Monday, June 01, 2009

Band of Brothers rewind, episode 1: "Currahee"

As discussed last week, we're going to revisit, in relatively short order, all 10 episodes of HBO's landmark World War II miniseries, "Band of Brothers." I know some of you have seen it a million times, and some of you are watching it for the first time, so I'm going to do my best to be vague about what's coming (specifically about who's going to live and who's going to die), and I'd ask you to do the same, but there are some things we may not be able to avoid. (Hint: the Allies won the war.) Spoilers for the first episode coming up just as soon as I enjoy a nice spaghetti lunch...

As much as I enjoyed "Band of Brothers" back in 2001, it's a much better project to re-watch than it is to watch the first time, I think. The cast is so huge, so made up with similar looking skinny white guys with dark hair -- most of whom, at the time, were unknowns -- wearing identical uniforms, grime on their faces and helmets on their heads, that it was a real bear to keep track of who was who, particularly in an early episode like "Currahee."

Other than Captain Sobel (David Schwimmer), who's the villain of the episode and played by the most famous actor in the cast, and Lt. Winters (Damian Lewis), who's the hero, most of the characters who stand out in the early going do so either because they've been assigned an obvious character trait -- Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) is Winters' best friend, Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes) is cocky and loud, Joe Toye (Kirk Acevedo) fights dirty, George Luz (Rick Gomez) does impressions, Joe Liebgott (Ross McCall) is Jewish -- or because they're a physical outlier -- Buck Compton (Neal McDonough) has that so-blonde-it's-white hair, Bull Randleman (Michael Cudlitz) is a giant, Frank Perconte (James Madio) a shrimp. (Winters, as both the main character and a tall guy with red hair, has the best of both worlds.)

But now, having seen the miniseries a few times -- and having started this particular re-watch out of order -- it's not nearly as hard to tell who's who. When Hoobler (Peter McCabe) mentions an interest in bringing back a Luger, I remembered him as the Luger guy. (Though even that gets confusing, since the next episode features another character also obsessed with bringing one back.) A later episode will talk about the close friendship between Malarkey (Scott Grimes) and Skip Muck (Richard Speight Jr.), and here I could see them hanging out together.

And with that confusion out of the way, it becomes easier to pay attention to the details of the story that Tom Hanks and company are telling, adapted from Stephen Ambrose's book about the real-life Easy Company, following them all the way from training through the end of the war in Europe. (Easy makes an ideal stand-in for all of the many outstanding companies in the European theater, simply because they were on the line for so many significant battles, and enough key men made it from the beginning of the war to the end.)

In "Currahee," for instance, I wasn't wasting time trying to decipher the sequence where Guarnere finds himself accidentally wearing a coat belonging to Johnny Martin (Dexter Fletcher) that contains the letter about Guarnere's brother; I understood who both of them were in relationship to each other, and could just watch Guarnere's family tragedy unfold.

Even back in 2001, "Currahee" was probably the easiest to follow of all the early episodes(*), with the clear conflict between the men of Easy and their original commanding officer, Herbert Sobel.

(*) The miniseries shifted to more of a point-of-view structure in its second half, and I think those episodes were the stronger for it. But we'll deal with that when we get to "Bastogne."

I've always felt that "Band of Brothers" piles on Sobel a little too much. I understand that the story is told from the perspective of the men of Easy, and those men didn't like Sobel. And it's entirely possible that they were right to dislike him, and even to distrust him as a combat leader. But there's also no denying that Easy turned out to be one of the finest companies in the 506th, and, as even Colonel Sink (Dale Dye, who doubled as the technical advisor for the miniseries) puts it -- right before reliving Sobel of command and re-assigning him to the jump school -- a lot of the company's success has to owe to Sobel. Now, some of that may have been the men working harder just to spite Sobel, and the Charlie O. Finley approach may not have been Sobel's intention -- as played by Schwimmer, he seems bewildered and even frustrated when the men start to sing as they climb Currahee, rather than listen to more of his taunts -- but an elite unit was created at Toccoa, and Sobel played some kind of role in that. And while I think Schwimmer is great in the role, I can't help but feel like casting him is just more stacking the deck: Of course this guy's a jackass who has no business in command! He's played by Ross from "Friends"! I'm not saying Sobel was a misunderstood genius, a humanitarian who took in stray cats and was fun at parties -- just that the book(**) and miniseries seem to go out of their way to demonize a guy who seems to have made a legitimate contribution to Easy Company's success.

(**) The miniseries still goes easier on Sobel than Stephen Ambrose did. Here, for instance, is Ambrose's physical description of Sobel: "The C.O. was fairly tall, slim in build, with a full head of black hair. His eyes were slits, his nose large and hooked. His face was long and his chin receded. He had been a clothing salesman and knew nothing out of the out-of-doors. He was ungainly, uncoordinated, in no way an athlete. Every man in the company was in better physical condition. His mannerisms were 'funny,' he 'talked different.' He exuded arrogance."

All that said, the scenes of the men slowly coming together, even if just to get back at the martinet giving them orders, are wonderful, as is Damian Lewis' performance as Winters. The brilliance of Lewis in this is that he finds a way to make the ordinary aspects of Dick Winters seem extraordinary, rather than trying to play him as an overtly extraordinary man. He's not a superhero, he doesn't give rah-rah speeches or lose his temper or in other ways act larger-than-life; he's just a regular guy who turned out to be ideally suited to irregular circumstances, and Lewis embraces that aspect of the character. Just watch how quietly and simply Lewis plays the scene where Sobel tries to get Winters to accept his assigned punishment rather than face a court-martial. There's never any doubt that Winters is going to take this all the way if he has to, and yet there aren't any theatrics about it; he's just sure of the rightness of his position, and of his ability to prevail over Sobel, and he's going to see this thing through.

I especially love the way Lewis plays the scene at the end where Winters helps each of his men to their feet as they get ready to board the plane for their mission over Normandy. This idea that the men were so weighed down by their gear that they had to lie on the tarmac, one on top of the other, and be pulled up -- like a kid being helped off the grass by his father -- is one of the series' many "truth is more interesting/moving than fiction" moments, and the serene, paternal look on Lewis' face is just beautiful. Sobel's contribution to the success of Easy Company is clearly in question, while Winters' was not, and a moment like that, and the way the men look back at Winters, makes it clear as to why.

Some other thoughts on "Currahee":

• God, everybody looks so young -- not only compared to eight years later in the real world, but compared to how the survivors will look by the end of the miniseries. There's a scene in the final episode where two of the survivors study a photo of themselves back at Toccoa, and it's startling how youthful and innocent they seem in the picture. Way back in the day, I asked one of the two actors from that scene (hint: he's the one with the dark hair) about the physical transformation he underwent, and he extolled the virtues of the makeup department for a while. I think it also speaks to the uniform quality of the performances, though, that everyone could seem so convincingly boyish here, and not at all down the line.

• Lewis obviously went on to other things (notably "Life"), as did a lot of the other significant castmembers (McDonough and Donnie Wahlberg segued immediately from this to "Boomtown," created by "Band of Brothers" writer Graham Yost), but it's also fun to see people I had either forgotten were in the miniseries, or wouldn't have recognized at the time. That's Jason O'Mara, for instance, as Sobel's replacement, Lt. Meehan, and Simon Pegg pops up as the guy giving Winters the court-martial from Sobel.

• Speaking of Pegg, and Lewis, because the miniseries was filmed in England, a decent amount of the cast is made up of British actors trying, with various degrees of success, to master an American accent. Lewis is obviously the best at this, and Marc Warren (as Pvt. Blithe, who's in the background of a few scenes here and will play a larger role in episode three) is the worst, but the others are all along the continuum. Dexter Fletcher's accent, for instance, tends to come and go.

• Schwimmer has fun with the scene where Sobel revokes each man's weekend pass, one by one, but no scene like that can compare to Gunnery Sgt. Hartman's intro in "Full Metal Jacket." (Language is NSFW.)

Coming up next (at a date and time TBD): "Day of Days," in which the invasion doesn't go exactly according to plan for Easy Company.

Again, keeping in mind that we're going to try to avoid discussing who lives and who dies (and when), what did everybody else think?

71 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you about the series being overly hard on Sobel. This depiction is even more problematic in that Sobel, who died in 1987, never had the opportunity to respond to Ambrose's book (published in 1992) or the series (released in 2001. Were I Sobel's surviving relatives, I would be particularly concerned about this, especially in light of the numerous ethical lapses of Ambrose's that came to light in his final years.

Alan Sepinwall said...

One thing I found interesting on this point in the book's epilogue is one of the guys who, in the miniseries, is most adamant about leading the mutiny against Sobel (hint: at Foy, he jokes that he gets to go back to the States first) made repeated attempts to reach out to Sobel later in life and get him involved in Easy Company alum activities, going so far as to pay Sobel's dues in the event the guy ever relented and wanted to show up to a reunion.

Anonymous said...

I just watched it a couple of hours ago, and the person in the room with me lamented Schwimmer having to play jerks and losers all the time. It was my opinion that he just can't play likable or charismatic, even as himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And Pegg being his lackey was interesting, as Schwimmer directed him in Run Fat Boy Run. Still telling him what to do.

I have to agree that it's so much easier on repeat viewings. Back in 2001 I made the error of seeing the series completely out of order (the halcyon early days of file-sharing made it hard to get things at your own convenience, but it still beat waiting the 3 years for it to air in Australia). I had no idea what was going on at first, but I picked it up quick enough, and I've never given any credence to the idea that a show that takes a little effort isn't worth it. I've watched it so many times now and read the book, I can't imagine being confused.

Also, I feel for Perconte as an Italian and the myriad ways non-italians screw up something as easy as spaghetti.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

Very correct on Sobel; not very faier approach to the character. I think though the General's compliment was supposed to highlight that he did deserve credit and it wasn't just something to mollify Sobel.

Dean Winchester said...

A couple months ago I started to watch the series with my girlfriend. I've seen it several times and she never has. Having to help her keep track of which guy is which really took something away from the experience, so I get what you're talking about Alan.

I also totally agree that its great to watch the series now with 8 years of knowledge as to what all these actors will go on to do.

One small complaint that I've always had about the series though was that I feel like Ron Livingston played Nixon too much like his character from Office Space and I found it very distracting.

Dan said...

As Ostiose pointed out, the compliment from Sink and Nixon’s comparison of Sobel to his prep school head master were supposed to point out how effective he was in his training techniques. I haven’t read the book and am only going by my half-dozen or so viewings of the series, but I think where he really lost the men was his (apparent) lack of ability and composure in the field. I think the men could’ve handled him being a jerk, but they weren’t going to put up with a leader who was incompetent in the field.

paul said...

If I remember correctly, Winters goes a little easier in Ambrose's book than others, stating that Sobel's tough training made the unit elite, though I don't think he says this in the show. The fact of the matter is that there are some officers (and I suppose non-coms) who are good at training, but terrible combat leaders. Sobel would seem to fall into that category.

It was interesting that the show portrays Sobel as somewhat afraid of Winters from the start. He seems to know that Winters is a natural and will supplant him if allowed to. His humiliations of Winters usually follow instances where Winters has been recognized (his promotion to 1st Lieutenant) or has performed better than Sobel (the field exercise at Upottery).

Anonymous said...

When you talk about what the actors have gone on to do, I just have to point this out: George Luz's (Rick Gomez) brother plays Morgan (Josh Gomez) on Chuck.

TC said...

As paul says, some of the stuff that came out after the miniseries, while it wasn't easy on Sobel by any stretch, did generally acknowledge his role in preparing Easy and contributing to their closeness. I don't think anybody's come off the message that he was generally a jerk, though.

Carl said...

I think for the sake of storytelling, Sobel needed to be portrayed as a hard-as-nails jerk, compared to Winters's more nurturing, good soldier nature.

Also, the first episode would have been pretty boring if all we saw was a troop running up and down the hill and actually enjoying it!

TC said...

Also, yet another awesome thing about Alan doing these recaps...I've watched the miniseries countless times and read nearly everything that's out there, but I never picked up on the Joe Toye is a dirty fighter thing. Learn something new every day...

Alan Sepinwall said...

Note how excited he is by the prospect of packing brass knuckles in his leg bag.

The Cheese said...

Can we give some props to the soundtrack as well? Always enjoyed the way BOB was scored. I liked the juxtaposition of something so beautiful and graceful as the opening music with the nastiness of war.

Eugene Freedman said...

I really don't think Sobel was portrayed unfairly in the series, but to some extent, he was an amalgam of characters who engaged in chickens!t from up above. Winters' described it in his book and it didn't just flow from Sobel. Sobel had to serve as the cause of all of it in series for ease of story telling.

Sobels' failures in the field, however, lost the respect of his men, as a leader, and was critical to both Winters' early assent and probably more importantly, the bonding of the me against a common enemy. Seeing Winters and their non-coms as fighting against the same enemy, especially in light of Winters' court-marshall (spelled wrong, just like Sobel did) brought the Toccoa men together, which definitely helped early on.

I forget who, but in Day of Days, one of the men also distrusts Winters' leadership, so it's not just Sobel, it's anyone not enlisted. Until that trust is earned, of course.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I think for the sake of storytelling, Sobel needed to be portrayed as a hard-as-nails jerk, compared to Winters's more nurturing, good soldier nature.

Obviously, that's what they were going for. I just think they could have been more subtle or even-handed about it. (Though, as Dean Winchester pointed out, in addition to Sink's compliment, there's also Nixon's reference to Sobel as a genius, like his prep school headmaster, so the episode does give him some credit.) One of the points of first "Saving Private Ryan" and then this miniseries was to offer a more nuanced take on all those old war movie cliches, and the notion of the bumbling, chickenshit (to use Ambrose's word) training officer is one of the oldest cliches of them all.

What humanity the miniseries gives to Sobel comes largely from Schwimmer's performance, I think.

ithor6 said...

I first caught the series on the History Channel back when they first acquired the rights. I was riveted by the first 2 episodes that they showed that night, but was frustrated by the many commercial breaks and the, albeit relatively light, censoring. After that I waited some time for the series to be on sale, HBO DVD prices being too high when I was a poor college student, and started over from the beginning. I think coming at it the way I did made the series much more easy to follow. Seeing the first two episodes was like a crash course in who's who and the second viewing was really the beginning of my watching experience.

I always had the sense that Sobel was one of the contributing factors in the "eliteness" of Easy Company. Half of that may be that he was an actual competent instructor, using the classic drill instructor approach to beat into these men what they need to know, and the other half was the way he united the men against him. It really gave them a common enemy to bond over, as opposed to the elusive Germans and Japanese, both across oceans.

I do agree with Dan that it was his inability to lead in combat that really was the last straw. As seen later, the men of Easy wanted to get rid of other incompetent CO's even though they weren't jerks.

paul said...

I guess I don't buy that the description of Sobel as a jerk, for lack of a better word, as mere storytelling gloss. It comes from Ambrose's book, which is based on the statements of Easy company soldiers. As I said earlier, the series undersells the positive effect this had on the troops once they were in combat, but that does not mean the description of how he treated the men is incorrect or misleading.

Also, I wouldn't dismiss the "tough as nails training officer who is incompetent in combat" as just a war movie cliche. "Cliches" like this develop usually because they're based on fact. If you want a historical figure, there's always George McClellan.

Lizbeth said...

I am reading "Untold Stories from The Band of Brothers" and the interview subjects seem to go easier on Sobel (or at least the opinions are varied). It is clear his worst qualities may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect so that the series could have an antogonist for Winters.

There is an interesting chapter in the book from Sobel's son. It was very difficult for the family to see their father portrayed so harshly. They contacted HBO and were told "what's done is done." And they decided not to fight it, realizing "Hollywood needs a fall guy."

GMB said...

I watched for the first time recently. My impression was that Sobel may have been treated harshly but not necessarily unfairly. It's clear, I believe, that he was skilled at training in a somewhat excessive style and that his skill in that regard contributed to the elite and disciplined result. But it's just as clear that these men had a reason and a right to be angry. It's likely that their anger would have been overcome by the security they would have felt had his discipline in training translated to the same discipline and skill at leading men in the field. When it didn't, they were justified in seeking his removal because this was no longer some harmless game they were playing to see who could impose their will on the other. I guess I can see why Sobel's family would be upset, but I didn't think it was terribly excessive.

And I agree about Schwimmer's performance. He perfectly portrays a character who acts the way he does largely because he is so insecure. He wants to be a hero but doubts he really can. I sensed that the third person style of the letter he wrote to his parents was designed to convey an arrogance that is attempting to mask deep doubt. And Schwimmer, I thought, nailed it in the scene where he is reassigned.

TC said...

Alan: "Note how excited he is by the prospect of packing brass knuckles in his leg bag."

I guess I always just saw that as a 'whatever it takes' or 'all's fair in love and war' kind of approach. I'll definitely be watching for more similar details now, though.

Alan Sepinwall said...

One small complaint that I've always had about the series though was that I feel like Ron Livingston played Nixon too much like his character from Office Space and I found it very distracting.

My wife was saying last night (as we drove past some guy on the street who looked a lot like Livingston) that she feels he plays every role the same way. I don't know that I agree (the Nixon of later in this series is very different from the Nixon here), but I can see how someone might see it that way.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I guess I always just saw that as a 'whatever it takes' or 'all's fair in love and war' kind of approach. I'll definitely be watching for more similar details now, though.

Yeah, I'm not saying it's a bad thing -- just that Toye was kind of distinctive, at least in the universe of the miniseries, in just how tough/mean he could be.

Gayle said...

At first viewing, I made the assumption (based on having absolutely no knowledge of military heirarchy or training protocol) that Sobel was the hard-ass guy teaching Easy to be the best fighting unit that he could. That it was his job alone--and his only job--to train them. In that regard, he did a top-notch job and I thought he knew they all hated him and who cared, he would send them on their way and train the next group.

How wrong I was! As soon as the field excercises began (at home and then in England) and it became obvious to me that he would be leading them in the field too, did I see the full picture.

He did do a great job of training Easy, but maybe the thing that pushed them into greatness was rebelling against his leadership on missions, not just during training.

Anyway, long way of admitting that I still don't get the military chain of command.

ithor6 said...

Gayle's mention of not knowing much by the way of chain of command got me thinking. Does anyone here know of any kind of resource for the structure of command during WWII for Easy company?

I know basic things like Easy was in the 2nd Battalion (with Dog and Fox Companies), 506th Regiment (which I think was CO by Col. Sink), 101st Airborne Division (Screaming Eagles), and some of the more particulars like the various CO's of Easy, Winters was platoon leader, so was Compton (but of what platoons?).

Where I really start to lose it are the NCO's. This is especially confusing with Sergeants. There were a number of Sergeants in Easy but I don't know exactly how they fit into the command structure.

I remember those extremely helpful pdf files for Generation Kill on Mo Ryan's site explaining who was who, who commanded who, and who belonged in which platoon, and I was wondering if somebody knew something like that for BoB.

Hal Incandenza said...

Great review, Alan. I'm curious where you (and other commenters) would rank "Currahee" as far of the series goes. I'd probably slot it in around #2 or #3.

As for Nixon, count me among those that found his portrayal endearing. I like that they drop subtle cues throughout (on the train here, I believe) about his soon-to-be-very-apparent alcoholism.

Chicken Pizza? said...

"I sensed that the third person style of the letter he wrote to his parents was designed to convey an arrogance that is attempting to mask deep doubt. And Schwimmer, I thought, nailed it in the scene where he is reassigned."

Actually thought that the letter was what endeared him most. Sobel clearly wants to serve his country with honor, and talks the talk well.

His inability to walk the walk (pls pardon the cliche) ultimately undoes him, however -- his pathetic attempts to marginalize Winters stemming directly from those insecurities.

Dean Winchester said...

@ithor6 here is a real quick and dirty answer.

A fireteam is your smallest functional unit, consisting of three to four soliders. Several fireteams make a squad (around 15 guys), which is led by a sergeant. Several squads makes a platoon, lead by a lieutenant. Several platoons make a company, led by a captain. A group of companies is a battalion, led by a Lt. Colonel. Several battalions will form a regiment, led by a full bird Colonel. Regiments form brigades, led by Brigadier Generals. Regiments and brigades grouped together become a division, commanded by a Major General. Divisions form corps, commanded by a Lt. General. Last but not least, a collection of corps is an army, commanded by a General (aka, four-star).

The battalion/brigade/regiment levels get a little fuzzy, as not all countries and militaries will follow the same pattern.

Bryan Murray said...

Such a great start to an absolutely fantastic 10 episodes. I agree with most of the Sobel comments above. Ambrose is very tough on him but even the author admits he would get a variety of different stories from different men on the same subject - Sobel was the one thing pretty much everyone agreed on. And if Winters didn't like the guy, then he must have been pretty bad.

I recommend everyone read Ambrose's book before they watch the miniseries. It helps with the characters and it is just a great book.

I really liked Livingston (he was one of the only people I recognized upon first viewing) and I think he has a great arc throughout the series and provides much needed comic relief.

The Boomtown reference makes me miss that show a lot. Guarnere and Lutz showed up on Boomtown as well. Gaurnere was also on 24 this entire season although he had nothing to do.

Tom Badlan said...

The large cast and series' unwilligness to spoon feed their identities and relationships to the viewer is very Wire-esque. Which I like. Yes, I didn't get who everyone is in the beginning, but you don't really need to. By the third or fourth episode, you got completely who these guys were, and who they were to each other. I haven't watched it in years, but I still remember Winters, Nixon, Spiers, Joe Toy, Malarkey, Bull Randleson, Lipton and Webster. Just to name a few.

Alan Sepinwall said...

And to add to what Dean was saying about the hierarchy, at this stage of the series, Lt. Meehan is in charge of the company. Winters, Buck Compton and Harry Welsh are the three platoon leaders. There's a first sergeant who I don't think we ever meet on screen before he's promoted and replaced by one of the current squad leaders. Nixon was at one point a platoon leader before being promoted to battalion intelligence officer (he was replaced by Welsh).

Beyond that, it doesn't really matter who's where on the organizational chart. You can spend a lot of time in an episode keeping track of who's in Randleman's squad versus who's in Martin's, but it's not relevant to the stories being told by the miniseries.

AmericanPatriot said...

It is too bad that Sobel is so maligned as a commander. Doubtless, he did a wonderful job constructing such an elite unit out of ordinary men. Unfortunately, as I'm sure Sobel found out, leadership is a lonely affair. Between his suicide attempt in 1980 and his complete removal from all things Easy Company related, he was certainly a tortured soul.

But I do think Sobel does receive a taste of vindication. I believe in the book, as well as in some of the unaired bonus features available on the DVD, the men of Easy are asked if they were so effective on the battlefield because of Lt. Sobel's training or in spite of the man. Almost to a man, they said it was because of, or both.

Jin's English Tutor said...

Thanks for doing this Alan. I think Sobel was treated pretty harshly, but that comes from age and experience. When I served (88-93) my and other's attitudes about officers in general, and our CO in particular, were no different from these guys. Don't forget that most of these soldiers are 18, 19 years old. Teenage boys are jackasses, even if they were in the greatest generation. I was lead into combat in Panama and Kuwait by some exceptional men (one of whom is now a major general), but at the time I was conviced that those a-holes were going to get me killed.

Anna said...

First of all, Thanks Alan for writing up the series. (1) Because it's more than worth discussing and (2) because it pushed me to watch it again.

I watched it when it originally aired and have seen episodes or parts of episodes many times. But I had not seen the whole series through a second time.

In preparation for the write ups, I decided to watch the first few episodes and ended up watching all 10 on Friday and Saturday. As great as it was the first time, I must say it was even better this time - much easier to follow the individuals through the scenes, (e.g. the stories became (Pt. X gave a kid a chocolate bar, not "one of the guys") and particularly the fight scenes. The first time around (with the exception of Winters and on a few occasions a few others), I couldn't follow any of the guys in combat. It's definitely worth rewatching to see all of the characters (I don't think I'd ever really caught on to Grant and Talbot, and Moore before) and to watch their personalities in all of the scenes..

So, to see if I could pick up the guys I rewatched Currahee again last night. (And I'm glad I did)

A few comments:
- I thought it was very interesting that Sobel was so calm and rational in his discussion with Sink compared with his demeaner as a leader where in times of frustration, he can't hold it in. He was very matter of fact stating that it was a few just a few men and was professional by not calling out the names of the men. When you see the way he appears in front of the brass and the way his Company performed, you could see why he was in the position he was in. However, have the NCOs mutiny, made it clear that he had to be replaced.

- In the very first scene, there is a close up of the face of a soldier getting ready for the drop that didn't go. Does anyone know who that was?

- I must say that the casting was great, not just in the actors abilities but in how similar the appear physically, and how good the actors are at portraying these men.

- It cannot be said enough that Lewis is fantastic, understated, fantastic!!!

Can't wait for the "day of days"!!

Anonymous said...

Awesome review! What an amazing series! Regarding Sobel, I've read many interviews with the real men of BOB and interviews with Sobel's family (his children) and they all say that he was portrayed right. He really was a jerk with a complex. However, Easy Co. also gives him a lot of credit for them having to ban together and they've said in interviews if it wasn't for him, they wouldn't have turned out the way they did!

Paul Chalmers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
paul said...

There's a first sergeant who I don't think we ever meet on screen before he's promoted and replaced by one of the current squad leaders.The first sergeant under Sobel and Meehan was Evans, played by Simon Pegg. You can see him standing behind Sobel when the latter is searching through footlockers for "CONTRABAND" and staring indecisively at a barbed wire fence that's not supposed to be there. He's also on Meehan's plane; it is Evans that Meehan approaches saying "I need your help."

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ah, thanks Paul. Then there's at least one more (unseen) first sergeant, who, per the book, gets a battlefield commission to second lieutenant, before the guy who will be first sergeant for most of the series gets the job.

TC said...

So, between coming back here over and over to read the new comments and going off around the internets reading and re-reading a lot of the stuff on Easy, my work day is pretty much shot.

Anyway, and fwiw, here's what Mark Bando (WWII/Airborne historian) has to say regarding Sobel: "David Schwimmer did a superb job of portraying Captain Herb Sobel who was indeed both a hated martinet and a pathetic goofball. Forget what you know of him as a character on 'Friends'. Viewers watching this 100 years from now will get an accurate portrayal of Sobel from Schwimmer's performance."

Anonymous said...

I remember giving this a try when it first came out. I eventually gave up because I never was able to tell one actor from another (I'm not the best with visual clues -- I have trouble with that in real life as well). Maybe I'll give it another try, though, for some summer TV.

Eugene Freedman said...

I did think that while Sobel was just chickensh!t for most of the revocations of weekend passes, he was witty on one occasion. When he had the officers lined up going through the footlockers and asked Lt. Nixon what the object he was holding was. After him declaring everything contraband, he was clearly expecting that to be the answer. Nixon jousted with him, "a can of peaches sir?" Sobel retorted, "property of the United States Army stolen from my mess."

Nixon tried to be smart, but he outwitted him.

JenJen said...

"This ain't spaghetti. It's Army noodles with ketchup."

Years after Sobel eventually died from his self-inflicted gunshot wound, his son attended a reunion of Easy Company.

Malarkey and Guarnere (both remain alive, Guarnere posts really funny YouTube clips of himself, do a search and enjoy!), and they say that Sobel's son approached their table to ask why they did what they did to his father, for it had tortured him until the end of his life.

The way Malarkey told it, the men were brutally honest with Sobel's son, telling him that although he was a brilliant Army training officer whose physical conditioning kept the men alive through D-Day, he was not a combat leader and the men felt that he would get them all killed if they had to follow him into battle. What the sergeants of Easy Company did is understandable. I do hope Sobel's family has found some peace in the years following his death. To this day, the men do not hesitate to recognize his brutal physical training as the reason so many survived.

Curahee!!!

I'm loving this, Alan, and am watching right along with you!

Alan Sepinwall said...

Great review, Alan. I'm curious where you (and other commenters) would rank "Currahee" as far of the series goes. I'd probably slot it in around #2 or #3.

As I said in the review, I tend to be fonder of the second half of the miniseries than the first. "Currahee" would probably be my second favorite of the early batch (after "Day of Days"), but still well behind episodes like "Bastogne," "Why We Fight" and "The Breaking Point."

I guess we should save rankings until the end. I once ranked all the episodes on a Usenet group, and while I can no longer find evidence of that post, I imagine my feelings will change somewhat after this rewatch. (I never much liked "Replacements" way back when, for instance, but it worked much better for me now that I knew who everybody was.)

Juliette said...

I've had many debates with my mother and brother over the casting in Band of Brothers, as they've seen the whole series and I've still only seen episode 1 (and possibly 2). I prefer the casting in the classic war film The Longest Day - all star casting so I knew who everyone was and had some hope of keeping track of what they were doing.

Band of Brothers becomes easier to watch as time goes on - the guy from The Forsyte Saga (and Life) is friends with Berger from SATC, their company includes Dexter Fletcher (who I knew already) and that guy from ER and they don't like Ross Gellar - but its still a struggle, so I'm glad to see I'm not the only person who has trouble keeping track of everyone! I honestly think that huge ensemble casts of white males like this (a problem that usually only applies to 20th century war movies) need to cast known actors, just so viewers can remember who's who. The French film A Very Long Engagement managed to keep its 5 or 6 main characters separate using facial hair, build and markedly different looking actors, but even that became a problem when one character changed facial hair during the film. With a cast as big as that in Band of Brothers, there's no hope, and I think that's why I've had so much trouble 'getting into' the series.

M.A.Peel said...

First time watcher. I thought I was doing well with who's who, until I realized there is a Buck and a Bull (I've watched ahead a little on HBO On Demand.)

What's beautiful is that the storytelling is epic and human scale at the same time. Part of it is the nature of story itself, but part is the artistry of the writers and the production.

Best line: During Sobel's screw-up with the fence, Winters runs into a old townsmen who says "Is that the enemy" and Winters says, "Yes, in fact it is."

David Z said...

Thank You again for taking a look back at what I think is the best thing HBO has ever put on the air. I never tire of revisiting this series, and have wasted many bad weather days or sick days on the couch watching a Band of Brothers marathon.

I also really enjoy the scene with Winters helping the men up as they get into the planes. The thing that always strikes me is the fact that he looks each one of them in the eye, and holds that grip a moment longer than he needs to.

Other things that I have noticed that you don't really pick up on the first time watching it is the subtler instances of foreshadowing that go on:

-Showing Bull practicing with the bayonet during the close order drills.

-Lipton walking past the group of soldiers and listening as the gripe about the CO.

-Winters saluting as Sobel rides past after getting his company taken away. Showing us early on that you "salute the rank, not the man".

One last thing, would you have to give brass knuckles as a gift on "Joe Toye Day"?

Anonymous said...

I too had a hard time following the characters the first time I saw this, and did not even realize after the first episode that Damien Lewis would end up being the main star of the mini-series. He just did not stick out the first time I saw it. The only person that stood out and you remember after the first episode is David Schwimmer's Sobel charater and he got replaced at the end of the episode. Day of days also was confusing and it was not until the 6th or 7th episode that you start to get an idea who is in charge. So much easier to watch the second time.

Doc | bss.com said...

When you watch the little interviews with the men, it's amazing to me how well the casting was done. Alan mentioned that Damien Lewis plays Winters very calmly and even-keeled and that is just what he appears to be in real life. He reminds me so much of a lot of the central PA people I grew up around.

Sister T said...

"He reminds me so much of a lot of the central PA people I grew up around."

I agree. I was stunned when I watched the DVD extras and heard Lewis's British accent. Watching the DVDs, I could have sworn he had a Lancaster County, PA accent. He had the demeanor and tonal inflections that I associate with older folks in Lancaster County and other parts of PA. Maybe I was hearing what I wanted to hear, but Mr. Lewis fooled me.

Wholi said...

Enjoyed having an excuse to watch the series again - one episode at a time.

-Love the theme music!
-The details throughout are great:
*the fly in front of the camera as the Camp Toccoa scene starts
*Winters writing a letter on the train to NY
*the ice cream served before the jump
*last minute changes and extra gear added ("Does anyone have any idea how the hell this thing works?")
-I so hope the Maj. Horton imitation scene really happened!
-The hand held camera during the first jump was great.
-Still have a hard time with Swimmer as Sobel. It was great for him playing someone the opposite of Ross (or is he?) but I never fully bought into him.

On to "Day of Days" which I'll watch this Saturday, June 6.

Angela said...

I just had to add that I watched the entire series last week and was so impressed with it I keep telling anyone who might listen to watch it.
People who thought they knew me are puzzled by this, because I don't watch movies about war.
NOW I get that I missed a lot but it was so well done I didn't mind a bit. And so... I have nothing worthwhile to add.
I really wanted just wanted to say that I am so glad you and others suggested watching it a second time, but had to rave about it first.
It will be a lot of fun to watch it again with your commentary and viewer comments to go with it.

This and the (newbie version) of the Wire that you've convinced me to try again, (I liked the first couple episodes but let it go thinking it was too dark!) should keep me TV habit under control. Phew!
Off to watch the last episode of Breaking Bad now.
And I don't like dark shows. ha-ha

me said...

Can someone help me out with a plot point? I've watched this episode a few times this week, and I think I am finally starting to understand most of it. It's not that the storytelling isn't clear; it's that it's so dense.

So when they're in England and they go on the training mission where Sobel truly loses the men, Winters talks to the old man on the bicycle.

If I finally understand correctly, the man on the bicycle is the "target" as show on the chalkboard explaining how the mission would work?

I kept thinking of the scene as a display of the impact the American forces were having on the local communities. American soldier with gun meets sweet old man on bicycle.

But now I think that the old man was the target in their little "capture the flag" exercise.

Ideas? Both?

Anonymous said...

@ Me

I haven't watched this in awhile, though I know the scene you're talking about. I believe the crossroads was the target to be secured, and from multiple directions, hence why Winters splitted up his platoon to fulfill Sobel's role. Which was why the man on the bicycle kept turning every which way on to find more american soldiers.

Brian said...

Alan, great review, thank you so much for doing this. Something I noticed this time through that I didn't before was the contrast between how Winters dealt with Buck Compton vs. how Sobel dealt with Winters. We were guessing that perhaps Sobel got all over Winters because the men liked Winters more (or perhaps because Winters chose the men over Sobel e.g. running Currahee after spaghetti lunch when he didn't have to). So Sobel lashed out at Winters through various means. Then in the Jeep in England, Buck accused Winters of the same thing, writing him up for gambling with the men (which is what I didn't pick up on before, that Buck said Winters disciplined him). But Winters response and intent was much more essential than simply "the men like Buck more", it was "you can never take from these men". So it's interesting that both Sobel and Winters on the surface did the same thing: disciplined their second in command for what was perceived by the "disciplinee" as the men liking me more. Further underscores the different leadership abilities of Winters and Sobel.

Craig said...

(Mild) spoiler alert: I haven't seen it in awhile, but I believe it is Toye who questions Winters's combat leadership, snarling something about Winters being a Quaker.

I remembered at the time being impressed by Schwimmer's performance. It's impossible to think of him as anything other than Ross, but he did a great job.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Craig, it's not Toye, but the guy in question does accuse Winters of being a Quaker.

Also, thanks to everybody who's noted the distinction between Sobel as training officer (good) and Sobel as combat leader (bad). Something to chew on in the whole fair/unfair depiction question.

Brian said...

It was Guarnere who said Winters was a Quaker. Which then led to the confrontation with Leibgott about Sobel being Jewish.

Brian said...

An additional point on the Sobel/Winters training/combat topic. While we see Sobel in both arenas, we never really do see Winters as the training officer, so we are left to assume how he would be. Based on Currahee, he seems like a "I wouldn't ask my men to do anything I wouldn't do myself" type. But if you fast-forward to Points (don't think this is a spoiler, but Alan delete if you feel so) once V-E day happens, what does he order his platoon leaders to do to prepare for the Pacific? Physical training and close order drills. He saw the benefits of what Sobel was trying to do but just went about it in a different way.

Orion7 said...

To add to the idea of Toye as a dirty fighter: besides the brass knuckles, he's the one who has a knife with him that he says he will use to cut Hitler's throat.

I've read other commentaries that were critical of Schwimmer's performance, but I thought he was very good. He was excellent in the scene where the Colonel praised and thanked him for his skills in training Easy Company, and then informed him that he was reassigned and wouldn't be with them on D-Day. The important things in that scene were unsaid.

Sobel, for me, provides an example of a specific type of bad leader because he wasn't willing to admit his failings and use the abilities of his team to compensate for them. He was always at a loss in the field exercises, and he seemed to know this, but he resented the men below him who were better than he, and refused to learn from them or listen to them when he needed their superior skills. No one person is superior in every single way, and a secure leader knows this and works with it.

Bryan Murray said...

@me
I don't think the old man on the bike was the target; the target was the spot on the side of the road that Winter's platoon "captured." I think the old man (and the red phone booth) were just illustrating that Easy Company was training in England. It was also a light moment that again showed Sobel's combat failures. And Winters actually smiled!

Eldritch said...

I thought Schwimmer's performance was just fine. I say that as one of the three guys in this country who never watched "Friends," so I'm not influenced by his performance in that show.

He did a good job of an insecure officer who got befuddled in battle. He played the role of a~~hole quite well.

I'm not sure the episode quite made it clear that his training is what made Easy Company elite, but that does make sense. It is easy to lose track of that as the casualties mount up in later episodes.

me said...

Thanks to the posters who helped clarify the old man on bicycle thing.

Something else I noticed in myself is the mindset I needed to be in to watch the first installment.

It's a different kind of watching when the format is a miniseries vs a pilot. Even though they're both the first episode of a series, BoB isn't doing as much "setting up" for the episodes that follow. It's more about us catching up to where they all are in place and time.

Toeknee said...

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Alan for revisiting Band of Brothers! This is my favorite movie/TV show of all time – better than Lost, The Wire, The Sopranos, and, dare I say it, even better than Gilligan’s Island!

I just re-read BoB and FWIW, near the end of the book Ambrose mentions 3 great commanders that E Co. had – Sobel, Winters, and Speirs.

For the new viewers out there, if you really want to stick with it despite having trouble keeping the characters straight, I suggest watching all of the episodes once, then coming back and re-watching. Most characters are only focused on in one or two episodes, but they make cameo appearances in the other episodes. And until you see “Bastogne”, for example, you won’t really know who Doc Roe is.

I also agree with those who recommended reading the book, although I’d suggest you read it AFTER watching all 10 episodes, then watching all 10 episodes again after reading the book.

It is interesting to note the differences between the book and the show. Certain characters who were prominently featured in the book don’t even appear in the show.

On particular difference between the book and “Currahee!” is in regard to the mutiny. In the book, Ranney was one of the main instigators of the mutiny, which is why he ends up getting demoted. But in the show he seemed to be just along for the ride.

I really enjoyed and was impressed by Schwimmer’s performance, so much so that now if I catch an episode of Friends I think, “there’s Sobel”. He’s much more Sobel than Ross IMO. My favorite snippet of his performance - “Irregardless”.

I agree with those pointing out the great scene of Winters pulling the men off the ground. Another very touching scene, I thought, was when Meehan and Winters shake hands before boarding the planes.

Dean Winchester – thank you very much for the breakdown of the Army’s organization. Very helpful. One think I don’t fully understand – where does the company’s 1st Sergeant fit in? Later on in the series, his portrayal seems that he’s almost like an assistant company commander or something, a free agent who doesn’t seem to belong to a particular platoon. Or am I misunderstanding things?

This is a great episode, but I’d probably rank it at #7 out of the 10 episodes. That’s not to downplay the quality of this episode, it just speaks to the excellence of many other episodes.

Toeknee said...

Over the years I've participated in the discussion forums at wildbillguarnere.com, a site run by Wild Bill's family. It is a tremendous source of information and insight about BoB, E Co., and WWII in general. Several years ago, Wild Bill's son Gene posted this message about Sobel:

"I have talked to my dad about Sobel and he said no one really liked him. Not because he was a bad person but because he was so chicken doo doo. He wanted the best company in the regiment and he was going to get it one way or another. My dad also said that anything sobel made you do he did it himself. He did not punish you physically without punishing himself. He made E company strong by making the men a me against you thing, as they were all together and sobel was the enemy. Their comradory shows when they run currahee with gordon after sobel makes him run it on his own. After the war sobel did not want to be bothered with E company. My dad tried to make contact but was unsuccessful or unwelcome, I'm not really sure on this point. My dad says that because of sobels discipline and strict training E company became a force to be reckoned with. Hope this helps. Thanks Gene."

chris said...

Alan - great site. I'm late to the game but that just gives me plenty of archives to pour over.

I like your Charles O Finley comparison but I'm a huge Red Sox fan and also a big fan of both the book and HBO series Band of Brothers. For whatever reason - yesterday it occurred to me that if Dan Duquette was a character in Band of Brothers that he would have been Captain Herbert Sobel.

Captain Sobel was responsible for the training and environment which made Easy Company into the lean-mean fighting machine they showed themselves to be in battle. The Toccoa men were Toccoa men in large part because of Captain Sobel. He was also greatly despised and had trouble dealing with people. It was hard to like Herbert Sobel.

Dan Duquette created the foundation of the first Red Sox team to win a World Series Championship in 86 years. Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon and Nomar Garciaparra (though Nomar turned into Dukeman from the Crossroads episode) - they were among his Toccoa men. Duquette also had a real problem dealing with people. Nobody shed any tears when the Red Sox decided to go in a different direction from Duquette. Many in fact were absolutely giddy. As giddy as the people in Easy Company when they learned that Captain Sobel would not be the one leading them into battle.

It should come as no surprise that Captain Sobel was ultimately done in by a revolt by the non-commissioned officers. They would not follow him into battle and they let their feelings known to the commanding officer (Colonel Sink - played by the great Dale Dye - Alan you could do a whole series of posts just on Dale Dye). Don't you think that Dan Duquette's demise was similarly sparked by players putting a bug into John Henry's ear?

Both Duquette and Sobel had to watch as their replacements became successful, beloved and famous. And both Duquette and Sobel had front row seats to watch as that happened.

Keep up the great work!

tinmann0715 said...

As soon as I had learned to recognize the soldiers episode #1 became my favorite. The way the story develops the group made me feel like I was a part of it. Many previous posts stated this but I will state it again, several Easy vets said the portrayal of Sobel in this episode was a little unfair. Winters hated him and since he contributed so much to the development of the miniseries they used Winters and Sobel as protaganist & antagonist. Keep in mind, not everything in this miniseries is 100% accurate.

Ross said...

Hi all, i love BoB. In fact i've watched it no less than 5 times. However, i've always wondered about one fact and i hope someone could help me.

When the NCOs revolted against Sobel and was called upon by Sink, the first guy (not sure who he is) was asked to pack his bag cos he's being transferred out. Who is this guy and why was he the only one being transferred out? Did he ever feature again in BoB?

Toeknee said...

Ross -
Not sure if you'll check back here, but the guy who got kicked out was Harris, and Ranney was the guy who was demoted. Those two were considered the ringleaders, so they're the only ones that got punished. We didn't see Harris again in the series.

alice said...

I totally forgot which episode but Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica popped up in an episode when I rewatched last year. I was totally surprised that a) I recognized him and b) that he was even in the show.

Carolyn said...

It is far more dangerous to be a befuddled directionless leader in the field than just a mean, somewhat spiteful training officer; I do believe Easy Company did the right thing in mutinying against letting Sobel lead them into actual combat.

If he had actually been able to get through a training exercise without making an error, I would have thought they were being petty. But in fact, his inability to actually perform PLUS his resentment of those who could would only have caused more problems down the line.

I wish he would have seen it in himself. Would be interesting to see someone in that position be able to recognize their own weaknesses, but given the military structure/bureaucracy it's unlikely that it happens very often (if at all)!

I didn't totally buy into Schwimmer as Sobel however. (Certainly not as much as many of the commenters did.)

It probably would have been confusing watching at the time, but so many of these actors have been in so many other things (especially recently! "Charlie" from "Fringe" for example) that I'm not having trouble telling them apart although I don't necessary remember the name of the role they're playing. :)

So glad I am watching this. One episode in and I can't wait for more! :) Thanks for agreeing to post your thoughts this summer, Alan.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who comes across this and still has questions about the command structure, here's the 1942 US Army Rifle Company Field Manual. The first thing in it is the organization. It goes on to describe the duties of the company commander and others in company HQ.

To answer a specific question, the First Sergeant is part of Company HQ, not a specific platoon. He assists the CO and is assigned duties as the CO sees fit.

Elizabeth Carter said...

Before I give my opinion,I must say, as a 14 year old girl World WarII buff, your blog is really in deapth and gives a great opinion. Anyways, on with my opinoin, in "Currahee", I wish they would go more into how much the men of Easy hated Sobel. In the book "Band of Brothers" by Stephen Ambrose, he really goes into how the guys just dispised(and at the same time honored) Sobel becuase of how he treated them. I mean he really pushed thier bottons, and wanted to make them pop, but the strong ones kept on going and gave the men a stronger bond with each other. They really should have portraied that more in the sieries.
When I first watched "B.O.B.", I couldnt get passed the thought of Shwimmer being the guy from "Friends", Damian as the guy from "Life" and Ron from "Office Space" but now (that I've scene it at least 5 times with in two months) I cant think of them other than thier characters in "B.O.B".
I would have to put this episode at #4 becuase it really introduces the the men and you get to know them litterally from the begining and all the way to the ending and this is a good way to kick it off. If you're a first time viewer, you need to rewatch it so you get femilliar with the faces and you can connect even more.
Thats my opinion on the seiries and I couldnt help but to agree with you completely on this episode.