What I’ve Been [Re]watching (May): “Band of Brothers”

I cannot remember when I first became interested in the history of World War II, but I distinctly remember watching Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977) on television as a child, and it had a lasting effect on me. So when Band of Brothers was first broadcast on HBO in the fall of 2001, I took notice though I did not watch it at the time. Instead, it entered my DVD library several years later (2004–2005) when I was building up my collection of war movies and Westerns in preparation for writing my first film music papers and essays. Since then, I’ve returned to Band of Brothers several times, re-watching the entire series from start to finish. Each viewing has rewarded me with new insights and appreciation for the overall production, and especially its writing, acting, directing, and music. In my opinion, the series stands up exceptionally well 15 years after its initial release.


Band of Brothers follows the real-life experiences of select members of Easy Company, a unit in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, as they made their way from training to D-Day, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and their defense of Bastogne, and finally to the conclusion of the war in Europe. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same title, which was reissued in paperback in 2004 with a new cover featuring a group photo of the stars of the HBO series in full infantry battle gear. (Readers may also be interested in Ambrose’s much longer, more detailed, and wider-ranging Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany [1997].)


I wrote above that HBO’s Band of Brothers follows “select members” of Easy Company because a significant portion of the series actually focuses on the experiences of Richard Winters as a lieutenant in and then commander of Easy Company. This is not surprising, given the level of attention Winters deservedly receives in Ambrose’s source book. Furthermore, Winters was already an important figure in Ambrose’s understanding of the war in Europe before Ambrose wrote Band of Brothers: Winters had appeared several times in Ambrose’s earlier Citizen Soldiers, and Ambrose held up Winters as THE example of the kind of men who were on their way to hold the frontline against the German counteroffensive in the early days of the Battle of the Bulge (see Citizen Soldiers, p. 208). The war-time efforts and successes, leadership style, and character traits of Richard Winters clearly resonated with viewers of Band of Brothers, as other authors, including Larry Alexander (Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led the Band of Brothers [2005]) and Winters himself (Beyond Band of Brothers [2008]), followed up the dramatic and pop-cultural successes of the series with additional texts exploring Winters and his war-time experiences. (One of the photographs reproduced in Alexander’s Biggest Brother shows Winters at his home, surrounded by war-time memorabilia and file boxes full of fan mail. Winters also discusses the volume of mail and attention he received after the HBO series and the publication of his own book in the preface and foreword to Beyond Band of Brothers.)


Given the centrality of Richard Winters to the story of Easy Company in World War II, the overarching structure of the television series is in many ways built around Winters and his journey—actual and philosophical. The arch of the plotting of the ten individual episodes follows the historical shape of the campaign in Europe: episodes 1–3 show Easy Company in their training days, then on D-Day and the days and weeks immediately after; episodes 4–5 focus on the Company’s experiences in Operation Market Garden; episodes 6–7 turn to their desperate days in Bastogne in December 1944 and January 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge; episodes 8–10 draw the series to a close, exploring how the men of Easy Company reacted to the their discovery of a concentration camp and the winding down of the war. At each of these points, Winters—who became a decorated warrior and respected military tactician— appears as a principal character, guiding, shaping, and protecting his men, crafting and executing battle plans, and regularly leading from the front (“Day of Days,” “Crossroads”), even if he does not dominate the action (and screen) in every single episode.


Overlaying this historical plotting, however, is a much more intimate, personal-scale exploration of character and theme, and here again Winters takes center stage. Each episode, while advancing the story of the Company as a whole, also zooms in to explore a specific man in Easy Company, and through that character, the emotional impact of warfare and the deepest fibers of human nature in the midst of extreme stress, danger, and want. Thus episode 3, “Carentan,” focuses on Private Albert Blithe (Marc Warren), who barely appears in the prior two episodes, but is used as a lens through which the writer and director investigate fear in the face of battle. At the same time, the contrasting leadership styles of Winters, Lieutenant Harry Walsh (Rick Warden), and Lieutenant Ronald Speirs (Matthew Settle) are also brought into relief both through their general interactions with the men (and each other) and their specific interactions with Blithe. Subsequent episodes continue this two-fold narrative structure: “Replacements” considers both the difficulty of new men entering established units (a theme reprised in “The Last Patrol”) and zeroes in on Bull Randleman (Michael Cudlitz), one of the leading soldiers in the company who is briefly left behind, wounded, during a skirmish in the Market Garden campaign. Bull’s steadiness contrasts with the unease of the replacements in his squad as well as the moral and soldierly unevenness of Roy Cobb (Craig Heaney). My personal favorite of these episodes that focus on characters other than Winters is “Bastogne.” In that episode, medic Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) comes to the fore, providing an opportunity for an exploration of personal fortitude, grace, and a sense of duty under extreme pressure (including the pressure of repeatedly having to see, handle, and attempt to repair mangled human flesh).


To effectively and artfully pull off this two-fold narrative structure, with its interweaving of overarching historical plotting for Easy Company as a whole, and its individual stories addressing the personal impact of wartime experience on the human body and human psyche, Band of Brothers required a stellar ensemble cast, and it had just that. Indeed, this is one of the areas that benefits the most from repeated watching: one can begin to see how various characters less central to the series as a whole were visually “seeded” into earlier episodes prior to their rising to the surface as either the principal character of an episode or one of many minor characters who received more screen time in one episode than in others.


Nevertheless, it is Richard Winters, portrayed so effectively by Damian Lewis, and his journey that makes Band of Brothers a coherent, effective drama. He is one of only a handful of characters to appear in all 10 episodes, and he is the only character to be the featured individual “lens” more than once in the series, taking center stage again in episode 5 (“Crossroads) and episode 10 (“Points”). Indeed, it is easy to miss the two-fold narrative structuring of each episode early on in the series because Winters so dominates the screen in the first two episodes that it is easy to assume that his strong visual presence is primarily a function of his role in the plot as an extremely engaged and hands-on platoon leader and then company commander. But he is not simply commander in those first two episodes: he is also the lens through which the series immediately addresses leadership before considering Winters’s rapid transformation (at least rapid as portrayed on television!) from respected officer with great potential to actual, successful battle-field leader. Thus Band of Brothers repeatedly dips into Winters’s experience of the European campaign, not only showing his rise from lieutenant to captain to major as his military prowess was continuously proven, but also demonstrating his growth from a young student of human nature and apprentice officer to masterful teacher of men, healer of spirits, and (ultimately) lover of peace.


In addition to the screen time Lewis’s Winters receives, other components of the production as a whole point to Winters as the fulcrum or axis of Band of Brothers. He is the only character who speaks out of the diegesis via voice overs (“Day of Days” and “Points”). Indeed, it is Damian Lewis as Winters who narrates the details of the post-war experiences of representative company personnel in the closing scene of the final episode. His assessment of his own experiences in D-Day and at the end of the war book-end the diegetic arch of the series. Several of his episodes, including “Currahee” at the very start of the series, “Crossroads,” and “Points,” also make the most use of non-linear story telling, which enhances those episodes’ ability to draw connections and conclusions from Winters’s experiences in combat to his emotional, spiritual, and intellectual maturation.


“Crossroads” uses non-linear story telling most effectively and most thoroughly, repeatedly jumping during its first half between the “present” (mid-October, 1944)—with its portrayal of post-combat consequences—and flashbacks of an earlier combat episode in which Winters took great personal risks as leader, then sliding months forward into the narrative future (December 10, 1944) as Winters takes a much-needed break in Paris as portrayed in the episode’s second half. Even in that half of the episode, however, flashbacks to the earlier combat sequence, which had been completely explained during the first half of the episode, continue as a way to show Winters haunted by that combat experience. Indeed, Richard Winters acknowledges in Beyond Band of Brothers that decades later he was “still haunted by the names and faces of … young airborne troopers who never had the opportunity to return home…. I live with flashbacks.” (p. 3) In some sense, then, our viewing of those flashbacks experienced by a still-young Captain Winters offers us virtual access to the real man behind the television character still alive in 2001, while reading his words from 2006 remind us that the emotional impact on his life of that combat experience was not wrapped up neatly at some future moment, like the neat visual packaging that occurs at the end of a 60-minute television program. “Crossroads” then concludes on the roads into Bastogne as Easy Company makes its way to the front and the camera lingers on Winters’s face in the foreground, reminiscent of the attention Ambrose pays to him at this historical moment in Citizen Soldier.


Michael Kamen’s gorgeous soundtrack and the title sequence again paint Winters as the fulcrum or axis of Band of Brothers. “Crossroads” has one of the loveliest cues in the series soundtrack, “Winters on Subway.” Furthermore, the opening title sequence, with its (interestingly) triple-meter music theme­—neither too heroic nor too sentimental—makes use of the structure of the series theme to once more set Winters into relief. The opening title sequence lasts about two and a half minutes, enough time for the theme to play through twice (the second time more loudly and emphatically). The cast is listed during the first half, but in alphabetical order, which seems to minimize Damian Lewis’s lead role. But with careful viewing, one can see that Damian Lewis / Richard Winters dominates the title sequence. In the first moments of the opening title sequence, the camera presents general images of men preparing for battle and of aircraft (appropriate for a series about paratroopers). Individual faces are obscured by the blurry nature of the moving images or because of their distance from the camera. As the names of the cast begin to be listed on screen, however, the nature of the images change radically and the camera presents a clear shot of Damian Lewis / Richard Winters for several seconds. As the rest of the first rendition of the theme unfolds, images of Lewis Nixon, Bull Randleman, and Ronald Speirs then follow. During the second, more emphatic rendition of the theme, the remaining non-cast credits are posted on screen, and an increasing number of shots of the faces of other principal characters from the company are highlighted. As the sequence winds towards its conclusion, the camera returns to Winters in the plane heading for the D-Day drop before concluding with two iconic images of a larger groups of the “band of brothers” (one still, one moving). Thus, just as the voiceover narration by Damian Lewis as Richard Winters bookends the series’ diegetic universe, so his image bookends the title sequence. And the title sequence’s blend of images (“depersonalized” company action with hard-to-distinguish faces and highly “personalized” pictures of characters) mirrors the two-fold thematic-plot structure of each episode and of the series as a whole.


Finally, the on-screen interviews of the actual Easy Company veterans, which grace each episode of the series, highlight the real-life Winters yet again. “Points” concludes rather than begins with interviews, and in this episode, the names of the interviewees, which had not yet appeared on screen, are revealed. Just as the diegetic and nondiegetic Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) frames the series and the title sequence, so the real-life Richard Winters has the absolute final words of the production: “I served in a company of heroes.”


The quality of Band of Brothers as a television production is unmistakable. Its writing, acting, directing, and music are superb. Its mix of company history and personal storytelling is deftly handled and makes possible a greater sense of cohesion compared to its companion series, The Pacific (2010), whose narrative is more diffuse. (Likewise, compare the treatment of Operation Market Garden in the episodes of Band of Brothers versus in A Bridge Too Far, which has been faulted for trying to tell too many personal and unit stories.) Nevertheless, Band of Brothers is television and not documentary history, even with its dependence on Ambrose’s well-documented source work and the well-respected Dale Dye (Colonel Sink) as military consultant. Like so much other television, older men were cast to portray characters younger than themselves. For example, Winters, Nixon, and Walsh were all born in 1918; Winters had turned 26 as D-Day began; Nixon and Walsh were still 25. However, Damian Lewis and Rick Warden were 30 as the episodes were broadcast; Ron Livingston was 34. Donald Malarkey was 23 on D-Day; Scott Grimes who portrayed that part was 30. Colonel Sink was still 39 on D-Day; Dale Dye turned 57 in the fall of 2001. This observation is not to fault the production but rather to remind us that the front line troops in World War II were often boys no older than high school seniors or current or recent college undergraduates, a fact that we viewers should not allow ourselves to forget. Ambrose makes this point in a chilling observation:


“In launching an offensive, the German army in the first year of the Great War had been better than the German army in the last year of the Second World War. What was happening at the front [in the December 1944 counteroffensive] was exactly what Eisenhower had predicted—the Volksgrenadier divisions were not capable of effective action outside their bunkers. In far too many cases, however, they were attacking eighteen- and nineteen-year-old barely trained Americans. Both sides had been forced to turn to their children to fight the war to a conclusion. In this last winter of World War II, neither army could be said to be a veteran army.”

Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers, p. 207.


Ambrose’s words are, for me, a powerful reminder to keep approaching Band of Brothers as artful storytelling, as powerful testament to what a prior generation of young people endured and accomplished, and as a compelling warning about the cost of conflict at both the personal, organizational, and global levels.

Stan Pelkey

May 17, 2016