The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention it in the comments.
On September 9th, 2001, HBO aired the first episode of what was at the time the most ambitious series or miniseries in the history of television. Consisting of ten episodes and costing an at the time unheard of $125 million to produce, Band of Brothers was an event unlike any other in television history, undertaking the task of dramatizing the events of the European theater of World War II, from D-Day to the fall of the Third Reich, through the eyes of the men of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army. Adapted from the book of the same name by Historian Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers told the real stories, of the real men of Easy Company, from their training to the disbanding of the unit at the end of the war.
Before digging in to what makes Band of Brothers such a magnificent feat of television storytelling, and easily one of the greatest entries into the war genre, it is important to really appreciate exactly how ground breaking this mini-series was. In an age where cable television is full of effects heavy mega budget shows, it’s hard to remember that just fifteen years ago, this was absolutely not the case. Band or Brothers’ price tag of around $12.5 million for episode was unheard of at the time for the premium cable networks, and still ranks in as the second most expensive per episode budget in television history, topped only by it’s companion piece, The Pacific, which aired in 2010. Back in the early late 90’s and early 2000’s if you were looking for cinematic spectacle, the only real option was the movies. This mini-series paved the way for the truly ambitious spectacle driven shows that we have today, where the production value and effects budgets often rival mid level blockbusters. It’s entirely possible that we would still have television series like Rome, Spartacus, Vikings, and Game of Thrones without Band of Brothers, but the reality is that it was the proof of concept, the series that showed that bold large scale cinematic storytelling was not only possible on television, but that there was a huge market for it.
Without any further delay, let’s dive into the retrospective.
One of the defining aspects of most films and television series within the military or war genre is the focus on the unit. While there are exceptions, most works in the genre build their story structure around a group of soldiers, presenting the specific war to us through their eyes. While it varies from work to work, in general the core cast is made up of five to ten soldiers whom the film or series follows. Properly establishing the individual characters and their camaraderie as a unit is extremely important, because it lends weight to the combat. Spectacle is great, but in order to truly elevate a combat sequence in a film we have to have characters to latch onto. A great work in the military genre can elevate combat to an even greater level by grounding everything in the brotherhood of the squad. By establishing the characters as brothers in arms you add weight to every round fired, and every second of battle ratchets up in tension as we fear for the team. Establishing such a large cast and the group dynamics therein can be difficult in a two to three hour film as you cannot fill the entire run time with the soldiers just sitting around and goofing off. This is what makes the choice to format Band of Brothers as a series so brilliant. By stretching the story out over the course of 10 episodes, each around an hour and ten minutes long, Band of Brothers allows us the time to get to know these soldiers. The format gives it the freedom to dedicate the first hour and fifteen minutes solely to the Easy Company’s training and preparation for their first combat jump of the war, Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. We get to see how they interact with each other as a unit, and the series begins to sketch out which soldiers will be the primary focal points of the story. This is even more important as the mini-series is an adaptation of actual events based on the true stories of actual soldiers. These characters feature the actual names of the real soldiers of Easy Company, and the story is based on accounts of the survivors. This leads us into one of the more brilliant things that the series does. Each episode of the mini-series begins with a series of snippets from interviews with actual survivors of Easy Company. In making the series however, the producers made a bold decision. The names of the soldiers being interviewed are omitted and are not revealed until the end of the final episode, so as not to reveal who lived and who died over the course of the war. This lends an extra weight to events as the fate of every character onscreen was predetermined from the outset of production. We are watching the stories of real men play out and we know deep down that all of them did not make it home.
Each episode of Band of Brothers serves as a self contained account of a specific battle, campaign, or segment of Easy Company’s part in the war. Since Easy Company served in almost every major campaign and battle of the European theater, it serves as a an encapsulation of the liberation of Europe and the price paid each step of the way. As mentioned earlier, the series opens with Easy Company in training, presenting us with the company at full strength as originally constructed, and proceeds to whittle away at the company with each engagement. The viewer like the survivors of Easy Company can only watch as death and injuries whittle away at the company to the point that by the end of the series, very few of the original members of the company found at Camp Tokoa are left at the end and we watch as the collective toll of these losses weigh upon the survivors. There is a particularly poignant and powerful scene set in a church at the end of the seventh episode that serves to demonstrate the magnitude of the losses sustained. Easy Company has been given shelter by the nuns, and they bring out their choir to perform for the soldiers. As Easy Company takes in the performance, the camera pans over the pews which feature the entire company as originally constructed, as the narrator (a member of Easy) recounts the names of those that have been lost, the soldiers fade from the shot as their names are read off providing a haunting image of the price paid so far. By this point in the story any illusions about the glory of combat have been stripped away from these men, and all of them are left hoping that they will just be alive tomorrow and that they just might make it home. They have been hardened and broken by what they have experienced and are clearly forever changed.
Before moving on to the more technical aspects of the show I want to focus in on the next to last episode of the series, aptly titled “Why We Fight”. By this point, the war is for the most part over, Easy Company’s role in the combat has basically come to an end, and they are all at a point where they are wondering what the point of the entire war had been if there was one at all. They are searching for meaning for their fight and as fate would have it, they are provided one. While performing reconnaissance, a handful of Easy soldiers stumble upon a concentration camp which Easy Company liberates. It is in that moment that the “why” for their fight becomes abundantly clear, as they are able to see the horrors that their fight brought an end to and reason that adds worth to their sacrifice. The sequence is one of the most heartbreaking moments I have ever witnessed on film and is only compounded by the fact that, to insure that they can properly and carefully nurse the survivors of the camp back to health, Easy Company must lock them back in behind the fences until they can find a proper place to care for them. It is perhaps the most powerful sequence of the entire mini-series and a high water mark for the genre as a whole.
Any military film or television series is going to feature a glut of props, vehicles, and pyrotechnics and the period pieces are often unique challenges unto themselves as much of it has to be built, recreated, or convincingly faked, as the actual equipment itself is often scarce. Attention to detail becomes key in these instances and this is an area where Band of Brothers truly shines. This is due in no small part to exactly who is producing the mini-series. Band of Brothers is the brainchild of acting legend, World War II buff, and general national treasure Tom Hanks, with Stephen Spielberg serving on as an executive producer as well. Together the two take the full depth of their experience from making Saving Private Ryan together just a few years prior, and bring it to bare on this series. Props and vehicles from the film production can be found throughout the mini-series with many of the tanks used in the series having been custom made during the production of Saving Private Ryan. This combined with the general expertise the two share on the topic of WWII (both having read extensively on it, with Hanks often participating in documentaries) lends an almost unmatched air of authenticity to the proceedings. The special effects work on the series is top notch, featuring some early stages CGI, practical effects for the explosions, and some of the most impressive and gruesome prosthetics work the genre has ever seen. A particular highlight is the episode set in the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge. The entire episode was filmed in an air plane hanger with the special effects crew and prop department building the forest that the episode filmed in. The fact that never once in the course of the episode does it even occur that the actors might not actually be braving the elements and shooting in an actual forest is a true feat of cinematic magic and a sure sign that the modern emphasis on “authenticity” and “braving the elements to make something real” is overblown and wrong headed at best, (looking right at you Alejandro González Iñárritu) remember folks, it’s called “acting” for a reason.
Any cinematic war story worth it’s salt needs some excellent combat sequences and Band of Brothers absolutely delivers in that regard. Thanks to it’s format allowing it to follow the course of the War in Europe, we are treated to a series of incredibly diverse and wondrously thrilling battles, from a nighttime drop under heavy fire, to an assault on an artillery position in the second episode, to the attempted taking of a French town, to the shelling of the allied emplacements during the Battle of the Bulge, to a thrilling nighttime raid to capture prisoners, Band of Brothers has a little bit of just about everything, as we get to experience the extreme variety of battles in which Easy Company participated. Within these battles we are able to witness the entire gamut of human action and emotion. We see stupendous acts of heroism, moments of all encompassing terror, we witness men break down under fire, and we see others rise above their limitations to achieve things that they did not even know they were capable of. One particularly memorable segment features the character of Lieutenant Spiers, being promoted to lead the company in the midst of a terrifying assault on a German position, after the company XO breaks down under the pressures of combat. Taking charge of the company Spiers seizes control and through his leadership turns the tide of the battle, culminating in a sequence where, in order to link up the two prongs of the attack, he sprints across the field of battle, all the way to the other side of the battlefield. As this is happening the music swells and we hear one of the soldiers of Easy Company narrating the events. It is one of the most thrilling and awe inspiring moments of the entire series, the kind of moment that almost makes you jump out of your seat and cheer. The battles in the series provide us with an uncompromising look at the realities of war. We witness the heroism but we also witness the horrors, as soldiers die and are wounded the camera moves in on the carnage, we see men shot, we see limbs blown off, we see men caught in the blast from grenades, and never once does the camera shy away from the true unrelenting horror of these events, this is not a sterilized, prettied up depiction of warfare, this is the reality of war and it’s costs made real to us through cinema.
Band of Brothers is truly one of the great works in the military and war genre and arguably essential viewing for all. It is a meditation on the costs of war, and the prices paid by young men in the world’s darkest hours to keep others safe. It is a series that is first and foremost about brotherhood, not by blood, but rather that which can only be forged in combat between young men who have placed their lives in each others hands. It is truly a masterwork that manages to honor these men while still honestly depicting them as just that, men, men who answered their country’s call and laid everything on the line, so that others did not have to. If you have somehow managed to make it to adulthood without having watched it, you need to rectify this immediately, as it is truly an essential telling, of one of the most important periods in the history of America and the world, through the eyes of a group of ordinary men, who did extraordinary things.