Band of Brothers (miniseries)

Band of Brothers (miniseries)
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Band of Brothers (the miniseries) is based on Band of Brothers (the book) which is based on oral histories from the men who served in E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. It’s divided into 10 episodes that follow chronologically from training in Georgia to occupying Eagle’s Nest in Germany at the end of the war.

Easy Company’s motto is Currahee, which is a Cherokee word meaning “stand alone”. While it came from the mountain they run up (and down) during training, it fits their story as a whole. There just aren’t that many Americans who saw as much combat action as those 366 men during World War II. With the exception of episode 9, which portrays the company discovering a concentration camp, the events historically happened to these men.

That’s not to say this is a documentary. Each episode follows a dramatic arc and compresses events into an hour or so. One episode covers the D-Day invasion. Another centers on a medic caring for causalities in Bastogne. Meanwhile characters we know from other episodes make appearances from time to time so that their stories advance as well. In other words, it’s a sophisticated TV series that holds together as a whole while each episode stands on its own.

My wife and I watched the series shortly after it came to DVD. (This was when Netflix sent out disks in the mail.) We didn’t have a word for it, but we binged Band of Brothers. There are a few oddities to watching that way. For instance, episodes 7 and 8 feature voice-overs that feel out of place. Episode 5 uses an after-action-report framing device that’s particularly effective for telling that part of the story, but confuses the timeline of the series.

Re-watching nearly two decades later, we found it just as engaging. There are little surprises such as Tom Hardy’s bit part before he became a star and David Schwimmer taking a break from Friends to play the least sympathetic character in a series that includes actual Nazis. Casting is generally excellent. With so many characters, most actors have very little screen time to establish their personalities. And yet, each performance manages to shine in the space allotted.

Episode 9, “Why We Fight”, effectively frames the series. Captain Nixon serves as the primary viewpoint character. He’s an alcoholic, his wife is divorcing him[1], he’s been demoted, after three combat jumps he hadn’t fired a shot and he’s lost his belief in the cause. At one point he smashes a window to steal a bottle of Vat 69 Scotch from a German liquor store.

The episode opens with a shot of violin and pulls back to reveal a string quartet playing “Beethoven, not Mozart,” as Nixon corrects. Surrounding them other Germans pull furniture from the ruble of a bombed out city. The shot continues to paratroopers watching. In all the devastation, it’s hard not to admire the civilians and wonder why Americans crossed an ocean to destroy their lives.

Most of the episode consists of a flashback. Captain Nixon wanders into a house that seems untouched by war. He’s probably looking for Scotch. He finds a photo of a Wehrmacht officer when a woman, certainly the soldier’s wife, walks into the room. With the fighting basically over (an earlier scene showed thousands of German POWs marching away from the area), it would be barbaric to loot these civilian’s homes. So Nixon walks out the front door.

And then, in a shocking twist even when forewarned, a patrol stumbles on one of the camps. We know what had happened, but the paratroopers struggle to figure it out over several excruciating scenes. As they learn more, it’s obvious the civilians who lived nearby must have known what was happening to the malnourished Jews. Just before Easy Company moves off, Nixon returns to the concentration camp to discover the Nazi officer’s wife he met earlier conscripted to bury the dead.

I can’t do the episode justice. It doesn’t hold back any criticism of the Allies or overplay the evils of Nazi Germany. But underneath the trappings of Nazi civility, the camps reveal a brutal and inhuman heart. We don’t see any violence against the prisoners but only the results and the effect is all the more powerful as a result.

Band of Brothers endures because it shows real people and their deeds unvarnished. Other than a few HBO-mandated and completely unnecessary sex scenes, it reveals heroic, cowardly, incompetent, braggadocios, broken, lonely and admirable people placed under immense stress. As C. S. Lewis observed:

Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.—The Screwtape Letters

On the whole Easy Company displayed courage right to the end.

  1. “It’s not even her dog! She’s taking my dog! . . . She hates that dog!” ↩︎

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