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?