Nothing quite shouts “World War II epic!” as loudly as HBO’s now-legendary television miniseries, “Band of Brothers.” Based on historian Steven Ambrose’s nonfiction novel of the same name, “Band of Brothers” is probably the finest 12 hours of World War II cinema you’ll ever watch. It’s based on the actual historical exploits of Easy Company, a paratrooper outfit that was part of the 101st Airborne. What makes this series stand out is the very deliberate attempt to avoid cliche and Hollywood histrionics. It’s not Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore (Hanks is involved in a producer/director role) storming the beaches to save Private Matt Damon — it’s a bunch of no-name actors who act like real men fighting a real war, not actors quivering with heroism. Don’t get me wrong, Saving Private Ryan is a great film that avoids plenty of cliches itself, but the limitations of a two or three-hour film up against a 12-hour mini-series are very apparent when you compare the two.
For the record, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg helmed both Ryan and “Brothers,” but it’s clear they saw what the former lacked and used the latter to complete their tribute to the soldiers that liberated a continent and gave America its claim to being a beacon on a hill.
“Brothers” manages to highlight America’s contribution to history by never mentioning it in a blatant manner. There are no speeches about freedom, justice and the American way — instead there are a bunch of guys who complain about having to go on patrols. Guys who recognize that at least 50% of the war involved small, pointless skirmishes that cost many lives for no real gain. Guys who have to dig foxholes in the snow, shit in them, sleep in them, then wake up the next morning to charge into a deafening maw of fire from Flak 88s, mortars, MG42s and Tiger tanks.
That’s what happens in this 10-minute clip of “Brothers” — and I guarantee you’ll want to read the rest of this review.
I know, I know, you wanna find out whether Sgt. Lipton gets hit while baiting the Kraut sniper into revealing himself for Pvt. Powers’ countersnipe. If you absolutely must watch what happens next, feel free to scroll to the end of this post for the second clip (continues immediately where the first one ended). Just be sure you scroll up to read the rest of the review.
For those of you with some patience, let me throw in a few more remarks about this remarkable series. The historical accuracy is next to none, from uniforms to weapons, to the actual vehicles and tanks. The sounds of weapons like the MG42 don’t really resemble the sounds portrayed in COH, but the appearance of everything, including U.S. halftracks, Shermans, jeeps, British Cromwells, and German Tigers, Stugs and 88s are dead-on accurate. It makes you realize how authentic COH is.
There’s a few recognizable faces here and there, depending on how much TV you watch. David Schwimmer is an easy one; he’s Ross from Friends, except in “Brothers” he’s a vicious, petty tyrant who works his men to the bone. It’s fascinating to compare the characters portrayed in the mini-series to the actual historical accounts of the real men who inspired them. Schwimmer’s character, Captain Herbert Sobel, was generally regarded as an asshole who wasn’t competent at leading men into actual combat — yet most surviving veterans have been quoted saying they wouldn’t have survived the harsh conditions in Europe without the brutal, methodical training they received under Sobel.
I said earlier that “Brothers” eschews Hollywood’s need for standard roles in movies, like honest-to-goodness heroes. There IS a hero in “Brothers,” and he is used by Ambrose to center the story of Easy Company around. Major Richard Winters was the anchor in Ambrose’s book and he’s even more important in the mini-series. He’s portrayed by British actor Damian Lewis (who sounds much better than any American actor doing a British accent) in a subtle manner, revealing himself over the course of the first few episodes to be an archetypal American hero. Lewis’ Winters is a smart, low-key officer, a quick learner and quiet man of honor who never forgets the responsibility of command and the obligations it requires. He’s the sort of guy who can size up a scene in seconds, taking a bad situation with men pinned under fire and turning it into a brilliant route of the enemy. You know, the kind of small-unit action that makes COH a joy to play — Riflemen flanking MGs, tossing grenades through windows and winning against absurd odds.
Other recognizable faces include Donnie Wahlberg, Marky Mark Wahlberg’s older brother; and Ron Livingston, of Office Space fame. Everyone makes you forget about the actor and exudes the same sort of 1940s/1950s American personalities that the voice actors in COH get just right.
And now, for that final clip on YouTube:
I highly advise you go and buy “Brothers” on DVD now (it’s been out for years). You can snag either the DVD box set for a mere $44.99 or the Blu-ray set for only $58.99 — both in very nice, artsy steel tins. By clicking the above links, you’ll get to Amazon.com using the Rifles Ready! Store referral codes, which means this blog gets paid if you buy from Amazon. We’d appreciate the support, of course.
Remember the “Brothers” was a great inspiration to Relic, reflected even in the name of the game they made. Maj. Winters, who’s still alive today, tells a story in an interview (included in both box sets’ bonus material) that he was humbled by a letter he got from one of his men after the war. In the letter, the soldier tells his grandson he wasn’t the hero — the brothers he served alongside were.
“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.'”