Sunday, September 29, 2013

Band of Brothers (HBO Series)

Hey, is this another movie review? What’s up with that?

This is, I suppose, the second in a series. I previously discussed The Barchester Chronicles, the BBC series based on two books by my beloved Anthony Trollope.

I was lent this HBO series by my war buff and former infantryman friend Erik. The series was based on the book of the same title by Stephen Ambrose, which was in turn taken from the real life stories of the survivors of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne during World War Two.

The title was taken from Shakespeare’s version of Henry V’s rousing speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V

Band of Brothers is a pretty monumental work. Over ten hours long, it follows the characters from their airborne training camp through the end of the war. The 101st landed in France behind enemy lines on D-day, became stranded in the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually captured the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s intended hideout.

Easy Company suffered heavy casualties, but the survivors became close in the way few other units have. It is a compelling story.

The series itself was good, although not without flaws. A few errors should have been corrected - if not sooner, at least in the DVD version. A few scenes seemed a bit superfluous to me, and it would have been nice to have the extra time used to make it easier to follow the characters.

If anything, that was the biggest surprise. Despite the long length, several of the characters were difficult to keep straight. It was hard to remember who did what within the unit, and soldiers do look remarkably similar in uniform. This is particularly annoying because several of the surviving members of the unit were interviewed as part of the production - these interviews open each episode, and are collected in a special feature. It would have been nice to have a better idea of which character to connect with which real life person.

I am also going to mention the silly sex scene that interrupts one episode and serves absolutely no purpose that I can figure. I wonder if it was a “we’re HBO so we need at least one boob shot” thing.

The least excusable error, though, was one that the series inherited from Ambrose, who apparently missed a fairly key fact in his research. Albert Blythe, who was in fact injured by a sniper, did not die a few years later from the wound. He recovered, although he never returned to the European Theater during the rest of the war. He reenlisted, though, and eventually made more than 600 parachute jumps. He died in 1967, technically while on deployment. He was felled by, of all things, a perforated ulcer.

Again, odd that Ambrose didn’t catch the error, and that the writers for the series never did either. What is inexcusable is that after the error was brought to light, the correction failed to make it into the DVD version. (Since Blythe’s alleged fate is explained in a text at the end of the episode, it would have been easy to make the change.)

Those flaws aside, there were many great things about the series. David Schwimmer (who knew?) does a great turn as the somewhat abusive and incompetent Lt. Herbert Sobel. The acting is generally believable and does not try to make too much of the material. (Since Schwimmer and Donnie Wahlberg are the only “big” names in the production, there apparently was no temptation to appease the egos of star actors. This is a good thing.) Wahlberg too did a good job portraying Carwood Lipton. (More on him below.) I should mention Ron Livingston as Lewis Nixon.

The part that required the most was that of Richard Winters, portrayed by Damien Lewis. Winters is perhaps the most iconic of the men of Easy Company. He took over for Sobel right before D-day, and made a contrast with Sobel. Where Sobel was harsh and yet unable to inspire confidence, Winters was a natural leader, inspiring his men with his good judgment and kind leadership. Lewis does an excellent job in this role. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Lewis is a British stage actor. I would be interested in seeing him in his role as Soames Forsyte in Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga.)

I found it interesting that the actors were chosen not just because of their skills, but because of their resemblance to the actual characters. Old pictures are available of most of the soldiers, and the resemblance is truly striking.

There are some great lines. In addition to the Henry V quote above - quoted by Carwood Lipton at the end - there is this great one from Ronald Spiers to Albert Blythe:

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. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.

Another one comes after the discovery of the concentration camp. The soldiers attempt to “liberate” some food from a local bakery. The owner refuses to help, and claims he had no knowledge of the camp practically in his own back yard.

One of the soldiers says, “You nazi.” “Not nazi!” he feebly protests, “Sorry, my mistake. You fat fucking prick!”

A few other things stuck with me. First, I really appreciated that the series spent some time on battlefield medicine, and the role that civilians played in the treatment of casualties. An entire episode focuses on Eugene “Doc” Roe, one of the medics. During the battle of Bastogne, many are hit by German mortars and have to be stabilized and treated at the scene, in the midst of the battle. (The film does an entirely too realistic portrayal of shrapnel damage and severed limbs.) Roe also works with a group of civilian nurses who have volunteered from Europe and the United States. We tend to forget their contributions - and the fact that they were in harms way and suffered casualties of their own. I’m particularly interested in this facet because my wife is a nurse (ICU), and has the amazing calm poise under pressure that was needed to serve in this environment.

I was also moved by the interviews of the actual soldiers. Not all survived to the time of the filming, but Lipton, Winters, and Bill Guarnere (who lost a leg at Bastogne) were particularly memorable. (Guarnere is the only one of those three still alive today. The rest passed within the last few years.) It was interesting to see the personalities - and how well they were portrayed. Winters, even in his 80s, still had that calm and soft voice. His own career after the war was interesting, and he became one of the most famous veterans from that era.

Guarnere still retained the fire that gave him the name “Wild Bill.” Lipton was a bit of a surprise to me. He was portrayed as a good leader who kept the morale of the troops up during a difficult time during Bastogne. On video, he was both formidable and likeable. Of the entire group, I think he would be the one I would have wanted to invite to dinner - just to talk. Winters was almost too larger than life (not his fault), but Lipton was delightfully down to earth.

One final thing. World War Two stands as the last war in which we (as Americans) have felt we were doing the unambiguously right and just thing. Somehow, a megalomaniac with a genocidal streak - and, importantly - the means to carry out his plans - makes clarity easy. We have never had that clear of a moral mandate since.

Actually, it is really hard to come up with another war that was as clear (particularly in retrospect) as World War Two. I can think of many, many completely senseless wars. (The Crimean War, the 100 Year War, the Thirty Year War, the War of 1812…) I can think of some that I believe were fought for the right reasons. The American Revolution. The resistance (in various theaters) to Napoleon’s advances. And, I will say, the American Civil War. Although all one has to do is raise the issue with some (white) Southerners, and you will get quite a fight.

But still, only World War Two has this key feature: even those who lost the war believe the world is a better place because the Allies won.

I don’t want to take anything away from the veterans of World War Two. They were and are true heroes, and I thank them for their sacrifice - particularly those who gave all.

That said, I do think we tend to glorify them (and their generation) as somehow the greatest soldiers (and “Greatest Generation”) ever. Again, they were great. But other generations and other soldiers were as “heroic” in what they did. In what they sacrificed. Many gave all in Vietnam, for example. The difference isn’t in what the individuals did and sacrificed. It was in the moral ambiguity of the war itself. I’ve been told on several occasions some variation on the idea that “if our own generation had faced the threat that they did, we wouldn’t be able to do what they did.” I’m not sure that’s true. Maybe it is. Maybe not. I, for my own part, would find it much easier to face death for a righteous cause. It’s a bit harder these days, when many of our conflicts seem to involve the lesser of two evils. Should we side with the (sort of secular) genocidal dictator or the genocidal Islamic radicals? Either way, lots of innocents die. It isn’t so easy to see on what side the heroism lies, is it?

I’ll end with the two things. First, the unforgettable quote by Richard Winters (the person) at the end of his interview (quoting another friend, Mike Ranney):

"I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said 'No... but I served in a company of heroes.'"

The final thought - or sound - comes from the opening of Episode 9. A German village has been captured (and largely destroyed), and amidst the rubble, a string quartet is playing.

An (anonymous) soldier opines that the song is by Mozart. Lewis Nixon corrects him. “It’s Beethoven.”

Specifically, the quartet is playing the late Beethoven String Quartet #14 in C# minor.

If you have never listened to this piece, you need to do so. (Conveniently, I have embedded the entire work below.)

Beethoven was entirely deaf by the time he wrote the late quartets, which makes it even more amazing that he was able to create music which was 100 years ahead of its time harmonically. This particular one is perhaps the most heart-rending lament ever composed. Just an amazing composition.

And, this leads to my final quibble with Band of Brothers.

It gets huge points with me for having a real string quartet play the real notes rather than faking. (Yes - look at their fingers. They are indeed playing the right notes! Amazing.)


The string quartet is never credited! You can’t find them in the closing credits. You can’t find them on the website. You can’t find them on Google! How can this be? Is there some Hollywood union rule that won’t let non-SAG extras be given credit? Gah! If anyone knows who this is, please let me know, and I will be grateful.

So anyway, here is the opening in context (the beginning and the end of the episode):

And here is the whole thing. Please take the time to marinate in the unforgettable tragic beauty of this masterpiece.

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