Revisiting Band Of Brothers

Feature Robert Keeling 24 Feb 2014 - 07:00

Over the next fortnight, we revisit each episode of HBO's superlative war drama, Band Of Brothers. Here's Rob's look at the series opener...

It’s been over twelve years since the ten-part miniseries Band Of Brothers first aired and it remains an incredibly visceral and evocative piece of war drama. Over the course of its ten episodes, the series allows us to become immersed in the difficult and often terrifying experiences the men of Easy Company faced during World War Two and brings into sharp focus the brutal and horrific reality of armed conflict.

The series traces its roots back to American historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s book of the same name. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers was an insightful piece of military history focusing on one specific cog in the wider military machine of World War Two. That crucial cog was Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute  Infantry Regiment, part of the United States 101st Airborne Division. This company was widely regarded as one of the most effective outfits in the US military, a fact that was reflected in their incredible tour of duty throughout the conflict. They parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, took part in Operation Market Garden, were involved in the Battle of The Bulge and were part of the US forces that ultimately took Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian mountains. Ambrose’s book included not only his own research but also first-hand anecdotes from the surviving members of Easy Company as well as journals and letters from those who had passed away. This first-hand insight from the veterans themselves played a large part in the TV series becoming such a high watermark in war drama.

The driving forces behind the TV series were executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as well as producer Erik Jendresen. Jendresen and Hanks plotted out the series using Ambrose’s book and the extensive further memoirs provided by the men of Easy Company. When the series first entered into production, Hanks and Spielberg had just come off the incredibly successful Saving Private Ryan and in many ways that film served as the foundation upon which Band Of Brothers was built. The juddering and chaotic camera work, the unflinching horror of close-combat warfare, even the washed out and saturated colour pallet, all have their roots in Saving Private Ryan and were utilised perfectly by the show’s host of directors.

At $125 million the show was the most expensive TV miniseries ever made until its successor; The Pacific, took that crown. No expense was spared in its making and each episode is of blockbuster film quality. The tremendous attention to detail is astonishing and the producers went to great lengths to be as accurate and close to reality as possible. This involved plenty of interaction with surviving Easy Company veterans to ensure the events portrayed closely matched the real thing, as well as the close involvement of US Marine Captain Dale Dye (who also stars in the series as Colonel Sink) to ensure an appropriate portrayal of military life. While dramatic licence is always taken to a degree with a show such as this, Band Of Brothers is as close to reality as can be reasonably expected.

Here's the first of ten daily individual episode look-backs coming up on Den of Geek in the next fortnight, starting with episode one:

Currahee

Currahee provides the perfect ‘calm before the storm’ grounding for the action that is to follow. In retrospect, the immense scope of the show is highlighted perfectly by the fact that when we first meet the men of Easy Company, they are still relatively raw recruits training to be paratroopers at Camp Toccoa in the Georgia woodland. By the end of the series, these early scenes all feel like an awfully long time ago.

One of the series’ real masterstrokes is the use of real Easy Company veterans to provide insight before each episode. At this stage you do not know the name of each of the elderly soldiers but nevertheless, their presence serves as a timely reminder that what you are watching is based on real life experiences and the events that unfold were something that real men had to suffer through.

After being cast in the series, the actors themselves were put through a brutal ten-day boot camp courtesy of Dale Dye which included tiresome sixteen-hour days and vigorous weapons training. In the ‘making-of’ featurette found on the series’ boxset, the actors comment on how much of a bonding experience this challenging regime was for them all. It obviously isn’t a patch on what the real men went through, but the benefit of having these actors gain valuable experience of what it took to be a paratrooper undoubtedly proved beneficial to their performances.

The main purpose of this first episode is to show us the rigorous training Easy Company went through, the deep bond the men developed and the pivotal role played in this by the loathsome and incompetent Captain Sobel. Played by David Schwimmer, Sobel is an unctuous, inept and petty captain who pushes the men hard, forcing them into repeated runs up Currahee Mountain and regularly cancelling weekend furloughs. Such was their distrust of Sobel, we actually see a group of the Non-Commissioned Officers write their superiors a letter stating that they refuse to follow him into combat, running the risk of being shot for treason in the process. Luckily for Easy, Sobel was moved elsewhere before they ever faced combat. The adversity caused by his actions though played a large part in forging the men together as a cohesive unit.

Another point made clear in this episode is the importance of Richard ‘Dick’ Winters (Damian Lewis), who at this stage serves as Sobel’s executive officer. Winters is shown fighting his Company’s corner with Sobel wherever possible and tirelessly encouraging the men on their gruelling mountain runs. His military savvy is shown by his skills in war games and his moral fibre is emphasised via the quiet dignity with which he accepts Sobel’s demeaning punishment. Damian Lewis is outstanding as Winters, perfectly capturing his best features and coming across as thoroughly dignified, brave and honest. It's a fitting portrayal of the man who helped forge Easy into the hugely effective unit they became and whose own personal journey is central to the series.

As the episode comes to an end and the men finally ready for their D-Day landings on a bleak English airstrip, the director of this episode, Phil Alden Robinson, does a great job of hammering home the palpable tension the soldiers faced as they waited for the final confirmation that their flight was going ahead. Their war was stretching out ahead of them but unfortunately for many of these young men, it would end far too soon.

Come back tomorrow for Rob's look-back at episode two, Day Of Days.

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