Sunday night, HBO gave us the first two segments of the 10-part “Band of Brothers.” Tuesday morning, in the wake of the horrific terrorist bombings, the recollection of the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks $120 million production of the trials and travails of Easy Company, thinking back on it now, gave it a special resonance.
“The Band of Brothers,” adapted from Stephen Ambrose’s best-selling book, takes a company of men from basic training to the Normandy invasion onto the Battle of the Bulge through Germany to the discovery of a concentration camp to visiting Hitler’s Eagle Nest.
The first episode is of the men being put through their paces in Georgia by a singularly odious lieutenant who denies weekend passes for the slightest infractions. Unfortunately, the actor playing the nasty officer is David Schwimmer whose principal vein is comedy, not sadism, but eventually he is assigned to another outfit by way of punishment. All his NCOs wrote the commanding officer they did not want to serve under his command in the war, establishing the first banding of the brotherhood. (Tom Hanks co-authored the first part – better he should have cast someone other than Schwimmer as the meanie.)
With Schwimmer out of the picture, the film – beginning with the second part – settles down to delivering the goods of a most effective portrayal of the war. The camera does not linger too long on any single actor, but manages to convey most convincingly the confusion, stumbling, blundering and heroism common to all warfare. And the actors look convincingly like soldiers, instead of Hollywood stereotypes.
The sequences leading up to D-Day are low key, yet filled with the tension the men all surely felt. The night drop by parachute perfectly captures the confusion and nervousness as the men drop out of the planes into pitch darkness with no idea of where they will be landing. Once on the ground, they have to dig out maps and try to figure where they are. We also find the unfortunate men who landed in trees, strangled in the cords of their chutes.
Most of the actors are relatively unknown, and with faces streaked with mud, shot in half-light, it is hard to distinguish one from another. One actor – Damian Lewis – does stand out even in the weak first section. Early in the second part, he becomes commanding officer of Easy Company, and later oversees it as a battalion officer. Surprisingly, he is an Englishman who has perfectly mastered an American accent. He makes Lieutenant Dick Winters entirely believable, modest, dedicated, heroic – clearly a man his men would willingly follow into battle. His performance incidentally is entirely without any of the old Hollywood war-movie heroics.
Each part of the film is introduced by brief shots of World War II veterans, white-haired, worn, but still showing a shadow of the strength and vigor that saw them through the war. None are identified by name until the last sequence. One veteran recollects how four men from his town committed suicide when they were declared 4-F (unfit for service). An attitude which shows the great gulf between the men called up for Vietnam and the men who went willingly to defend their country.
Interestingly, the altogether admirable conduct of policemen, firemen and civilians during that long horrifying day in Manhattan and Washington holds out hope that the courage, spirit and, yes, nobility of the so-called “great generation” may not be lost after all.