Okay, we're up to episode four of "Band of Brothers." Spoilers for "Replacements" coming up just as soon as I remember to stop throwing left-handed...
In the initial run of "Band of Brothers," "Replacements" came in the middle of a trio of episodes I wasn't especially fond of. But where "Carentan" and, to a lesser extent, "Crossroads" suffer from problems I still see all these years later, my issue with "Replacements" turns out to have been largely about unfamiliarity with the characters. My recollection was that it might have been stronger had it been told primarily from the point of view of either a Toccoa veteran (presumably Bull Randleman) dealing with the replacements, or of a replacement (maybe Hashey?) in awe of these men who jumped into Normandy. But when I watched it this time, having a much stronger idea of who everybody was, I could just appreciate it as a strong ensemble episode that managed to tell both sides of that story while also giving a snapshot of Easy's role in the mess that was Operation Market Garden, the first time in the war that the 101st got its rear end kicked.
"Replacements" is another episode filled with spectacle, from the gorgeous daytime jump into Holland through the impromptu parade through the tank battle between the Brits and Germans. (And the battle alone has a bunch of amazing technical beats, notably Bull trying to crawl away from the fiery tank, in a scene evoking Harrison Ford's getaway in "The Fugitive," but constructed by director David Nutter more like a Spielberg set piece, in the way it seems to be taking forever for the damn thing to slide down the hill.)
But some of the best things about it are the small moments, like Guarnere baiting the replacements into mocking Bull so he can scold them for it, or Bull showing Garcia how to carry his gun on the jump, and looking very much like a father showing his son how to tie a necktie. For the biggest guy in the cast, playing a character known as Bull, Michael Cudlitz delivers a very economical performance in his biggest spotlight of the series. And even the moments that seem like they have to have been invented, like Nixon surviving the headshot because of his helmet, or Bull having the bayonet fight with the German in the barn, turn up right there in the pages of the Ambrose book. (Though Ambrose makes no mention of Bull hiding out with a Dutch farmer and his attractive but frightened daughter.)
The tension between the Toccoa men and the replacements will be an issue for the rest of the series, and I liked the way it was handled here. Some replacements are absorbed quickly into the orbit of the veterans, like Babe Heffron (who shares a Philly background with Guarnere); some will slowly assimilate themselves, like Hashey; and some won't survive long enough to fit in, like Miller. For those of you watching the series for the first time, get used to the influx of new faces, particularly once we approach the Battle of the Bulge episodes.
Some other thoughts:
• Who do you think has the most inverse ratio of "Band of Brothers" screen time to current fame: Simon Pegg (blink and you'll miss him in the first couple of episodes as Easy's original 1st Sergeant), or James McAvoy, who has a scene or two at the start of this one as Private Miller, before dying of a grenade during the firefight?
• Two notes about Buck Compton in this episode. The first is that, despite Winters' admonishment against gambling with the men back in "Currahee," Buck opens the episode hustling (with the help of the ever-hilarious George Luz) poor Heffron at darts. The second is that the bit with Malarkey and the others dragging Buck away from the attack on a door because he was too heavy to carry is undercut, just a little, by the fact that Neal McDonough doesn't look nearly like the biggest man in Easy Company, which the real Buck (who played on the UCLA baseball team with Jackie Robinson) was. McDonough is so wonderful in every other aspect of the role that I don't want to ding him much for this, but the gag works much better if the actor were built more like Michael Cudlitz, who's taller and broader than McDonough.
• "Replacements" also features the first appearance of Eion Bailey as Harvard-educated PFC David Webster (for you newbies, he's the guy who gives the chocolate to the little boy). The first time through the series, Webster's role confused me -- here, he's new and seems like he could be a replacement, while a later episode will make a big deal out of Webster having been at Camp Toccoa -- and I wished they could have found a way to include Bailey somewhere in "Currahee." But in re-reading Ambrose's book, it turned out that while Webster was at Toccoa, it was with another company, and he didn't technically transfer into Easy until after they were pulled off the line and sent back to England (the period depicted at the tail end of "Carentan" and the start of this episode). Given the number of other characters who had to be introduced, I'm not sure what could have been done differently.
• Cobb, the soldier who gives Miller a hard time for wearing the Normandy pin, gets a bit of a raw deal in the miniseries based on my reading of the book. Both here and in "The Last Patrol," he's depicted as a bit of a bully, and a cowardly one at that. While Ambrose does write about Cobb's moment of fear depicted here, it was after the firefight, not during it, and Cobb was a veteran Army man whom Webster described as "invariably good-natured."
• If you want a better sense of the scope of Market Garden, and the many ways in which it became FUBAR, try to track down a copy of the DVD of "A Bridge Too Far," Richard Attenborough's 1977 movie about the mission. It's not a great movie, but it has one of the most absurdly star-studded casts ever, particularly given where all these men were in the careers at the time: Michael Caine, Sean Connery, James Caan, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O'Neal, Elliott Gould, Anthony Hopkins, Maximillian Schell, etc.
Coming up next (probably on Monday): The Tom Hanks-directed "Crossroads," another Dick Winters spotlight.
Keeping in mind once again that, for the sake of the newbies, we're trying to be as vague as possible (which isn't always possible) about who lives and who dies, what did everybody else think?