Band of Brothers, the 2001 Tom Hanks-produced HBO miniseries that dramatized the history of Easy Company paratroopers throughout World War II, was a formative viewing experience for me, especially on the heels of Saving Private Ryan.
That was as a youngster interested in history and World War II, and as the grandson of a veteran who lived through similar combat experiences as Easy Company. But I’ve remained a fan of it due to its earned status as an exemplar of history come to life.
Pod of Brothers
Recently I listened to the official HBO podcast series released last fall in honor of the 20th anniversary of the show. With one episode dedicated to each of the original 10 Band of Brothers episodes, the podcast features interviews with crew—like military consultant Dale Dye—and cast, including Donnie Wahlberg (Lt. Carwood Lipton), Frank John Hughes (Sgt. Bill Guarnere), Damien Lewis (Maj. Dick Winters), Scott Grimes (Sgt. Don Malarkey), and Ron Livingston (Capt. Lewis Nixon).
Two themes emerged among all of the performers who were interviewed:
- They commiserated about the 10-day military boot camp they endured during pre-production, which, though not the equivalent of true military training, helped forge real camaraderie and ensured an authenticity that’s hard to find in Hollywood versions of warfare.
- They spoke in reverent terms about the real-life men they portrayed, and felt an immense responsibility to honor their true experiences within the larger story of Easy Company. Several of them got choked up when talking about the relationships they developed with their real-life counterparts, and all of them said they’d been personally changed for the better.
Getting the Band back together
Inspired by this listening experience, I did a Band of Brothers rewatch thanks to HBO Max.
Of its many marvels, I’m in awe of just how much is squeezed into 10 hours. Such a runtime sounds quite long, but not when you consider everything Easy Company went through on their journey from Georgia’s Camp Toccoa in 1942 to Germany’s Berchtesgaden in May 1945.
Written by a handful of writers—including Tom Hanks and future Boomtown creator Graham Yost (who used Band of Brothers as inspiration)—the series wisely modulates its storytelling pace within and between episodes, which allow for a dynamic range of experiences and perspectives.
So a single episode can span one day (Episode 2, “Day of Days”) or several months (Episode 5, “Crossroads”), and follow one primary perspective (Episode 6, “Bastogne”) or many (Episode 10, “Points”)—all without sacrificing clarity or emotional investment.
Indeed, our investment only grows as we get to know and grow attached to the huge and hugely talented ensemble cast. Winters and Nixon serve as the emotional core, but it’s the literally dozens of other actors who make the show sing.
(Not for nothing, four of the core cast went on to star or feature in my beloved Boomtown: the aforementioned Donnie Wahlberg and Frank John Hughes, plus Neal McDonough [Lt. Buck Compton] and Rick Gomez [Sgt. George Luz].)
Courage over combat
In the podcast interview with Richard Loncraine, director of Episode 2 (“Day of Days”), he reflected on the show’s legacy:
Band of Brothers should be shown to schoolkids, and they might realize [warfare] is not a glamorous, exciting world—it’s where you die. Hopefully when they watch it, what they’re not thinking is ‘Wow, I’d like to have been there.’ If they do, then we all failed.
In this they definitely succeeded, because the series manages to pull off the tricky tightrope act of valorizing the courage of the soldiers without glorifying combat itself.
The combat we do see is rightfully hellish: gruesome wounds, slain comrades, and haunting horrors no one deserves to witness. The nitty-gritty of the front lines in all its awful agony.
How did these men get through it? In Episode 3 (“Carentan”), Lt. Ronald Speirs, played with icy assurance by Matthew Settle, delivers to a frightened private what I imagine to be an essential insight into the psychology of warfare:
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.
I’m not sure if all soldiers would agree with this perspective. It’s certainly as fatalistic as you can get.
But when I watch even the dramatized versions of Speirs and Blithe and so many other brave GIs run through machine-gun fire and artillery and other horrible weaponry, when every single move they make could mean a sudden and grisly demise, I can only stand in awe before their resolve in the face of death—however they find it.
Company of heroes
But what ultimately makes Band of Brothers successful, I think, isn’t the verisimilitude of its battle scenes. It’s the emphasis on the titular brotherhood and their everyday heroism, both in and out of combat.
Sometimes that heroism looks like what Hollywood has conditioned us to expect from war movies: carrying a fallen comrade, charging through a storm of gunfire, capturing enemy fortifications.
But sometimes it looks different: caring for someone suffering a shell-shocked breakdown, risking execution to protest a superior’s professional malpractice, offering to take the place of a rundown veteran on a risky nighttime raid.
Though not as sensational as battle, these moments are just as important. And they validate what Tom Hanks said of the show: “This is not a celebration of nostalgia. This is an examination of the human condition.”
When you examine Band of Brothers closely, you’ll see talented craftsmen doing their best to honor the ordinary, real-life humans who were thrust into inhuman, extraordinary conditions. For that, it stands alone.