If you didn’t know why the cohort of young men who fought in World War II are often called the “Greatest Generation,” you will after watching Band of Brothers.
It seems pretty much impossible for any movie or series from here on out to tell the story of that particular war, fought and won by those particular Americans, any better than Band of Brothers, HBO’s 10-part miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The series practically dares its viewers to feel anything less than total awe for the hell of battle and the heroism of the soldiers, and in the process secures itself a place as one of the most realistic and terrifying portraits of war that cinema has ever created.
Narrowing its focus to Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, the series follows much of the same formula that war films have used for decades: start out at boot camp, introduce a core group of soldiers from all over the country and their tough commanders, then ship everyone out to battle and see who’s left at the end. In this case, we mostly follow noble leaders Lt. Winters (Damien Lewis) and Capt. Nixon (Ron Livingston), unpopular Lt. Sobel (David Schwimmer), and a large group of their soldiers. Those with the most screen time include Guarnere (Frank John Hughes), Blithe (Marc Warren), Malarkey (Scott Grimes), and Toye (Kirk Acevedo). By the end of the third episode, Easy Company has completed intense training in Georgia, parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and fought valiantly throughout France, with several casualties along the way.
From the opening credit sequence that features a sweeping orchestral score over a montage of heroic images of war and the modern interviews with the actual men portrayed in the show that open each episode, Band of Brothers establishes itself as a Great Show about Great Men. Of course, in most respects, it is. The sheer magnitude of the production astounds – hundreds of soldiers, real-life locations in Europe, battle sequences that unfold in real time. Each soldier looks plucked straight from a history textbook, from his Army-regulation haircut to the mounds of equipment he slugs around everywhere. Viewers are dropped right into the middle of the action, from the agony of boot camp to the horror and chaos on the battlefield. Imagine the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan – three hours long.
The series excels in its unflinching depiction of the realities of war that simply could never translate any other way. Those of us who have never been to war may vaguely picture it as a series of short battles (with clear objectives and plenty of supplies) separated by long periods of rest, with modern comforts never far away. Not so. The men of Easy Company fight in the rain and mud for days and weeks on end, watching their comrades get blown up around them. Every minute poses hundreds of physical, ethical and emotional dilemmas, and the fear of death never goes away. In one of the most agonizing scenes, the men of Easy Company sit in silence during the flight to Normandy, the fear of what they’re about to do – jump out of the plane and into battle – palpable and heartbreaking.
To watch the soldiers at work is to learn what war really is. The experience could not exactly be described as “fun” or “entertaining” much of the time, but if nothing else Band of Brothers seems intent on educating its audience so unequivocally that they’ll never forget the images they’ve seen, and will forevermore understand the reality of war. On this point it triumphs. The intensity and length of the battle scenes call for much-needed downtime in between so we (and the soldiers) can catch our breath, and it’s here that the personalities of the men take center stage. Band of Brothers wisely resists reducing the soldiers to stereotypes, like the tough-as-nails New Yorker, the drawling Southerner nicknamed Tex, or the quiet guy who inevitably becomes the first one killed, seen in so many war films of the past. For the most part, the men of Easy Company are a strong, solid lot who tease each other and complain about the Army but generally get along. A little more backstory could go a long way toward, at the very least, helping differentiate each member of the huge cast.
In fact, the massive number of characters (there are supposedly 500 speaking roles) is the series’ main weakness. There are simply too many men and not enough time to get to know them. Whenever a character does get enough screen time to establish his own story, the series soars. Schwimmer’s Lt. Sobel excels in training the recruits but struggles in battle simulations and loses the respect of his men – a poignant reminder that not all are cut out to be leaders. Warren, as Pvt. Blithe, delivers a memorable performance as a sensitive young man for whom the realities of war prove too horrible to endure. But for the most part, the long roster of writers and directors seems more concerned with portraying as many members of Easy Company as possible, even if each only gets a few lines or scenes, than committing to deeper storylines about a select few (a strategy its follow-up, the 2010 miniseries The Pacific, employed to great effect). The result allows for a very broad perspective of the men, but it keeps us at a certain emotional distance that robs the series of the opportunity to make the soldiers of World War II more than just a list of names.
For its sheer production value and absolutely realistic depiction of war, Band of Brothers will undoubtedly go down as required viewing for cinephiles and history buffs alike. It’s not perfect, but just as the soldiers of World War II have become the standard against which all other men of war are judged, so Band of Brothers has set a new standard for war on film that would take a formidable production to top.