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More Christmas Viewing: Band of Brothers - Dissected
Posted by Diggler - 25/12/2004 17:09

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BoB features many spectacular battle scenes, but its brilliance is so much more than just that
It's been great fun working through the latest batch of new releases for the site over the last three months, but I do feel like the original concept of the site got a little lost along the way. It was never really meant to be solely a showcase for the latest game of the week, I wanted to use it to delve into much of the pop culture of yesteryear too.

With that in mind, here's a show that originally aired back in 2001, and one I have an awful lot to say about. Lord of the Rings not your kinda thing? Sitting there reading this after lunch looking for something else to whack on the box? Here's just the answer. It may not be Christmas themed in the slightest (with the possible exception of two snow-capped episodes), but it's unquestionably one of the finest works of film and television ever created.

Just checking through the Internet Movie Database, it's interesting to note that Band of Brothers is more highly rated than anything else ever created - even so called #1 movie of all-time The Godfather. As sacrileges as it is though, there's been very little Band of Brothers coverage on the web until the last few months. In fact I broke the very first review of the utterly glorious DVD box set on the entire internet myself for Ain't it Cool News, simply 'cos I couldn't find a single word on it anywhere else at the time.

You can reach that arse-licking but wholeheartedly truthful ramble here, but while that concentrates on little more than the basic DVD specs, the purpose of the article you're reading right now is to explore the content of the series itself. Laced with spoilers though, this is really more of an in-depth discussion and a detailed post-mortem than a proper review.

Hopefully you, like me, will be in the perfect mood for a 10 hour BoB marathon by the end of it. So with that in mind, enjoy Band of Brothers: Dissected, as I delve into each of the ten marvellous episodes one by one.

Episode 1 - Currahee

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The Winters/Nixon friendship is really the core of what Band of Brothers is all about
Currahee originally aired back to back with Episode 2 as a movie-length double-whammy opener for the series. Personally I think the real reason behind this was due to the drought of action in this first episode, hence it getting glued onto Episode 2 in order to entice viewers back the following week.

When I first saw it, I found it somewhat anti-climatic as an introduction - blasphemous thoughts I now realise, having seen the entire series from beginning to end. You must understand though, I'd heard of Band of Brothers well over a year in advance to its premier, and coupled with my Saving Private Ryan fetish, my anticipation level was approaching Phantom Menace levels for this thing.

BoB was filmed here in the UK, just down the road from where my dad worked at the time. He'd call me up regularly during the day to tell me how he could see Spielberg surrounded by American soldiers out of his office window. I had this impression in my head of Saving Private Ryan the TV series thanks to that, so with Currahee being as far from Ryan's Omaha Beach introduction as you could possibly get, you may get an idea why I felt somewhat let down. But I soon saw the light...

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David Schwimmer's reputation improves dramatically in an incredibly tricky role
Currahee is 100% pure character driven set up. In fact you can compare it very much to the opening hour of Kubrick's classic Full Metal Jacket; while Cpt. Sobel (David Schwimmer) would get his arse severely pounded by Full Metal Jacket's Sergeant Hartman any day of the week, both follow a similar format of this hour-long introduction of characters, with a second hour then devoted to throwing them into the most horrendous and horrifying experiences of their lives.

And it works, because by the time Currahee ends and we've gotten to know Nixon, Malarkey, Gaurnere, Lipton, and of course the main man himself Dick Winters, it's set the stakes oh so much higher for what's to come. In essence, Currahee primes us for Episode 2's D-Day drop absolutely perfectly.

Imagine if we'd gotten to know Tom Hanks and crew properly before seeing them slaughtered on that beach, just how much more powerful it'd be. Band of Brothers does exactly that, which really summarizes my feelings for the series as a whole and emphasises just what I love about it so much. For all its machine gun fire, tracer rounds, and mortar shell-soaked action, it's the characters themselves and the realisation of their heart and soul which gives it such power.

Episode 2 - Day of Days

Never the less, for an audience who may have been lulled into a false sense of security by the slow paced, if entertaining first hour, Day of Days remedies that like nothing else. After now living with the men for two years since they first joined the paratroopers, Episode 2 then puts them through as truly a horrific depiction of D-Day as you'll ever see.

The handheld camera work Spielberg made famous on Ryan is prevalent almost immediately, giving the sequence a more immediate and unnerving feel as we jostle about inside those planes with the men. There's a wonderful use of sound throughout this entire episode, and our first glimpse of that is the distant booms of anti-aircraft fire that grow louder and louder as our friends approach their drop-zone, but there's that one specific instant where the planes exit from under the cover of clouds that the battle really begins.

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Anyone up for a plane trip to France?
We see tracer fire lighting up the sky like lasers, flaming C-47 planes hurting to their death, and thousands of open parachutes in all directions; it's just such a powerful, unforgettable scene. The CGI work is impressive, both here and throughout the entire series, and it's unusual to see special effects of this calibre in a TV show, even if they can't quite match up to those we'd see in a more lazily budgeted movie.

It's that stomach-churning image of Lt. Meehan's plane engulfed in flames which gets me though, as a stream of fire soaked soldiers tumble out of the back to their demise. Band of Brothers originally aired around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and there's an unignorable correlation between that sight and the poor victims who jumped from the flaming top floors.

Possibly the most inventive shot of the episode comes as Dick himself jumps out of the plane and the camera switches to a first person view. It's a chaotic shot of fumbling feet hurtling around in the wind, with trees, fields, and raging fires coming at him from all directions, and perhaps as close as we could ever get to experiencing that drop ourselves.

Once he lands, these subsequent night time sequences of lost paratroopers roaming the Normandy hedgerows must go down as some of my most favoured and atmospheric scenes of any show ever made. Miles from their intended landing sites and all alone, the extended introduction of the principal characters from the previous episode pays off beautifully here, as each man finds more of his fellow soldiers amongst the darkness. Particular credit goes to the character of "Wild" Bill Guarnere, who's small subplot and violent revenge is an exceptional example of just how these men aren't perfect, and deal with this most fucked up of situations in their they own unique way.

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That's not the way to get a head in life
The way Dick handles himself and his men, despite not even having a weapon is also a nice glimpse into the leader we'll see him grow into from here on out, and if that wasn't enough, there's also the Brecourt assault that takes up the latter portion of the episode as further evidence to this. Seeing Winters and Compton dismantle an entire German artillery array with only a handful of men is a site in itself, not to mention just a kick-arse action scene as well. All of the above contribute to make Days of Days perhaps my personal favourite hour of the entire series.

It can be easy to forget what we're watching are all real events that occurred some 60 years ago, as it's just such an unbelievable concept for a pampered little bitch of my generation. I love how BoB addresses that with both its interviewed introductions to each episode, and also its text-based endings. This one, in which we learn the various awards and fame the men were granted during the raid illustrate it perfectly, and man, how much do those opening interviews just break your heart? Intentionally not naming the interviewees until the very last moment of the final episode, it sneakily keeps us guessing as to who they all are, and thus who will survive.

Episode 3 - Carentan

Carentan's an interesting one as it marks the first episode where the series splinters off somewhat and concentrates on one specific soldier for the majority of its hour. For me, Albert Blithe is much like the Upham character from Saving Private Ryan, but taken to the next level. So young, inexperienced and lost, he quite literally goes blind with fear. His subsequent heroism and eventual suffering is all so perfect and typical of the war.

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Blithe is played by Marc Warren, a young English actor believe it or not
Blithe's small but significant story is such a heart breaking tale which does indeed deserve the spotlight it receives, but really the most saddening part is just the thought that there's a million and one other tales just like it which you could tell for each and every other man who fell.

Having been to the small town of Carentan myself a few years back, it was a bizarre feeling to see it in the flesh. On the one hand it understandably looks much different to the war-ravaged sight we see here, but then out of nowhere you'll turn down a street or peer across a square and see something truly identical to the series. It's quite clear major effort was put into recreating the town as close as they could get it for the extended battle scene in Episode 3, and it's a major testament to that that the best selling PC game Call of Duty unapologetically recreated it digitally too.

Episode 4 - Replacements

For me, this episode covers two important things. Firstly, it emphasises the experience Easy Company already has under its belt from its short but vital time in the war so far. These are no longer newbie recruits who are yet to stare death in the face, we now have a battle ready band of rock hard D-Day veterans, with even a few champions starting to step forward, brimming with kudos. The immense Bull Randlemen is one such chap, a colossal superhero of a man who's latter barnyard tussle is a definite highlight.

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Episode 4 has a kick arse tank battle that'll blow the shit out of your subwoofer
We also see it in other ways though, such as the bully-ish manner the soldiers treat the new "replacement" troops, further evidence to the imperfect yet realistically portrayed nature of these guys. It's a risky move to play your heroes as somewhat mean, even if only rarely, but it really just makes them feel more human to me.

Secondly though, Episode 4 really just provides a heavily condensed history lesson regarding Operation Market Garden, an all too pivotal loss for the Allies that ultimately leads Easy into the Battle of the Bulge further down the line. As a Brit, I can forgive the horribly inept way the English tank commanders are portrayed too, due to the most riotous of battle sequences that follow it.

Episode 5 - Crossroads

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Moments that still haunt the man to this day?
A slightly groansome title, but a fine episode none the less, and one helmed by Tom Hanks himself. Crossroads is a stepping stone for Winters more than anything, in which he fires his last shots of the war before being promoted up off the lines.

What shots they are though, as Dick guns down a young unarmed German soldier at point-blank range. Despite a somewhat mammoth hill-side fire-fight, the episode's not really about chaotic warfare like those before it though - this one's really a study of Winter's inner demons, as he subsequently relives those final shots inside his head (really until the series ends).

One might argue it's guilt over shooting down a helpless soldier in cold blood, but for me it's more the fact that up until this point Winters and company has been firing at nothing more than distant enemies - black shapes on the horizon. Our young friend here is the first time he's looked a man dead in the eyes before taking his life.

Special mention must go to the set work during Dick's Paris furlong in this episode, which has an empty ominous, yet hauntingly beautiful feel to it.

Episode 6 - Bastogne

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Band of Brothers' set work impresses from beginning to end
I always think of this and The Breaking Point as one long episode, as they really compliment each other nicely. The Battle of the Ardennes (or The Battle of the Bulge) was possibly the most gruelling time of the entire European tour for Easy Company, and these two episodes certainly do that justice, albeit in very different ways.

Bastogne is more of a character profile than anything, an interesting and intimate look at one of the less talked about aspects of World War II; the life of the medic. You can't help but feel for poor Eugene Row as this episode progresses. He starts out as a seemingly upbeat young man stuck in the thick of it, keen to do his bit to help his friends...yet slowly but surely he descends into quietness, solitude and severe mental anguish.

The medic's sole purpose on the battlefield was to sit and wait, listening for that single terrifying scream of, "MEDIC!!!". You can see in his face how he grows to hate that sound more than any other as the episode goes on. It's hard to say which must be harder on the soul; being a frontline soldier engaging in relentless fire-fights and mortar fire, or an unarmed medic, forced to sit back and wait for your friends to get butchered day in day out.

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Fuck being a medic
Watch how quickly he responds to calls of distress in the beginning of the episode, then compare it to how long it takes him to psyche himself up later on. I feel the only thing that keeps him together throughout all this is his meeting with Renee the hot French nurse who, despite the mounds of wounded men to be seen among them, is like an oasis in the desert for Eugene.

I do recall her existence in the original book of Band of Brothers, and give credit to the writers for not resorting to a Pearl Harbour style love story, but I tend to have my suspicions as to how dramatic their scenes were spruced up for entertainment purposes here. It's all subtly and class right up until Roe arrives at the bombed-out church near episode's end to find her blue head dress, a moment that's a little too "perfect" for my liking, but to then see how he uses that for bandaging purposes soon after is incredibly moving none the less.

Episode 7 - The Breaking Point

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The mortar attacks of Bastogne provide the most spectacular effects of the show
What many believe to be the true highpoint of the series is ironically enough Easy's low-point of the war. The unrelentless shellings are handled with such brutal force and undeniable power that my mouth stayed open from beginning to end the first time I saw it.

Throughout all the incredibly explosive set-pieces it's old New Kid On the Block Donnie Wahlberg who shines though, managing a very saddened and layered performance as Carwood Lipton which never gets buried under all those exploding trees. His relationship with the often absent Lt. Dike is the basis for many a laugh here, and to be honest we need it in this most depressing of episodes.

Episode 7 marks the point in the series where the numbers of our primary players start to diminish hugely. Indeed Muck and Penkala's unfortunate destruction is one such moment, but who can forget the Guarnere and Toye double whammy later on. With the two of them laying in the snow, legs blown off, it's the site of a completely numbed Buck Compton dropping his helmet in shock which sums it all up.

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On the DVD you can see some of the vets return to this forest 60 years on, crutches and all
Put through pure mental and physical torture, he's just one of the numerous smiling young faces that are forever changed from here on out...and to think, those were the lucky ones.

Along with Hoobler's saddening run in with a Luger, and Dike reaching his own breaking point, we see a significant dent on Easy's numbers during this episode. But where there's sadness and loss, we also see true heroism, both in Easy's defence of the line, and its eventual attack on the town of Foy. The Tom Cruise look-a-like Cpt. Speirs turns out to be more than an ambiguous kleptomaniac, in a move that is so bewildering it defies believability, but its Lipton himself who's actions deserve mention in this one, and he is deservedly awarded for his long-standing troubles by episode's end.

Ultimately I like how this one draws to a close more than anything. In a particularly striking computer-enhanced sequence set in a church, the fallen men of Bastogne are checked off one by one to much sadness.

Episode 8 - The Last Patrol

While still enjoyable, Episode 8 would have to be least impressive of the lot I would say. I'm an enormous fan of David Webster (who's official memoirs are highly recommended), but I think the fact that HBO altered facts from real life events is a poor showing just to have the episode concentrate on him. In actual fact, Webster was never even on the patrol of the title.

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David Webster - smart guy, but sadly not featured in the best of episodes
Additionally Tom Hank's baby-faced son delivers the worst performance of the series here, and when coupled with the fact that this episode comes the closest yet to falling into sentimentality, I tend to come away from The Last Patrol colder than the others.

On the plus side, Eion Baily is fantastic as Webster. Over the years I've seen him go from tiny indie flicks like A Better Place on to more recent roles in the likes of Fight Club and ER suitably more impressed each and every time. His banter with Liebgott, who I also think is one of the most fascinating men of Easy Company, is the true highlight here, and goes on to be used to great effect in the following episodes.

Really though, I think The Last Patrol suffers from its placement more than anything. Smack bang in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge and the discovery of the concentration camps, it feels almost insignificant. But what wouldn't?

Episode 9 - Why We Fight

Just so god damn good. While I enjoy Episode 2 personally, from an artistic point of view this one has to be the best episode of the show, and for completely different reasons than any before it.

I love how at the moment when Easy discover the existence of the camps we're kept just as much in the dark as they are. It's a long, lingering reveal that never really hits us until the last minute. It's a technique they continue to use as we literally walk inside with the men, discovering the horrors just as they do.

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Check out the series of books by Donald Burgett for a more detailed account of what the troops found at these camps
We all know too well of the despicable acts that the Nazis thrust upon people in these heartless places, and I'm sure most of us have seen some of the real-life footage over the years of the victims. Time has proven that such a disturbing era of history will never lose its intense power though, as recent projects such as Schindler's List, The Pianist, and now Why We Fight continue to demonstrate half a century on.

The way grown men grip and hug the soldiers like lost children, the lifeless skeletal forms of the deceased, and the nightmarish cattle-like living quarters are just some of the striking images that stay with me. But when Liebgott, a Jew himself, is brought to tears at having to take food off the prisoners for their own good, it's the specific moment that's been known to give me a lump in my throat.

This episode doesn't even begin to go into details of exactly what happened behind closed doors in these places. I've read a fuck load on the subject myself, and believe me they could have pushed things a lot further if they'd wanted. But you know what? They really didn't need to. Why We Fight is a powerful work of pure genius, one that would even stand out without the backing of nine other episodes.

Episode 10 - Points

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"Where is he!?"
Strangely enough, Points provides some of the darkest scenes of the lot, despite the fact that a significant portion of it is set after victory in Europe has been declared.

With Hitler dead and the German army surrendering by the hundreds of thousands, Points reverts back more to the style and atmosphere of Currahee for the most part. However there's the all too important murder subplot involving a drunken replacement shooting fellow soldiers that gives it that edge, particularly when we see how the men deal with him.

I just adore these scenes. Once the killer has been caught and you hear him getting a beat down in the room next door, it never really crosses your mind that the people dishing it out are the same men we've now grown to know and love. It's not until Speirs slams the door open that a series of quick flashes reveal the shocking truth, and we see true darkness within the men for the first real time. These are guys who (as far as the series is concerned) have pretty much obeyed the Geneva Convention, so there's an unforgiving honesty to this scene that I appreciate.

As Speirs raises his gun ready to murder the culprit though, the men finally back-off one by one. As Dick himself puts it, he'd had enough of war, and so had the rest of Easy, which I feel is the reason they let him live...they don't want to see another human shot to death in front of their faces.

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More interesting banter between two of the most complex characters
From here on in, Points begins tying up the series in a more traditional and upbeat way. The war is eventually declared over and we get to witness the men in a more relaxed and natural setting, chilling out among the mountains of Austria.

The baseball scene is a critical one, and would rank as a highlight. Damien Lewis, in character as Winters, yet speaking in the present this time, recaps on the lives of the men after the war and where they all went from there. There's one dreadful mistake here I feel though; the neglect to mention the fate of Cpt. Sobel. I feel his mental problems and (I do believe) subsequent suicide is an important and overlooked part of Easy's history that truly deserved a mention.

When Winters reveals the big one though, that his good friend and comrade Lewis Nixon died recently, all is forgiven. The way we gently fade from Dick in the series into the real life Richard Winters is a glorious and respectful moment that book-ends the series beautifully.

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Pretty much the epitome of a true to life hero
Ultimately ending ten hours of the best drama I've been privileged to witness. Whether an ancestor of veterans, World War II enthusiast, or just a good old fan of action movies, Band of Brothers can truly be enjoyed by everyone, and its ability to educate is just as important as its ability to entertain on a universal scale.

I've talked to 20 year old girls who love it just as much as 50 year old guys, and as well as the immense sacrifices of the millions who went to war, I feel the success of it as a series is also down to the unadulterated passion from the cast and crew. Rather than go for a more Hollywoodised depiction, they set out to pay tribute in an honest and frank way more than anything else, and no one could argue that it fails in that regard.

Parting Words

There are relentless murmurs of another World War II series being prepped by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg set in the Pacific Theatre this time, based solely on the success and recognition BoB received. Whether this turns out to be true or mere wishful thinking, we'll see, but in the meantime we'll always have this work of art to fall back on.

And on that note I'll wish you all farewell for now and very merry Christmas. After a few days stuffing my face and getting wankered, you can look forward to some more DVD reviews from the past, the regular batch of new game releases, and an in-depth look at a retro sci-fi classic on the PC. Perhaps I'll get onto some thoughts regarding my recent purchase of a GameCube as well.

Hope you're all having a great day!

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The Polynomial. Like playing a rave

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