises the harshness of the war – it also, at times, makes the injuries slightly less clear, and therefore less gruesome. This is not to say Band of Brothers cops out on the Blood and Guts front – the episodes 'Bastogne' and 'Breaking Point' in particular, the viewer is not spared. Yet the show is not anti-war, focusing as much on the camaraderie of the men and their high points, as on the pain. It provides a complete picture of the war from D-Day
onwards, as Easy Company was involved in Operation Market Garden in Holland, in the Battle of the Bulge and the capture of the Nazi heartland in Bavaria.
For a show masterminded by Spielberg Band of Brothers is remarkably light on the sentiment, the only touch of playing the emotional chords comes, as would be expected in the final episodes where Lewis' Winters has a voice-over over a Company baseball game as tells you what the men went on to do. However, if you didn't get to find out what happened to all these characters you've come to care about the series would probably feel unfulfilling and unfinished.
Band of Brothers comes in a box set of 6 discs – two episodes per disc, and one with the extras on it. The extras are a special bunch. First comes a touching 80 minute documentary 'We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company', in which the surviving veterans recollect the events shown in the series, and their companions. One thing comes across loud and clear: most of these men don't consider their deeds to be anything heroic – it was just something that they did, that you had to do, in the war.
The documentary is followed by a half hour 'Making of' and a selection of actor Ron Livingstone's (who plays Capt. Nixon, Easy's Intelligence Officer) video diaries. The latter covers the ensemble's trip to Boot Camp, under Captain Dale Dye, including training exercises, and fitness regimes – including the 'Atomic Sit-Up' and the 'Caterpillar Push-Up' which have to be seen to be believed (and are somewhat amusing). The 'Making of' follows the actual filming – mostly in Britain and Ireland – with interviews with the actors and directors (who include Tom Hanks), and production details – such as how to make trees that can be blown up by German artillery, and snow that can be made to look slushy.
There is also a brief report from the premiere of the series, which took place with a memorial service in Normandy, which many of the veterans attended. Then there is a 'Message from Jeep' which is a little bizarre. Finally there is a Who's Who: The Men of Easy Company
section, which tells you a bit about the soldiers, and the actors playing them. All of which adds up to a pretty impressive package (and if you happen to know an army-interested bloke you can keep them amused for a couple of hours). Even for those who can't reel off tank
names and details it's an interesting package, all shedding light on a truly great series.