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Retro review: revisiting Band of Brothers

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“You ever notice with stories like that, everyone says that they heard it from someone who was there?” – Ronald C. Speirs.  

Band of Brothers is the 2001 HBO TV show, produced by Spielberg – the nihilistic cousin to Saving Private Ryan. It’s also ten hours of the finest televisual World War II butchery.

Here, I’m taking a look back at the show. Revisited, mulled over and ‘carefully’ contemplated. Done entirely for your benefit, this is an essay borne of pure altruism, make no mistake.

From conception to creation, Band of Brothers is something else

Now nearing eighteen years old, the hugely ambitious show is based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s compilation of E “Easy” Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne‘s experiences in Europe during World War II. It’s written from the collective testimonies of the surviving members of said Easy Company. These men are shown in neat vignettes around the dramatised bulk of each episode, poignantly lending an omnipresent true life element which hangs over each episode of carnage. When it’s so easy to forget this really went on in the excitement of created combat, the grasp of reality is crucial.

Imagine piecing all those varying accounts together half a century after the events, and managing to create a linear, sensible novel.

Imagine grasping at the loose wires of memory and perspective, tying them together with objective facts and still having something enticing, factual and human – it’s a momentous task.

Taking that masterful feat and somehow boiling it down into ten hour-long episodes, encapsulating the story and captivating a television audience, makes the whole process a kind of narrative alchemy.

But what does it offer today?

Has the impact of the style it shared with its big-screen cousin been disseminated and diluted so much as to look aged? Is its essence now recognised as the norm, rather than the brilliant advance in realism it was in the late nineties and early 21st century?

Let’s take a look back.

The sell

Perhaps more so than in 2001, a HBO/ Spielberg war project is appealing.

The veteran director is still a box office draw and Academy favourite, while HBO has broadcast many, many top dramas such as: Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, Rome, Oz, Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, to name but a few. Plus, The Sopranos – a show which began at the end of the last century and concluded in 2007, is arguably still HBO’s biggest hit.

Band of Brothers even has a little brother (to stick with the familial metaphor): The Pacific. Set in, unsurprisingly, the Pacific, the miniseries covers America’s operations during World War II in the region.

As for acting talent, at the time all the talk was of Band of Brothers‘ stroke of casting genius – David Schwimmer. At the time, he was still playing the lovable, goofy Ross in Friends, but Schwimmer showed a mean, petty streak as Commanding Officer Herbert Sobel in Band of Brothers. He was the man responsible for licking Easy company into the unit they become, admittedly unintentionally, bonding them in unison against his egregious nature.

Beyond this inspired casting, the ensemble troupe writ large has big names, cult heroes and actors who have gone on to huge things.

These actors including (in no particular order):

  • Damien Lewis
  • Ron Livingston
  • Donnie Wahlberg
  • Dexter Fletcher
  • Neal McDonough
  • Michael Fassbender
  • Kirk Acevedo
  • Tom Hardy
  • Stephen Graham
  • Dominic Cooper
  • James McAvoy
  • Simon Pegg
  • Colin Hanks

HBO were almost showing off, but of course who could have known really what they’d all achieve? The fact remains, though, even bit parts were depicted by thespians of talent.

The substance

While audiences may now be accustomed to the grainy, desaturated look of Band of Brothers, the style remains unequalled.

Compared to the hyper-realism of something like 2014’s Fury, it looks like a documentary. A cinema verite approach (borrowed from its big screen cousin) is nonetheless effective to this day. The advances in realism due to the compressed air, artillery hits, allowing actors to be believably blown up without exposing them to the risk of pyrotechnics, still rings true. As artillery and mortars wreak havoc on the mortality and moral of the men in harrowing instalments, the shell shock rattles through the TV.

Band of Brothers‘ computer generated effects on a grand scale, such as the drop into France, are ever so slightly lacking in intimate detail now, but not enough to detract. Frankly, many wouldn’t notice at all, even on a high-quality television. The onscreen battles such as Carentan, echo all the grim realism (assumed realism, for those of us lucky enough to have never been in a war) of Saving Private Ryan. The Battle of the Bulge scenes (bastardly Bastogne) remain, along with Carentan, probably the most visually stunning of the show – or of any military drama.

Ultimately, it’s incredibly hard to remain aware, even with history on our side, that we’re witnessing the re-enactment of real people dying. It’s arduous trying to keep track of who lives and who dies. Soldiers come and soldiers go: alive, dead and often somewhere agonisingly in between. While some of the unique harshness has been washed away by time, in war, anyone and everyone can die. There aren’t any Game of Thrones surprises to see here. The brilliance lies in the thousand yard stare Band of Brothers manages to impose on its viewer. An audience apathy derived directly from the week-on-week destruction.

The staying power

What Band of Brothers offers to a virginal viewer is subjective. For some, it might be too hard a watch, others may be desensitised to its violence. Yes, the effects have aged a bit, but the Normandy drop scene is still astonishing. Only recently was it bested by Overlord. The hours zip along at pace, and despite the length, it’s a “just one more” kind of show. Still compulsive enough to require a binge.

Even after all these viewings, Band of Brothers is brilliant, in equal parts exciting, shocking and moving. Speaking for its impact on the television landscape is perhaps a misnomer, as this show was never intended as anything more than a screen event in your living room. Which perhaps, given its pre-Netflix (et al.) status, denotes the rise of the impact show – and our thirst for them.

What this wonderful, expertly made television ultimately conveys the power of finding solace in humanity, forged in fire and death.

Like many of the soldiers, that will never grow old.

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