Ricky Church revisits Band of Brothers on its 20th anniversary…
20 years ago, HBO partnered with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for a miniseries that still remains among the top of HBO’s many outstanding series: Band of Brothers, a World War II epic following the soldiers of Easy Company as they fight through the war from D-Day to WWII’s conclusion. Based on the true story of the men of Easy, the 20 year legacy of Band of Brothers is best remembered through its stellar cast, storytelling and the emphasis on the lives and struggles of Easy Company rather than the action and battles they faced.
The series was not only based on the lives of Easy members, but on the book by historian Stephen Ambrose who interviewed several surviving Easy veterans and recounted their experiences in a blend of a narrative format and transcribed interviews. Spielberg and Hanks had worked together on another WWII epic a few years earlier with Saving Private Ryan, utilizing Ambrose as a historical consultant on that film. Due to their work together on Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks decided to develop Ambrose’s book into a miniseries with HBO as its home at a time when HBO was considered to be the provider for premiere television, having already been a couple seasons into The Sopranos and developing other high quality shows.
One element that sets Band of Brothers apart from other WWII films or television series is how it reminds the audience these were real people, experiences and events as nearly all the episodes begin with interview clips from Easy veterans, setting the stage for an episode’s story or themes. From how they felt about joining the newly created airborne division to their days following D-Day or the siege of Bastogne, it is impossible to feel it’s something purely made up.
Much of the empathy created for the characters comes from the performances of the series’ large cast. Starring Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Neal McDonough, Donnie Wahlberg, Kirk Acevedo, Scott Grimes, Frank John Hughes and many more, the ensemble delivered terrific performances that brought the soldiers to life. Lewis in particularly hammered home how great of a leader Richard Winters was as he rose through the ranks to command Easy with his compassion, insightfulness and care toward his men’s well-being. Livingston, who was known at that time for the comedy Office Space, turned in a great dramatic performance as Lewis Nixon, a good-natured but flawed man who hid his personal struggles with humour even while he was a competent commander. The pair were in many ways the heart of the series, though Band of Brothers always shifted its main focus onto other characters in each episode, ensuring audiences got to see and know many of Easy’s members on a personal level.
That really is where the true heart of Band of Brothers lies. It would have been easy (no pun intended) for Hanks and Spielberg to focus on the battles and create an action epic, but they instead wisely chose a far more personal route. Where Saving Private Ryan opened with a 20-minute bloody recreation of the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach, Band of Brothers‘ first episode is entirely devoid of action as it follows the rigorous training of Easy, led by the ruthlessly strict and inept Captain Sobel as played by Friends star David Schwimmer. Even when they delve into the action of D-Day’s chaos and other battles of the campaign, Spielberg and Hanks always made sure to centre it on the emotions of the characters.
The third episode, ‘Carentan’, features a soldier who briefly succumbs to hysterical blindness in the heat of battle while later episodes, namely ‘The Breaking Point’ and ‘The Last Patrol’, focus on how the various soldiers deal with the trauma of the war, their low morale and depression. The series was unafraid to show vulnerability in its war heroes, such as when McDonough’s Buck Compton broke down in tears and shock at seeing his two friends severely injured with missing legs after a mortar strike while noting none of the other men in Easy thought any less of him. The heroes of Band of Brothers were never portrayed as gung-ho, tough and intimidating figures, but explored the depths of their humanity with their emotions and strengths as well as weaknesses, examining the notion of brotherhood among this group of extraordinary men who suffered through terrible conditions and events.
When Band of Brothers did delve into action, it really did deliver with stunning sequences that didn’t shy away from the brutality of war. While certain moments are a little Hollywoodized, such as when a Nazi is run over by their own tank, the battles feel pretty authentic and follow the accounts of Easy’s veterans very closely. It never glorified war, instead drawing attention to how bloody, chaotic and unfair it can be, not to mention how easily a person can be broken or traumatized to the point of inaction. The costume design, the sets, the locations, the cinematography – everything involved in the production of this series is the best it can be and brings the war to life in a truly impressive way for the small screen. Each episode has a slightly different style and feel with the rotating directors, yet still feels incredibly consistent in how it builds its character development and overarching narrative from episode to episode. Then there is a bit of trivia-like fun for today’s audience to catch just how many current big name actors appeared in small or supporting roles like Michael Fassbender, Simon Pegg, Andrew Scott, James McAvoy and more. Even current Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has a very brief role in an episode.
Band of Brothers was a masterpiece from HBO, Hanks and Spielberg and and remains 20 years later. Its examination and emphasis on the humanity of these soldiers and their struggles really lends itself to the authenticity the production team was aiming for. Band of Brothers is one of the strongest of the war genre for this, whether its big screen or small, and serves as a great and powerful reminder of the cost for many soldiers and families in WWII. Hanks, Spielberg and their team did a tremendous job honouring Easy Company, a fact that should be both celebrated and given thoughtful reflection, as the series celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.