Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers is an HBO miniseries about American troops fighting in Europe during WWII. Ten hour-long episodes follow the fortunes of “Easy Company” from basic training to the end of the war, covering several significant campaigns, such as the landing in Normandy and taking the Eagle’s Nest. The narrative is based on real people and events; some episodes begin with veterans talking about their memories, but it’s not until the last one that it’s revealed they are, in fact, the characters from the series, some of whom still live.

Why did I watch this, you may wonder? Three reasons, sorted in order of appearance:

First, I got a recommendation that couldn’t be ignored; and I was not disappointed. Second, a relatively faithful depiction of war is quite relevant to my current interests; namely, most of the stories I’ve been writing for… almost a year now (!), are about soldiers of one sort or another. The last, but probably the deciding reason, is that I was hooked immediately. It’s just that good, and it remains so to the end.

Strangely enough, one of my first and most lasting impressions was completely visual. I rarely register things such as photography in films on a conscious level, but one detail struck me at once in Band of Brothers: it’s devoid of color. Not black and white: sepia. Desaturated and brownish, like an old photo. Oh, you can still see the blue of “Buck” Compton’s eyes, the green of wet English fields and the red of blood. But it’s subdued. I can’t tell if the effect was real or supplemented by my imagination, but some episodes, notably “Bastogne” and “The Breaking Point” – which depict what was possibly the lowest point of the war for Easy Company – looked almost completely colorless, in tune with the bleary mood. Then near the end, in the last, post-war episode, color makes a spectacular return, painting the valleys, lakes and mountains of Austria in striking tones of life and peace.

It was such, perhaps slightly abstracted themes and story-arches that kept me interested – not so much the individual events and characters. Perhaps that is not a compliment; in fact, it seems the series was criticized for lacking a strong focal point – one or two main characters who would draw the viewer into their personal world, feelings, and outlook on the events. However, I don’t see this as a fault. I believe it was intentional, and the intention was to make the entire unit, namely, Easy Company, into a character to care for. Diminishing the individual for the sake of the group is the central theme of Band of Brothers. I’d go as far as to argue that any film, story, game, or whichever medium, that undertakes the challenge of creating a realistic depiction of war, needs to put this theme if not above all the others, then surely near the very top of the stack. And it is most effectively expressed in the very title of the series, as well as in the closing words, delivered by Major Richard Winters, quoting a passage from a letter he’d received from Sergeant 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 stark realism of WWII, brought through this dramatization of historical events, isn’t something one can ‘like’ in the usual sense of the word. But it’s certainly one of the main qualities of the series. It is felt most directly in the beginning, when after the tidy, ordered world of training exercises and war games, Easy Company is hurled right into the utter chaos and horror of combat. The landing in Normandy on D Day is possibly one of the most memorable moments from the series, and specifically the scene where the airplanes finally dive under the clouds and join battle. Madness is the word for it. Pandemonium. And the many deaths and injuries resulting from nothing else than confusion and disorientation despite the years of training are what strikes me as ‘stark realism’. Soldiers die, and mostly in entirely inglorious ways.

Another dimension of war that most people can’t properly imagine is the psychological devastation. In the context mentioned above, that of writing stories that focus on soldiers, and to a degree, to a military life (though I don’t presume to have anything but the shallowest grasp of it), I recently read a couple of interesting articles about the mindset of people who make war their business, such as professional soldiers and war reporters. In the later article, there was quoted the fact that in WWII, a staggering 98% of surviving soldiers could be diagnosed with a spectrum of psychological disorders after spending two months in the battlefield. This comes as no surprise to me; in Band of Brothers, the episode to hit that particular nail on the head was “Crossroads”, where Captain Winters is given a leave and spends it in Paris, feeling like an alien, surrounded by safety and civilians and the mundane details of peacetime life; and to a similar degree, the aftermath of “Bastogne”, where one of the favored characters, Buck Compton, loses it upon witnessing his friends being torn apart by artillery fire.

One of the two episodes that left the strongest impressions is “Bastogne”, which focuses on medic Eugene “Doc” Roe and his efforts to procure essential medical supplies and save the lives of his comrades. I believe this is the only episode that features a significant female character, which, if you read the second article, is not something to be surprised by. The episode ends, very appropriately, with Eugene putting an end to a sentimental drift and focusing on surviving and helping others survive.

The other one is “Why We Fight”, where Easy Company discovers one of the concentration camps in Germany. And while I have seen portrayals of the Holocaust that were either more realistic or more shocking due to the context, Band of Brothers certainly didn’t fail to represent this horror in a deeply disturbing way, mostly by focusing on the reactions of these battle-hardened warriors who have seen their friends lose limbs and entrails to artillery fire, innocent civilians crushed under ruined buildings and prisoners executed without so much as flinching – yet in the face of this unspeakable monstrosity, many of them crumbled, stunned and wordless, unbelieving. For it is impossible to grasp that one human being can do that to another, and for what?

Which can surely be said for war in general.

Before I bring this to an end, there is one more aspect of the series I want to mention: the music. The soundtrack for Band of Brothers is excellent. At first I had some reservations about the title theme, on the grounds that it sounds like an anthem; but as the series drew to an end, and especially in the final episode, somehow that too fell into place. The music is thoughtful, at some moments tragic and heroic, at all times appropriate. There is no ‘action music’ – which adds immensely to the stern realism of the battle sequences, where the viewer’s attention simply can’t and shouldn’t be divided: the sounds of gunfight, explosions, shouting and screaming are more than enough. Predictably, I favor the music from “Why We Fight” above the other episodes, and not only because of the references to Mozart and Beethoven; whether the impact of the music is amplified by the content of the episode or the other way around, the combination was cripplingly effective and will remain in lasting memory.

Which can surely be said for the series in general.

While not the kind of material I’d often go back to, every hour invested in watching Band of Brothers was a fine investment, leaving me in a contemplative, serious mood; leaving me with the feeling that I have been enriched.

Image: rachelkaiser @ DeviantArt

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