Reviewed by Blake Kenny (January 21, 2003)
SPOILER WARNING!!! As with the Sopranos Season 3 review I wrote a while back, I plan to review Band of Brothers as a whole, and not but the sum of its 10 parts. I intend to talk briefly about each of the episodes, so If you donít want to know what happens you might want to skip down to the technical details. However, what I say can hardly be considered spoilers as this mini-series is based on the true story of the United Stated Airborne Divisions Ė Easy Company , and is therefore factual in nature. Itís not so much a story, as it is history.
When I was a kid, war movies were nothing more than pure, unadulterated entertainment. While I was certainly aware that World War II did indeed take place, I wasnít watching films based on that war, or any other war for that matter to get a history lesson. For me I was in it for the action. I was in it for the guns, bombs, explosions and everything else of mass destructions. I was in it to see who I believed to be the good guys lay the smack down on the enemy.
As time has a way of trudging on past, I grew older. With maturity, Iíd like to say there came a little wisdom. It took a film like Saving Private Ryan, with it brutally realistic depiction of war to basically kick me in the ass and show me a side of the conflicts that I never really knew existed. I remember watching the film in the theatre Ė and while I was thoroughly impressed with the action, itís stark realism coupled with the filmís ability to essentially put you on the battlefield had me seeing World War II from a different perspective. Itís the first film to really make me understand some of what these men had to go through. Sure, I knew that much of the filmís plot was fictional, but if the intent was to take a fictional tale and at the same time show you, and make you understand some of the horrors of war, then without a doubt that film succeeded.
I walked out of the movie theatre with my jaw hanging open. I simply couldnít get the filmís imagery out of my mind. Sure the movie isnít as shocking now that IĎve seen it a dozen times, but that initial viewing was something I wonít soon forget - it actually made meÖfeel. If you know me personally, you know it takes a lot for me to show any real level of sensitivity or compassion. (Why do I suddenly feel like the Grinch with his heart 2 sizes too small?) Watching the old man in the cemetery at the end of the film, hunched over the grave of one of his fallen comrades, heck, the first time I saw that part Iíll admit I was damn near fighting back tears and trying desperately to swallow back the lump that had built up in my throat. Did this happen to other people in the theatre or just me? I donít know, but if the purpose of Saving Private Ryan was to get one person, namely me, to have an epiphany in the darkened spaces of my isle seat, well then they succeeded. I get it now, I understand. Sure, I may never know what war is like first hand, but at least Iíll have a greater appreciation of what soldiers have to deal with.
Anyway, Iíll be quiet about that, since Iím not here to review Saving Private Ryan. Still, knowing that the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers had Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks involved as the executive producers, I was instantly curious about seeing it. Sure, I wanted to watch it for the action, but I also knew that I would probably learn something from it. Not only about the history of its many battles, but of the courageous men who fought these battles.
Band of Brothers focus is primarily on the men of the US armyís 506th regiment of the 101st airborne division. The men of Easy Company. The 10 part series follows them from boot camp, to their jump into Normandy on D-Day. It follows their exploits across war torn Europe right up until they capture Hitlerís famous mountain retreat Ė the Eagles Nest. Itís an amazing series, and even without having reviewed it yet, Iím already thankful to have it in my collection. If you enjoy war films, then this is a set you simply canít be without.
PART 1: Currahee
While awaiting the perfect weather conditions within which to jump in and do their part during the invasion of Normandy Ė 2 soldiers, Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) and Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) take time to sit back and reflect on the time they spent in basic training together at Camp Toccoa in Georgia. An especially unenjoyable time in their lives in which they were under the iron thumb of a seriously hard-nosed and overbearing commanding officer named Captain Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer). Not only is Sobel a hard ass, but he also seems to have no aspirations to earn the respect of his men. In fact, many of his actions seem to lean more towards brown-nosing his superiors in order to further his career. Needless to say, much of this episode centres on the divisions growing hatred of Sobel and Winters desire to see him exposed for the weak-minded CO that he is.
Much of this first part deals with a hill on the training grounds named Currahee. A hill that proves an important location in this episode as Sobel takes great pleasure in making the soldiers under his command run up and down its steep slopes over and over again Ė and at all hours of the day. While having soldiers train hard in the military is nothing new, and is to be expected, Sobel seems to go a little too far sometimes.
Winters turns out to be a man in a unique position. As platoon leader, heís been given some command over the troops in his division, and unlike Sobel, has the respect of these men. In fact, you could almost say they look up to him. Sobel and Winters are constantly at odds, especially when it becomes evident that Sobel is an incompetent commanding officer Ė and his men are afraid to follow his lead into battle. In the end, many of the men put themselves in a bad situation when then decide to risk severe disciplinary action rather than serve under Sobelís command.
Overall, this was a great starting point for the series. It was a way for us to get to know a few of the primary characters, and it also eases us into the next episode. Episode 2 is where the war really starts to pick up some steam and the battle for Europe, at least for these men, really begins. This part is the calm before the storm.
PART 2: Day of Days
For action buffs, who are trying to decide if theyíre at all interested in watching a mini-series, especially one based on the exploits of some real men, this is the episode to watch. Once you see this one, youíll be hooked. It manages to shatter all of your preconceived notions about the quality of a television production and makes you realize, this is no cheap, sissy war story. This series is gonna deliver the goods.
Itís June 6th, 1944 Ė and the men of Easy Company, who have been waiting for the perfect weather conditions to begin their operation, are finally given the green light. With weapons in hand and parachutes on their backs, dozens of planes lift the men into the air and take them towards their designated drop zone. Still, even in the black on night, reaching this location is not without its share of danger. The planes are fired upon from the ground in what can only be described as one of the most riveting war sequences I have ever seen on film Ė even if much of it is CG, the intensity and feeling of shear urgency is incredible Ė and even a little horrifying. The scene is pure mayhem as planes are torn apart in mid-air with their passengers still on board. Burning soldiers even jump from flaming airplanes in a vain effort to save themselves. Itís unbelievable to think that so many people died that night is so many horrible ways. The sight really hits home.
With planes being shot out of the air and diving into the ground on every side of them, the paratroopers jump from the planes from fear of being killed before they even reach the ground. From here, much of the episode follows Winters as he reaches the surface and tries to pick up the pieces of his separated platoon. Inevitably he manages to locate a few soldiers and reach base camp, not without a few enemy encounters along the way though.
Upon reaching camp, Winters and a few of his men are almost immediately sent out on a mission to destroy some German 88ís that are firing upon the landing at Utah Beach. With what can only be described as another awesome segment, ala Saving Private Ryan, Winters and his men head out to destroy the cannons. Itís here, while in command that Winters looses his first man and the brutality of war hits home. Itís also about this time that you realize you dare not miss another episode.
PART 3: Carentan
On June 8th, 1944 Ė two days after D-Day and the invasion of Normandy, the men of Easy Company are assigned a mission to take control of the German occupied town of Carentan. Itís a particularly vicious and hard fought battle, but when itís all over, the town is liberated and the Germans withdraw.
While this episode still deals a lot with Richard Winters and a few of the more prominent member of Easy Company, much of this episode centres around Private Albert Blithe (Marc Warren). In fact, as you watch the series you will come to realize that each episode tends to focus on a different soldier, allowing the viewer to witness the war from many different perspectives. Albert Blithe is soldier who has a difficult time adjusting to military life and especially to combat. When we first meet him heís seen starring into the sky, like a young boy might stare in amazement at anything new to him. While I wouldnít want to say heís a coward - since I have doubt I would fair much better under those circumstances, he does have a tendency to stay hidden from danger rather than put himself in jeopardy.
In many ways I think this episode tries and make the audience understand what war must have been like for those of us who had no choice but to fight it. Lets face it, war is a horrible thing for anyone to have to experience, but some men deal with it better than others. While many can muster the courage to run into a battlefield, others canít seem to make themselves take that first step. Itís a great episode that makes you thankful you werenít there.
After the troops take back Carentan, they buckle down for a 2nd battle Ė fighting off a German counter attack involving an armoured division. Itís here that Blithe becomes a new man. Shooting his first enemy soldier he feels a new sense of empowerment Ė and from that day forth Blitheís level of confidence within the war is boosted to a new level. Still, in the end we learn that even a confident soldier can be vulnerable.
After many victories, the men of Easy Company head back to England for some much needed rest. Its at the end of this episode that we learn theyíre being sent back into the thick of things, and itís here that we as the viewer see the toll the war is beginning to take on Easy Companyís numbers.
PART 4: Replacements
Having lost a great deal of men since arriving in Europe, Easy Company eventually receives some new replacements. Young, wet behind the ears soldiers that give a new meaning to the word Ďgreení. While theyíre eventually accepted into the fold, especially when the bullets start flying, theyíre still treated like the newbies they are in the beginning. Itís during this episode that new soldiers, together with the veterans will have to work together during Operation: Market Garden. The plan is for Easy to jump into Holland and liberate the town of Eindhoven from German occupation. Once the town has been cleared out, they are to maintain control of the town and itís surrounding areas so that a British Armoured divisions can move in. If successful the allies intend to bring about the end of the war by Christmas.
On September 17, 1944 - Easy Company jumps into Holland to carry out their mission. However, things donít go quite as planned when they discover that the Germans are no longer in Eindhoven. While theyíre greeted by the Dutch with open arms, the company sees no reason to hang around and eventually moves out. In the next town they finally run into some superior enemy resistance. Itís here the much of the episode swings about to focus on Bill ĎBullí Randleman (Michael Cudlitz).
Bull is somewhat of a veteran now, especially in the eyes of the newbies under his command. Still war is unpredictable and things can and will happen. When the German forces let the strength of their numbers be know, destroying several British tanks in the process, Easy decides their best course of action is to fallback in retreat. Itís during this retreat that Bull is separated from his men and forced to hide out in a barn within the German occupied town. Surrounded, and fully aware of his precarious situation, Bull is forced to do what he must to stay alive and get back to his men. On the home front, several of Bullís friends, including a few of the replacements, decide to attempt a rescue. Since no-one saw him killed, theyíre not convinced that heís dead.
PART 5: Crossroads
While Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) appeared in virtually every episode of Band of Brothers since the beginning, this episode follows some of his time in the Airborne even more so than previous shows did. Winters is a man that since the start of the series has demonstrated not only his natural leadership ability, but his undeniable ability to think strategically. This time around he leads his men against a group of German soldiers who have set up position near a dike that intersects a major roadway outside Arnhem, Holland.
As a man who needs little time to act upon his plans, Winters and his men launch an impressive attack that lasts throughout the night. In the morning the Germans have suffered incredibly high casualties, while Winters has only lost one man to the battle. The astonishing thing is that Easy Company had no idea about the true strength of the enemy force. It wasnít until later that they discovered how severely outnumbered they really were Ė but thanks to Winters leadership and planning, they won the day. This resounding victory results in his promotion to Executive Officer of the 2nd Battalion. While I havenít mentioned it up until this point, Winters is a man who also seems to rise through the ranks rather quickly. He truly is an incredible solder who not only has a brilliant military mind, but the trust and loyalty of the men under his command.
Later, news reaches the men of Easy Company that a strong enemy force in the Ardennes Forest threatens to break through the allied lines. Not only that, but the German forces are said to contain a Panzer Division. Easy is sent in to not only relieve that line to some degree, but to also help strengthen it. This issue is complicated by the fact that the men are dangerously low on ammunition and the appropriate equipment needed to sustain them during the particularly cold weather they are certain to face.
PART 6: Bastogne
Ill-equipped for the cold weather and short on rations and ammunition, the men of easy company are ordered to hold the line in a forest just outside Bastogne, Belgium. Snow is falling almost constantly now and the men are dug in for what will probably be an extensive stay. The German forces on the opposite side of the line keep the men of Easy Company on their toes with constant shellings. Injuries are commonplace in this foreboding environment and principle medic Ė Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) is a major player during this episode Ė dealing as best he can with life on the front lines.
As one of only a couple medics in the area, Eugene is pushed to the limits. Overwhelmed by his responsibilities, exhausted mentally and physically, heís constantly on the edge. Heís short on supplies, he hardly has any bandages to deal with wounds and has little or no morphine to relieve pain. On top of that he has many other things to deal with. From Bill Guarnereís (Frank John Hughes) possible urinary infection to locating a pair of basic, size 9 army issue combat boots for Joe Toye (Kirk Acevedo).
His only comfort comes from a nurse in Bastogne named Renee (Lucie Jeanne). Sheís works in a decrepit, makeshift hospital that serves to treat the injured men coming in from the line. Being two people who work in a similar fields during the war, they fast become friends. Problem is, war has a way of rearing its ugly head when people least expect it.
PART 7: The Breaking Point
Like each previous episode, we once again focus on one particular solider. This time itís Sergeant C. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg). Heís a man who is extremely well respected by the men, and this part serves to demonstrate Liptonís dedication to not only his rank, but to the well-being of the men he fights along side.
After fighting back the Germans in Bastogne, the men of Easy Company are given new orders and assigned to take control of the town of Foy. Before entering the town, the men must first clear the forest to the east and west of enemy forces. However, removing the enemy resistance is complicated by the merciless and seemingly endless shelling the men are forced to withstand. Trees are blown apart in every direction, and even the relative safety of a foxhole doesnít necessarily keep the men free from harm. To make matters worse, their new commanding officer Ė Lt Norman Dike (Peter OíMeara) has started to prove himself a liability to the men of Easy. Not only is he nowhere to be found a majority of the time, but his ability to wisely lead the men is also questionable.
Eventually, after days of shelling, the men of Easy finally manage to clear the forest and are prepared to take control of the town. However, their efforts do not come without a cost, as they have sustained a considerable number of casualties while in the forests. Many of the men are lost in battle due shell shock, severe injuries and of courseÖ death. Now, the only thing that stands in the way of Easy Companies success over FoyÖ is the incompetence of their own CO.
PART 8: The Last Patrol
Easy Company arrives in the town of Haguenau. At town separated by a river Ė and occupied on the opposite side by German forces.
Much of part 8 centres around 2 soldiers. Private David Webster (Eion Bailey) is man who was with Easy Company in the beginning on D-Day. However, heís been out of contact with the other men for quit a while due to an injury he sustained 4 months earlier. Since then he's been under hospital care as well as in rehabilitation. His return is not met with kindness as many of the men think he should have tried harder to rejoin the men after recovering from his wounds. Sheís a little shocked to learn that a lot has happened since the last time he saw them. After the serious pummelling they received in Bastogne, he learns that many of the men were either injured or killed. Bastogne was a brutal time for the men, and since he wasnít there to fight along side them, heís become somewhat of an outcast.
The episode also follows the arrival of Lt Henry Jones, (Colin Hanks) a recent graduate from WestPoint and a replacement, heís also eager to get his feet wet and get some combat experience. His rank seems to be somewhat meaningless though, as soldiers beneath him are given more responsibility due to having fought in many battle already.
Overall this episode deals a lot with Jones and Websterís desire to fit in with the rest of the men. Theyíre given their chance when they are sent along with 15 men assigned to cross the river during a daring night time raid to capture a few German hostages. Needless to say, the bonds of war are strong, and after the mission both men gain a little experience, and a little acceptance.
PART 9: Why We Fight
Afters months of pain and suffering and many incredibly hard fought battles, the men of Easy Company finally enter Germany and face little enemy resistance in the process. The German forces are beginning to crumble Ė and for the first time the men of Easy are starting to get the feeling that the war may at last be coming to an end for them.
However, even with the last remnants of German resistance being swept away, itís hard for the men to forget the horrors theyíve seen, especially when they make one last grisly discovery...
Just outside of town, in a nearby forest, Easy discovers an abandoned concentration camp. Theyíre obviously horrified by the sight of hundreds of starving and tortured men. Theyíre even more horrified by the countless number of bodies they find in virtually every corner of the camp. While questioning one of the prisoners, Winters and his men are surprised to learn they these people are not being kept there because they are war criminals, but because they are Jews. They also learn that there is a female prison camp nearby Ė and that this camp, is just one of many that the allied forced have discovered over the pat while.
Itís truly a saddening and tragic reminder of the horrors of war. It would surprise me if anyone could watch this episode and not get a lump in their throat. While Iím sure the sight of these camps would have been far worse in real life, the degree of pain and suffering these people had to endure is captured on film in a very powerful way.
On the positive note, the men of Easy Company get word that Hitler is dead, having committed suicide.
PART 10: Points
In July of 1945, the men of Easy Company enter the Bavarian Town of Berchtesgaden. A town that was once home to many of the top officers of the Third Reich. Soon afterwards they advance up the mountains and capture the Eagleís Nest, Hitlerís famous mountaintop fortress. Itís an amazing site, as itís a testament to the manís power.
This episode also marks the unconditional surrender of the German army, and with that many of the men are happy to learn that they may finally be going home. That is, if they have earned enough points. Those who donít have enough points will be deployed out to the Pacific to help fight the Japanese. Fortunately, by the end of the episode the Japanese also surrender and the war to end all wars comes to an end.
The remainder of the episode nicely wraps up the series. Narrated by Damian Lewis as Major Richard Winters we learn what became of many of the men after the war. A number of them are still around today, living happy and peaceful lives.
In the end we get to hear a few words from the actual survivors of the war. While each episode within the series began with brief comments from the true men of Easy Company, this final episode put finally puts names to these faces. Itís nice to see that many of the men portrayed in the series, in particular Richards Winters is still alive and well today.
The addition of comments by the real life men of Easy Company added an extraordinary amount of strength and credibility to this series. To hear what they had to say about the war and some of the events they witnessed simply blew me away. Then to sit back and watch an episode from their lives play out on the screen made you truly understand what these men went through for their country. While I donít pretend to ever now what it must have been like to watch your friends die in battle, I think this series nicely achieves what it sets out to do. That is, make us as the audience understand the sacrifices people made during the war. The thing is, what this series did for me canít even be put into words. I guess you could say, it opened my eyes. Itís more of a feeling than something that can be verbalized Ė and itís very powerful indeed.
Special Features: Explained below in the technical section.
Itís saddening for me when I think about the war to think about my own family. Both of my Grandfathers fought in the war, as Iím sure many of yours did. One was a Canadian Engineer, the other, oddly enough fought for Germany. Itís strange to think I have relatives who battled on both sides of the fence. Itís odd to think about how horrible war is, when in the end, both of their children came together to become my parents. Even more startling to me was when I first learn that as soldiers, both of my Grandfathers had been shot, they both survived, but one thing always stuck in my brain. If they were shot at, surely they fired back. Had they killed other people during the war?
Unfortunately they have both long since passed away and watching Band of Brothers has left me thinking one thing. How regrettable it is that I didnít have the opportunity, now that Iím an adult to talk to them and learn something about the war from them. I feel that a realized very late in life how significant World War II was. With maturity and adulthood my appreciation and understanding of one of the biggest events in world history has forever changed.