Friday, May 8, 2015

A Parting Glance of War: HBO’s Band of Brothers

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of V-E Day, the official surrender of the German government that brought the Second World War to a close in Europe. Such a round number of decades, bursting rather rudely into the centennial memorial of the Great War, reminds us yet again of the inextricable links that bound the two conflicts together. In their causes, personalities, strategies, and consequences, the world wars were two shoes that dropped from the same nationalistic European corpus. And they landed on the globe with catastrophic impact. Walt Whitman famously said of the American Civil War that the real war would never make it into the books. That declaration would apply even more fittingly for World War II. Over 60 million human beings died in the conflict, one person every three seconds for six years. The proportions of the war’s scope, chaos, brutality, and moral stakes seem to exceed all categories of meaningful expression.

Still, dozens of movies have taken the war as their subject, many made right in the midst of the conflagration. HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers aired almost fourteen years ago now, and the decade and a half since has solidified its standing as one of the finest World War II films around. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced the show, deciding to adapt historian Steven E. Ambrose’s book of the same title after the critical and commercial success of their movie Saving Private Ryan in 1998. Ryan and Ambrose lay at the center of the nostalgic wave for the war that swept the nation in the Nineties, as the country reckoned with the rapid disappearance of the generation that served at home and abroad. Ambrose placed an emphasis on oral histories in his methodology, underscoring the experience of the common soldiers, sailors, and airmen in his writing. In Band of Brothers, he follows a small group of infantrymen, E Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, from their training at the war’s outset through their fighting in Europe until the war’s close.

Spielberg and Hanks saw the story of Easy Company as a perfect follow up to Ryan  broad enough to convey the sweep of the Western campaign, yet focused to allow continuity and development of character. They were right, and in the end wound up with a much better picture than their ‘98 film. Many critics hailed Ryan as one of the greatest war movies of all time, but in truth the movie’s a house divided against itself. The opening scene of the landings on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6th, 1944 occupies its rightful place as groundbreaking combat footage. Combined with the desperate urban gunfight at the movie’s close, it plunges you into the first person experience of modern war with unsparing horror. Other moments, like the sniper scene or the death of the medic (Giovanni Ribisi), pile on the losses. Audiences had never seen such a graphic depiction of the supposed “good” war before. But around this filmmaking, Spielberg builds other moments aimed precisely at reinforcing patriotic bromides. Take the scene in which Gen. George Marshall, the Army’s Chief of Staff, reads a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a woman who lost five sons in defense of the Union (it turned out three of them actually survived). Or the coda, which bookends the film at the opening, in which a now aged Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon) salutes the headstone of Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) who dies along with most of his squad while trying to return Ryan to the States. “Tell me I’m a good man,” he asks his wife. “Tell me I’ve led a good life.” Such ad-copy writing, from Robert Rodat, seeks blithely to assure the audience that the mission to save Ryan – and by extension the whole war – was worth the horror we witnessed. But it’s impossible to swallow such blandishments. The nightmare Spielberg depicts is too shocking to shake, and butts up against simplistic, blandly noble justification.

Ron Livingston and Damian Lewis.
Band of Brothers
suffers no such schizophrenia. Its combat sequences don’t have the punishing, totalizing quality of Ryan’s, but that actually serves the narrative better. And the series avoids the bait of jingoism and sentimentality that undermines Spielberg’s movie. Instead, it places its focus on the men; the screenwriters succeed in rendering dozens of characters in full dimensions, so that by the end of the tenth and final episode, you feel a kinship with them all. To portray these paratroopers, the producers assembled a cast of thousands from England and the United States, displaying nearly flawless decision making in choosing their actors, many of whom were relatively unknown at the time. One of these included its lead, the Brit Damian Lewis, picked to play Easy Company’s commander, Dick Winters. Lewis brings his inimitable English reserve and buttoned down emotional reservoir to render a man with a similar willed self-control and clear-headed leadership. At his side, the producers placed the American Ron Livingston as Capt. Lewis Nixon, the company’s intelligence officer and Winters’s best friend. Livingston’s loose, comic style makes for the perfect foible to Lewis’s precise physicality, and Nixon and Winters form a kind of straight man/funny man combo – the former notoriously shirks Army decorum and drinks his way across Europe, while the teetotaler Winters is almost the paragon of duty.

Episode 1 opens on the eve of D-Day as the two recollect their formative experiences in basic training and beyond. The filmmakers jump back to the company’s beginnings at camp in Toccoa, Georgia, where they developed their war cry, “Currahee!” the Cherokee name for the neighboring mountain (the word means stand alone). Easy’s first commander, Capt. Herbert Sobel, inflicts grueling runs up the crag on his men, and the episode shows how they forge their unity through a shared hatred of the man. Over the years, more than one person’s complained to me about the choice of David Schwimmer as Sobel, but I think he performs admirably. Sobel is a martinet and sadist, deliberately sabotaging his own men. Jealous of the junior officer who excel under him, obsessed with battlefield glory, he court martials Winters in England for a fictitious infraction. Schwimmer’s goofy eyes and emotional histrionics feel out of place, but that’s the point – Sobel’s unfit to lead the men into combat, as the higher ups eventually realize. After several disastrous mistakes during war games in England, he’s transferred to another unit, leaving Easy Company in tremendous physical shape and relieved to be rid of the son of a bitch.


The second episode picks up where the first leaves off – with the soldiers en route to France on C-47 airplanes, the Allied invasion fleet fanned out on the Channel below them. And, appropriately, it’s here that the series really takes off, putting us next to the terrified troopers as they contemplate the coming fury. A fingered rosary, a glowing cigarette, a pair of glassy eyes are among the small details that communicate their fear. The jump sequence is harrowing, the planes clearing a cloud bank into a concussive wall of anti-aircraft tracers and explosions. In one mesmerizing image, a burning transport banks down, tiny flaming men falling from its door, until its fiery crash. Winters becomes acting C.O. on the ground when Sobel’s replacement fails to turn up, and he faces immediate tests to his leadership. Internally, he finds resistance from Sgt. Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes), the volatile, loud-mouthed Italian from Philadelphia. Guarnere’s brother was killed in Italy during the slogging battle for Cassino, a fact Bill learns right before Easy’s jump. Now with his blood up, Guarnere goes berserk, gunning down anything in his path. He disobeys Winters’s command for restraint, and can’t understand his fellow Pennsylvanian’s abstemious ways. Meanwhile, an understrength Easy is asked to assault a fixed German artillery position in the morning, a task handed to Winters. The ensuing attack sees him rise to all challenges, as his textbook assault eliminates the guns, decimates the enemy, and suffers few casualties among his own ranks. Here we see Winters assume the flawless, selfless stature that earns the undying respect and trust of his men. But we also get a first glimpse of the inner man –troubled by the death of a young trooper he befriended, he offers a promise to God at the day’s close to live the rest of his life in peace if he survives.

Marc Warren as Pvt. Albert Blithe.

The third installment offers a stark contrast to Winters’ classical heroism in the figure of Pvt. Albert Blithe (Marc Warren). The most anti-war of the episodes, it follows the rifleman as he joins in Easy’s bitter fighting amidst the Normandy bocage. There’s an ethereal, odd quality to Blithe – he gazes into the sky transfixed in the opening shot, as if unable to believe that he came out of it to the earth. Answering in delayed, drawled responses to his comrades, he evinces a quiet demeanor that the men find puzzling. These eccentricities become more pronounced under fire, when he staggers under the effect of “hysterical blindness”– a psychological reaction to traumatic stress that robs him of sight for prolonged intervals of time. The episode has a surreal style at times, like in the image of a burning lake of fire, right out of the Book of Revelation, spectral silhouettes of the men hovering in the background. Coming of age is the theme, as Blithe has to defeat his interior handicaps through a baptism of fire. When he stumbles upon a German paratrooper’s corpse in the woods, Nixon points out the sprig of edelweiss on the man’s lapel. “It’s supposed to be the mark of a true soldier,” he informs Albert, since the man had to have climbed the Alps to snip it. Blithe must become such a soldier, too, but that means repressing his fear and natural inhibitions to killing. The unnerving Lt. Speirs (Matthew Settle) tells him that once he accepts his own mortality, he’ll be able to function as a proper soldier: “Without mercy, without compassion, without remorse,” advice Blithe loathes. Later, during a ferocious firefight between hedgerows, Winters implores the private to stand up out of his foxhole and discharge his weapon. He looks slackjawed at Winters, aghast as the officer pumps his weapon. But then he lets forth his own volley, each pull of the trigger squeezing out a bit of his humanity with agonized grunts. In the battle’s dying moments, he pulls off a measured, careful shot at a figure on the horizon, and tracks the man’s blood trail into lush foliage. There, in a canyon of trees, he takes a sprig of edelweiss from the body for himself, a soft smile lifting up from the dead man’s face.

Operation Market Garden.
Episode 4 recounts the disastrous Market Garden operation into Holland in September. The brainchild of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, Market Garden suffered from poor intelligence and a misbegotten strategy. While paratroopers dropped deep into the Netherlands to secure key bridges, British armor crawled up a single road to effect a linkup. The operation met with brief initial success before overwhelming German counter attacks hit the advancing column from three sides. With their tanks burning miles away, the paratroopers slowly got chewed up. The episode is entitled “Replacements,” referring to the green soldiers who arrived to fill in the depleted ranks of Toccoa men. As was the case in every division, these recruits died at a terribly swift rate due to inexperience. “Replacements” portrays the murderous setback the troopers face in the Dutch town of Eindhoven, and the toll it takes on the new soldiers. (Pay attention and you can spot an impossibly young James McAvoy before a shell splits his skull.) But the episode’s real story becomes the grey moral parameters of war. Sgt. Bull Randlemann (Michael Cudlitz) finds himself wounded and trapped behind enemy lines. Hiding in a barn overnight, he’s discovered by the farmer and his daughter, who treat his shrapnel wound. But then they accidentally create a disturbance that draws the attention of Wermacht soldier, and Bull flies toward him with fixed bayonet. The brief, awful struggle shows war at its irreducible core – men trying to murder each other. Randlemann so murders the German, and the stricken look on the faces of the onlookers mirrors his pained expression. They see him in a new light – as a killer – and know that he’s killed because of them. The rest of Easy Company face similar moral contortions in Holland, witnessing the same Dutchmen who joyously celebrate liberation also harshly chop the hair off of women who slept with the Germans. The wolf of vengeance rose in the hearts of all in the war.. 

The fifth episode, directed by Tom Hanks, is a true gem. It fulfills the key task of humanizing Winters, a character whose self-effacement and sangfroid risk making him superhuman in our eyes. Told in a flashback in the captain’s mind, it recounts a mission in which Easy, still operating in the Netherlands, pulls off a surprise attack on a German position at night under Winters’s command. But the following morning finds the company exposed in an open field. Rather than let the Krauts surround them, He orders a bayonet charge through eerie pink smoke, racing ahead to inspire the men. Hanks actually opens the whole episode with a shot from the charge, a first-person perspective that heaves and tilts in and out of focus, as if we’re running with the man. Over the lip of a dike he climbs, coming open a young Wermacht private startled awake. The German shares a look of surprise with the American, both men equally bewildered, before Winters’s shot stitches the man straight through. Easy Company ends up mauling an entire battalion and bags dozens of prisoners, but Winters can’t shake the experience. The boyish face of the German he killed haunts him, flashing back to him as he rides a subway car on leave in Paris. In this night terror, he hovers over the man, the shared moment between them lingering and stretching out in tortured possibility. Then his rifle shatters the silence, the lone bullet ejecting from the barrel over and over and over. Beside himself, Winters sits paralyzed.

Easy on the attack.
This refraction of the war through the inner experience of one character continues in Episode 6, “Bastogne.” “War happens inside a man,” Eric Sevareid writes. “It happens to one man alone. It can never be communicated.” To communicate Easy’s experience during the Battle of the Bulge – which saw the 101st Airborne surrounded at the titular Belgian town – the filmmakers burrow even more deeply into the soul of a man, medic Eugene “Doc” Roe. This proves to be an inspired idea that lends the most heartfelt quality yet to the series. Descended from a cajun grandmother, the Louisiana native carries an idiosyncratic spiritual quality to his work that makes him the healer of men’s souls, not just their bodies. Doc watches over Easy like a minister with his congregation; he never calls the men by their nicknames and maintains acute awareness of their individual needs, far beyond just tendering medical aid. Shane Taylor gives a standout performance as the medic, working in a sensitivity and masculine reserve that make Doc one of the most beloved characters of the series, as the medic surely is to his company.

They’ve never needed him more than now, dug in as they are in the frozen ground amid a pine forest that’s repeatedly shelled. Eugene scampers from hole to hole, checking in on the men, bandaging torn bodies, but the grim demands of his job and Easy’s plight take a toll on him. Crouching in a pit at night, he whispers the prayer of St. Francis to try to hold himself together: “Grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love with all my heart. With all my heart.” Something like love creeps up between him and a pretty Belgian nurse he encounters in Bastogne, though neither acknowledge or act on it. She possesses the gift of healing to an even greater degree than he, and he watches in wonder as she calms men just through her touch and gaze. “That’s a gift from God,” he insists to her. “No,” she replies tearfully. “God would never give such a terrible thing.” Together, the two of them fill in a kind of spirituality to the miniseries.

Shane Taylor as Eugene "Doc" Roe.

The spiritual sensibility is mostly lacking in the seventh installment, but it makes for the episode’s highlight when it does pop up. “The Breaking Point” continues with Easy’s dire situation in the Ardennes Forest and the solitary experience of a character. In this case, it looks through the eyes of Sgt. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) who holds the company together during the tenure of their absentee replacement commander, Lt. Dike (Peter O’Meara). HQ has moved Winters up to battalion executive, and he relies on Lipton to keep things in order on the line. Unfortunately, the screenwriters get at Lipton’s perspective through banal voice- over narration, which merely restates events that we witness without adding any commentary. Wahlberg’s also rather colorless in the episode, though I don’t think it’s really his fault, given the material. Still, the episode delivers a couple of gut punches when some of our most beloved characters are cut down by German shells, or crumble under combat fatigue. Director David Frankel gives Lipton a hallowed moment near the end when, while listening to an angelic choir in a chapel, he scans the faces of his men. One by one, the images of dead and wounded soldiers vanish into the air, leaving empty pews flickered by candlelight.

Such staggering casualties left the Allied troops lethargic, despondent, and cynical as they lingered for months on the French side of Germany’s Siegfried Line. This gloomy mood pervades the eighth episode, “The Last Patrol,” as Easy takes over a position in the bombed out, mud-spattered town of Haguenau. The voice over narration from writers Erik Bork and Bruce McKenna works much better here, provided for Pvt. David Webster (Eion Bailey); its literary quality makes sense for one of the company’s few college students. The episode discloses the fault lines among the men between the combat veterans – particularly the survivors of Bastogne – and replacements and men returning from hospital recuperation. And it provides a crucial character detail for Winters: After Easy loses a man on a rather pointless prisoner snatch behind enemy lines, Dick tells the men to forego a second attempt, disobeying a direct order from Col. Sink (Dale Dye). The insubordination creates a welcomed chink in Winters’s armor, revealing that he’s no robot, but can bend the rules to serve a higher good.

The nature of that higher good remains elusive to Easy as they finally plough into Germany in Episode 9. Bedraggled and frayed, they cry out about the point of all their sufferings. “Dragging our asses halfway around the world, for what?” Webster wonders. “Why? What the fuck are we doing here?” he screams, as the American trucks pass an endless tide of German P.O.W.s. Cpt. Nixon shares in this despondency, having made another airborne combat jump only to see the plane explode behind him, killing the remainder of his stick. He confides to Winters that he doesn’t know what to say in the condolence letters home, and when his friend answers that he must say the men died as heroes, the haggard Nixon gives him a wry stare: “You still really believe that?” It doesn’t help that his life’s falling apart at home, his wife notifying him via letter of her intention to divorce. When he runs out of his favorite Scotch (he usually hides a bottle in Winters’s foot locker), he snaps, smashing in a storefront window in a vain attempt at pilfering and snooping around the parlor of a German home. The frau of the house catches him, and she fixes him with a piercing look.

The moral tables turn drastically when he finds something that trivializes his problems: a concentration camp near Landsberg. One of a number of sub-camps that made up the lager system in the area, the prison brings even the hardened men of Easy to tears. Rendering the horror of the Holocaust afresh is always a challenge, but the filmmakers here succeed in some of the most moving sequences of the series. A stunned trooper timidly caresses a prisoner who walks right up and grasps him around the neck. Another helplessly repeats, “I’m sorry,” as a man holds the limp rag body of an elderly woman out to whom. When a boxcar door opens to reveal a pile of bodies, a chastened Winters just turns away in silence. The division commander subsequently orders the townspeople to bury the prison dead, and it’s Nixon’s turn to fix the frau with an accusatory stare when he comes upon her struggling with a corpse. The episode opens and closes with one long dolly shot of a string quartet playing in the streets, as civilians sift through the rubble that was once their town. Nixon tells the men that it’s Beethoven, slapping you yet again with one of the great paradoxes of the war: the land of Europe’s greatest philosophers and musicians also produced its darkest abyss of human wickedness. The veteran and writer Paul Fussell said that when the G.I.s discovered the death camps, “they realized that they had been engaged in something like a crusade, although none of them called it that." Fussell continued to write, “I’m not sure that made it any better. It may have made it worse: to see that [the war] was actually conducted in defense of some noble idea.”

The final episode is rather undistinguished, painting a pastoral, bucolic picture of Easy’s time in Austria at the war’s close. They infiltrate Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest bunker, and Winters gives Nixon the personal wine collection of Hermann Göring as a present. The emotional climax of the installment comes at its close, as Winters, in Damian Lewis’s soft voice over narration, tells us about the fate of each man while we watch them play a baseball game in slow motion. One by one, he speaks of their life’s work and death, and we remember that these smiling boys are old men now. And then we meet those old men in person, the shot fading on Winters sitting in pale, sunlit sky to reveal the real men of Easy Company. The filmmakers taped interviews with the remaining members of the unit, offering snippets before each episode. But their names were kept secret until now, and it’s a wonder to connect the characters of the miniseries with their real life counterparts. Something about seeing the men so ancient now, grasping to sum up the extraordinary adventure of their youth, yields an aching, elegiac tone to the end of the show. It always leaves me in tears. This valedictory calls to mind all the moments that fill in the show’s broad parameters: Sgt. Buck Compton (Neal McDonough) proudly showing two mates a photo of his girl as they shiver in a foxhole, before informing them that she’s finished with him. “Just in time for Christmas,” he muses. The comic trio of Pvts. Muck, Penkala, and Luz (actors Richard Speight, Jr. Tim Matthews, and Rick Gomez) joshing about Muck’s sister and his attempt to swim the Niagara River back home – only for two of them to be blown to smithereens later. Lt. Harry Welsh (Rick Warden) joking with Nixon about sending his reserve parachute to his fiance as a wedding dress, intercut with the shot of a trooper creeping to a farmhouse only to be gunned down by a sniper. Pvt. Babe Hefron (Robin Laing) having to watch his kid foxhole buddy bleed to death before his eyes, a machine gun pinning him down. Cpl. Hoobler (Peter McCabe) crowing about the luger he took off a German officer, only accidentally to shoot himself with it later. The running thread of so many Easy men getting shot in the ass. Such pairings of life and death, humor and horror, especially in the hands of these fine actors, accentuate the macabre nature of war and the gallows humor of those who wage it.

It’s been said that any true war movie will necessarily be an anti-war movie. I can’t tell if that holds for Band of Brothers. The film certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the war, but it doesn’t plumb the depths of its insanity, either – the war crimes committed by both armies goes untouched. Its style is poetic realism, as opposed to the nightmarish expressionism used in last year’s Fury. Still, it sows many moments that reveal war’s complexity and darkness, while also showcasing acts of valor and decency. Often these qualities adhere in one and the same man, a tonal complexity befitting the highest kind of art. Lt. Speirs, for example, takes over command of Easy after displaying astonishing courage under fire. But he also massacres several German prisoners on D-Day and shamelessly loots their homeland. Cpl. Joseph Liebgott (Ross McCall) enjoys shooting up dead bodies and exacts post-war vigilante justice on a German he suspects commanded a concentration camp. But he’s also one of the company’s few Jewish soldiers, and serves as an interpreter for the prisoners at Landsberg until he’s too overcome to go on. You understand his hatred.

The writer Rick Atkinson has suggested that the lasting consequence of World War II is suffering, a point so obvious as to be overlooked. Band of Brothers certainly depicts the suffering of men in war, as well as another harsh truth Atkinson hits on: “That war is corrupting, that it corrodes the soul and tarnishes the spirit, that even the excellent and the superior can be defiled, and that no heart [remains] unstained.” Band of Brothers acknowledges this corrosiveness, but it also honors the humanity that could at times rise above it. That humanity flowed from a bond shared by the soldiers of Easy, a bond found only among men in combat. “We few,” quotes the flesh-and-blood Lipton, from Shakespeare’s Henry V, “we happy few, we band of brothers. / For he who today sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.” Seventy years on, that band holds very few indeed.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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