Band of Brothers

Friday, October 19, 2001 by

BBC2′s ratings buster remains the highlight of Friday nights. Band of Brothers sits sheepishly on a channel that dares to schedule gardening tips and second-rate comedy repeats either side of it, yet rises above everything else flung out on television at the end of the week.

World War II continues to throw up countless narrative and visual possibilities. Overseen by executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, this particular re-telling of the Allied re-occupation of Europe from June 1944 – May 1945 is based on a novel by historian Stephen Ambrose, but arrived on British screens cursed with the baggage of yet another BBC management cock-up. BBC1 Controller Lorraine Heggessey added to her bulging portfolio of gaffes by making a huge deal out of securing the series for her channel, then abruptly dumping it onto BBC2 for being “too niche” and “not mainstream enough”. Spielberg’s response – “A tremendous compliment, we tried like hell not to make it mainstream” – offsets the ineptness of the BBC for letting such confusion happen in the first place, and for belittling such an important piece of television in the process.

The 10-part series was filmed entirely in England (in and around London, and Hatfield in Hertfordshire) and already this has leant many scenes a subconscious element of familiarity. But the chief entry point for the learned and casual viewer alike, and flagged up as such by the series’ title, is through its core ensemble of characters. We meet a selection of them at the opening of each episode, interviewed here in the present day: old men in their 70s and 80s looking back on some of the events about to be re-created on screen, and in the process underscoring what the main moral of this week’s episode is to be. It’s a rather obvious device – “Old Folk Remembering The War” etc. – but still affecting, and a terse reminder that most of what follows is based upon real events and real people.

Yet for all the importance placed on empathising with personalities (the protracted title sequence includes a montage of every single member of the cast) the series does boast a rather ever-changing line-up of half-distinguishable characters, some only on screen for a matter of minutes. The producers’ desire to embrace realism in this way (acknowledging how soldiers would spend an average of half an hour in the field before being shipped out injured) means the viewer has to work hard at points, and often look to another entry point for illumination. This is more than adequately provided by the series’ consistently chilling and overwhelming visualisation of conflict.

An atmosphere has been manufactured for this production that trades on the inevitable: the feeling that something is about to happen, usually horrific, but one tempered with the possibility also of accomplishment and achievement. At times there’s some crude contrivance. All too often a particular establishing shot is used to preface the sudden slaughter of a character, someone who’s usually been shown displaying acute naïveté, or anxiety, or hollow bravado just minutes earlier. In this way episodes almost become exercises in macabre second-guessing: which of the “Band” are (literally) for the chop this week? A prolonged piece of camerawork lingering on the victim-to-be’s innocent, confused features … a quiet interlude that might resemble the prelude to another storm … a soundtrack that plays on viewers’ expectations and preconceptions … Occasionally you wish the gruesome toll of mounting casualties could be presented if not via more varied, then perhaps less unoriginal means. The events are cathartic enough without these almost too intrusive tinges of soap opera melodrama.

But such complaints have to be considered in light of the impact sustained by Band of Brothers‘ incredible consistency in visual tone. The lavish photography and sound work creates a world rarely seen on the small screen, though such a scale would inevitably appear commonplace and diminished in the cinema. Sure, the series oozes expensive, glossy production values, but witnessed in the context of a living room rather than a noisy, crowded auditorium a wholly new kind of experience of wartime is created. Somehow the series presents both the epic – the sprawling chaos of conflict upon conflict – and the personal – the passing moments of conversation, argument and laughter between the troops – without the one diminishing the impact of the other. By affording them equal status in significance and maintaining parity of technical, visual and aural scope, the dilemmas of the few can be juxtaposed with the issues of the whole war without encouraging jarring clichés or metaphors (your hackneyed “war viewed through the eyes of the loner” etc.) Consequently we move between differing perspectives of the victors and the vanquished with rare subtlety.

Michael Kamen has provided a score that could have been culled from any number of Hollywood action movies and romantic tearjerkers. Here’s one area where the conventions of the big screen do not transfer well onto television. The title theme is a sickly confection: heavenly choirs swooning above soaring strings, the mood one of celebration rather than commemoration. I’ve never been convinced by any of Kamen’s TV work; for example, his efforts on Edge of Darkness were the one weakness in an otherwise superlative production. Band of Brothers‘ subtle approach to the unfolding of narrative and consideration of perspectives does not, sadly, extend to its pompous, often bombastic soundtrack. It’s almost like a cry went out: “It’s a Spielberg/Tom Hanks thing, get Kamen in.” Fortunately the noise of battle often drowns out whatever’s going on in the way of music, and it’s the sound of gunfire and bullets piercing clothing that stays longest in the ears.

This week’s episode covered the doomed Operation Market Garden: the over-optimistic plan in September 1944 to parachute thousands of troops behind the German lines in Holland and seize a number of river bridges. This period of the war has been subject to the designs of a big budget film crew before: in Richard Attenborough’s famous 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far (coincidentally screened on BBC2 just a couple of months ago). In that instance the complete failure of the Operation was painted in the broadest strokes possible, from the running time to the size of the cast to the scale of destruction. Consequently the finished film remains almost too much to take in on one viewing, with its parade of cameos somewhat detracting from the tragic course of events.

Set alongside its illustrious predecessor, this episode of Band of Brothers, and its associate smaller scale, seems all the more impressive. The magnitude of the military commanders’ incompetence is depicted not through the total amount of masonry reduced to rubble but rather clashes in command structures over a simple advance up the high street of a small town. We’re allowed to invest enough emotion within the fabric of the drama for the disappearance (presumed dead) of one of the company’s most respected men to not appear a base manipulation of our feelings but instead the cue for a deeper meditation on the nature of relationships between a group of active servicemen. Even though he’s later recovered – alive – it’s not a happy ending, because (as with each episode) the final scene comprises the company packing up and moving on to face the next conflict.

Band of Brothers‘ closest antecedent is the 1945 Lewis Milestone film A Walk in the Sun – itself undoubtedly the greatest movie to be made during World War II, and one of the finest evocations of conflict ever. That film followed the fortunes of an American platoon during the walk from their landing beach at Salerno in Italy to a farmhouse they were to capture six miles away. Scenes of combat and gung-ho charges were swapped for more introspective studies of how war affects the spirit and personality of soldiers both as individuals and within a group. It’s a stunning film, and there are moments within Band of Brothers that, by chance or otherwise, come close to paralleling its treatment of war as a catastrophe that operates on many levels, all of which can become equally profound and moving. The road from a film produced while World War II was still raging, to a drama re-telling the same events over half a century later, has ended up almost full circle – and all the better for it.

This superb TV series unfolds as did the war itself: episodically, through distinct stages and chapters of battle, while its ever-changing eponymous “Band” of characters, and its never-changing pallor of impending catastrophe and loss, provide the consistency and necessary dramatic backbone. The unanimously powerful performances from its ensemble of actors contrast pertinently with the greatest significance of all: that monumental canvas of events against which each weekly installment grimly proceeds. Catch Band of Brothers at some point, any point, while you can.


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