Every year or two I feel compelled to re-watch Band of Brothers, the HBO miniseries that first aired in 2001, and I am always rewarded for it. It’s flat out amazing, a stunning achievement in so many ways.
The true story, based on the book of the same name, by Stephen E. Ambrose, follows a parachute infantry company (E or “Easy” Company from the 506th Regiment of the famous 101st Airborne) over the course of two years of training for what was then a new element of the military, and then a full year of combat, from D-Day (June 6th, 1944) and across France, through the “low countries” and the harrowing and brutal Battle of the Bulge, and finally into Germany itself through to V-E Day and the end of the Second World War.
The cast and scope of the show is incredible, but if you had to choose a main character it would be Dick Winters, portrayed by Damian Lewis. The heroism and leadership of the real life Winters is nearly larger than life, and Lewis plays the role with an understated dignity and grit that does honor to the man (the real life version of whom you meet along with other surviving alumni of E Company in interviews during each episode). Lewis is best known nowadays for his roles on Billions and Homeland and he’s always great, but Band of Brothers is by far my favorite role of his.
With all the deserved hoopla over Game of Thrones, it’s fascinating to go back and watch an HBO show that’s approaching 20 years old and see how well the battle sequences hold up. For example, “Carentan,” the third episode, which focuses on the tenuous post-D-Day advance of the allies past Normandy beachheads, showcases battle sequences that easily rival the brilliant Saving Private Ryan. It also portrays utilizes the medium and its 10-hour running time to showcase quiet moments and character moments amid the chaos of war. And it also delivers moments of tremendous suspense and shocking surprises.
And Band of Brothers does a great job too of focusing on one or just a few characters within an episode to showcase the different kinds of individuals who made up a company (and an army) that helped to win the war. “Carentan” spends a lot of time with Private Albert Blithe (played by Marc Warren) for example, a young soldier clearly suffering from PTSD (a term that didn’t exist 75 years ago). It’s painful to watch Blithe struggling to fight and help his comrades while being debilitated by his condition.
And then we get doses of wartime philosophy, such as from Lt. Ronald Speirs (Matthew Settle), who notes:
- It’s all just a game, all of it… It’s simple: Just do what you have to do. We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But, Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function. Without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.
On a final Band of Brothers note, special shout out to Ron Livingston, who portrays Lewis Nixon, an intelligence officer and comrade to Winters. Livingston, likely best known for the 1999 comedy classic Office Space, is one of my favorite actors from the time I first caught him in Swingers (a movie I’m sure I’ll do a deep dive on at some point). In Band of Brothers he shows off a darker side, playing a competent military officer for whom the war takes a psychological toll.
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