Band of Brothers

World War II might be the most overused period when it comes to war stories. From the grand scale to the morally reprehensible antagonist, there’s a lot that makes World War II an easy setting for telling a war story. It also results in a lot of lazy stories that prey on cheap emotional manipulation. To tell a truly compelling and fresh World War II story is a rare feat, but it something Band of Brothers manages by following the entire war for one group in the war: Easy Company in the 101st Airborne Infantry.

Therefore, starting off Band of Brothers with a training sequence feels like falling quickly into cliché territory. It might have been a more compelling episode if it did a better job of setting up characters, but instead it spends a lot of the episode mocking the incompetence of their commanding officer who falls into the background for the rest of the season.

Once the show drops the soldiers into the war, the series becomes a lot more compelling. One of the most compelling episodes is the show’s depiction of violence. In Day of Days, the first combat encounter is a quick flash in the darkness when a group of Germans stumble in the middle of some American troops. Much like the Omaha beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, the acts of violence seek to capture the chaotic disorientation of war.

In Carentan, Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) leads the squad on an attack against the enemy and what is accentuated most about the charge is how his first shot is against a shocked, unarmed soldier who has just finished relieving himself. Likewise, in Replacements, when a soldier finds himself surrounded by the enemy, he hides in the shed. When discovered by a lone soldier, he kills him with a bayonet. Instead of focusing on the killing, the camera focuses on the look of horror from the Dutch woman who witnesses the fight.

This presentation highlights war-making as something that is in and of itself often disorienting, horrific and appalling. It also does it without getting into the heavy-handed anti-war politicking of films like Platoon and Full-Metal Jacket. It downplays the political realm while accentuating the distasteful nature of the violence.

Following one group through the war also adds another dimension to this look at war. In Replacements, the attempt to seize the objective actually fails. Operation Market Garden is a supreme failure and looking at the heroes of a story actually lose is not something that is often portrayed in war stories. But by tracing events through the course of history, the audience sees both the victories and the failures.

Most of the best moments of the show are when it finds sympathy for the Germans. Perhaps the best scene in the whole show is in Day of Days when one of the soldiers talks with a German prisoner who happens to be from the same town in America as he is from. When the war started, he returned to his ancestor’s country to fight for Germany, but he was born in America. As the American soldier walks off, he hears a shot of the German soldier’s execution.

The decision to open each episode with documentary footage of interviews with the real-life veterans of Easy Company isn’t the best device. Sometimes it simply tells the audience what they’ll witness for the next hour. Other times, there’s an intriguing idea expressed but it might not actually emerge within the episode. It’s an uneven device and it doesn’t flow particularly well with the show. It feels like something that would have played better as a special about the show after one has watched the entire series.

In addition, some of the episodes try to use time jumps to create an interesting hook for the first scene of the episode. The problem is that this is almost always a poor choice. Playing the events out of order never adds to the intrigue or suspense of an episode. Currahee and Crossroads in particular would have worked far better if told in order.

Luckily, the back half of the show gets away from playing with the structure and tells lesser-depicted and more compelling stories from World War II’s history. Bastogne follows one of the medics as he tries to scrounge supplies to keep his soldiers alive during the cold winter during the events leading up to The Battle of Bastogne. It’s a simple tale of survival and a look at a time when the war was on the edge of a knife and most of the soldiers on the ground had no idea what was going on.

Why We Fight is the sucker-punch episode of the series. Stories of World War II often exist either in the world of war-making or the horrors of the holocaust. In this episode, these two worlds collide when soldiers are baffled and confused when they come across a concentration camp. The episode slowly eases the audience into this sense of disorientation alongside the soldiers, which makes it all the more gut-wrenching.

Band of Brothers finds and intriguing perspective on a well-tread period of history that makes for compelling and thought-proving experience. It occasionally tries to be too clever for its own good, but when the show works, it excels.  Not every episode is great, the bookends of the show are particularly poor, but there’s enough intriguing and compelling material in the middle to make it one of the best pieces of audio-visual media on World War II.

© 2015 James Blake Ewing