The On Demand run of "Band of Brothers ended over the weekend, so hopefully everybody either watched it or has the DVDs as we continue to revisit this great series. Spoilers for the third episode, "Carentan," coming up just as soon as I get another Purple Heart...
"Carentan" was my least favorite episode when I initially watched the series eight years ago, and although this viewing offered up some redeeming features, it remains the low point, in my mind.
I've said before, and will talk more about this when we get to "Bastogne," that the miniseries took a significant leap forward when it started doing more POV-centric storytelling. Well, "Carentan" is largely told from Albert Blithe's point of view, but in this case, it doesn't work for two reasons: 1)Because it isn't told from his point of view enough, and 2)Because he's a very poorly-drawn, and played, character.
Let's take the second point first. I've liked Marc Warren in other projects that have crossed the pond ("Hustle," his episode of "Doctor Who"), but he's terrible here. He struggles mightily with the American accent and, like a number of other Brit-as-American performances of recent vintage (see Michelle Ryan in "Bionic Woman"), he's so distracted by the issue that he fails to give much of a performance beyond that. He's whispering half the time, as if that might better hide his inflections, and he significantly overplays Blithe's moments of terror during the battle scenes. It feels like he was cast largely because of his piercing blue eyes, which always tend to look haunted, rather than anything he brought to the role.
And, unfortunately, the role itself is really undercooked. It feels like the "Band of Brothers" producers (and, specifically, writer E. Max Frye) wanted to do an episode about the way fear can paralyze men in combat, and they chose to center it on Blithe, who receives only two mentions in Stephen Ambrose's book: first when Winters cures him of the hysterical blindness, second when he suffers the wound that would eventually take his life. And because Blithe died so young(*), and was apparently not close to the Easy men who survived the war and the decades after, there's not much other color to him, and the script fails to add any. He's not a person so much as he is an archetype, and a fairly thin one at that. To bring it back to the inevitable "Saving Private Ryan" comparison, "Carentan" is an entire hour of Corporal Upham cowering outside the room where Melish is fighting for his life, only without the characterization that Upham had gotten to that point.
(*) Or not; check the comments for evidence of what appears to be the largest screw-up in the book and miniseries.
And yet, I still think it might have worked if the entire episode had done nothing but follow Blithe. Doc Roe, the main character of "Bastogne," is just as minor a character in both the book and the miniseries, but Shane Taylor is given a bit more meat to play as Roe, and simply showing the battlefield through his eyes (with one or two exceptions) makes a big difference in terms of the intensity of the experience. Here, sometimes we're with Blithe, and sometimes we're just in the middle of the chaos in and around Carentan following other soldiers. And after Blithe is wounded and sent to the hospital, the episode goes on for another 10 minutes or so, just to set up things for the next episode with the arrival of the replacements. The final scene with Malarkey picking up the laundry for all the men of Easy who fell since D-Day is an affecting, unusual way to tell that particular emotional beat, but even with Blithe's clothes in with the pile, it doesn't really feel like it's of a piece with the rest of the episode.
All that being said, watching "Carentan" now with a better understanding of who everybody is, there are a number of scenes that stood out far better than they did in '01. The two major combat scenes aren't always easy to follow in terms of who's where, but the sheer spectacle of them, and small moments within them, are amazing. I love the bit in the first battle (inside the city) where Liebgott pauses to tenderly comfort the soldier who was so badly wounded by the grenade, and the fight scene in the hedgerows has that wonderful sequence where the normally-reserved Winters has to use his force of will to urge one man after another (including Blithe) to get the hell out of his foxhole and start shooting back.
But "Carentan" remains the one episode I'm likely to skip if I ever choose to re-watch the series again (with no blogging obligation) down the line.
A few other thoughts:
• I did like the one scene Blithe (the man overpowered by his fear) shares with Speirs (the man seemingly without fear), which features one of my favorite quotes from the miniseries: "The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse."
• This episode introduces a nice running thread about Harry Welsh's attempt to hold onto his reserve chute so his wife can use it to make a wedding dress. It also offers up a rare tough side to the usually genial Welsh, who seems to suspect Blithe's cowardice more than the others, and treats him suspiciously as a result.
• Ambrose's book says that the words to "The Night of the Bayonet" were lost to history, so either Frye came up with a new poem on his own, or one of the men somehow remembered them after the book came out.
• I haven't yet mentioned Michael Kamen's score, and since it's one of the best things in an episode I otherwise don't like very much, now seems as good a time as any. What I love about the "Band of Brothers" music -- both the theme song and the score used throughout -- is how counter-intuitive it is. Instead of going with bombast because of the scope of the story and all the pyrotechnics within, Kamen instead keeps things spare, sticking mainly with strings, and the theme song itself might as well be a waltz. Chokes me up damn near every time.
Keeping in mind, once again, that we're trying to be vague about who lives and who dies for the benefit of the people watching for the first time, what did everybody else think?