We're up to episode five of our look back at "Band of Brothers." Spoilers for the fifth episode, "Crossroads," coming up just as soon as I do my John Wayne impression...
"Band of Brothers," like "From the Earth to the Moon" before it, was a labor of love for Tom Hanks, and I imagine he could have had his pick of directing assignments for both series. In each case, though, he took one for the team, selecting a transitional episode that may have been necessary to the larger story, but that almost certainly wouldn't be remembered as one of the series' high points. With "FtEttM," it was the opener, "Can We Do This?," which gave all the backstory on NASA in the pre-Apollo days. Here, it's "Crossroads," which spans the period from the end of Easy's time in Holland -- and, more importantly, the end of Dick Winters' tenure as Easy's commander -- through Easy being deployed, undermanned and undersupplied, to the town of Bastogne for what will be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Now, that isn't to say these episodes lack memorable moments. "Can We Do This?" has a couple of great Mercury and Gemini recreations (I'm always fond of the Alan Shepard mission in particular), and "Crossroads" is bookended by two terrific sequences: Winters leading the charge on what would turn out to be his final combat mission with Easy, and the men of Easy trying to stock up on ammo from the shell-shocked troops retreating from the Ardennes.
But the middle section of the episode, while important, feels a little flat. Some of that may be by design -- trying to depict how bored and out-of-sorts Winters was once he got that promotion he didn't want -- but it means that "Crossroads" is lacking a vitality that's present throughout all the other episodes of the series, even the relatively low-key finale, "Points."
Still, that battle at the crossroads is pretty amazing, and illustrated just what an amazing leader -- not just a master tactician, but a guy willing to lead a charge rather than following one -- Easy lost after it. The image of Winters charging alone across the field, and then the men of Easy following in the thickening red smoke, is one of the series' most hauntingly beautiful.
After that, we deal with Winters' struggle to accept that he's now part of the Army bureaucracy, forced to do paperwork while Moose Heyliger gets to lead Easy on Operation Pegasus, then unable to do anything after Heyliger is wounded by friendly fire and replaced by "Foxhole" Norman Dike, who seems woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead.
The interlude in Paris, where Winters is more or less forced to go on a brief leave, is, I suppose, trying to depict Winters' difficulty in being even further removed from a combat context, and in trying to put away memories of killing when placed in a peaceful setting. But it goes on too long. Of all the actors/characters in the miniseries I'd have the least problem spending idle time with, it would be Damian Lewis as Winters, but watching him take a bath, ride the subway, etc., I couldn't help wishing we were instead seeing what was going on back at Mourmelon.
But after meandering for a while, we get the chilling closing scenes on the march to Bastogne, as Guarnere and the other men start to realize the kind of hell they're headed for. Michael Kamen's score has rarely been used as well as it is over that closing shot of the rolling convoy.
And if "Crossroads" is largely about set-up, at least it's setting up some amazing episodes.
Some other thoughts on "Crossroads":
• This episode gives us our first indication of the severity of Nixon's drinking problem -- and of Winters' refusal to indulge the side effects of it, even as he didn't object to the drinking itself. Winters really did dump a pitcher of Nixon's own urine on him to wake him up, though it's not clear in either real or TV case if he knew what was in the pitcher.
• The real Liebgott apparently had a reputation for being rough with prisoners -- as the only Jew in the company, I imagine he had a chip on his shoulder about the Germans, even if he didn't yet know the full extent of the Final Solution -- which is why Winters takes all but one of his bullets. (Oddly, that's how Andy Griffith always treated Barney Fife, but there he was never afraid of ol' Barney shooting the prisoners, just himself.)
• Pvt. Webster, who got wounded at the crossroads and will now disappear for several episodes, was an aspiring writer whose journal of his time in combat is one of the go-to sources for Ambrose's book. So it makes sense, and is amusing if you understand this detail, that he'd be annoyed with himself for uttering a cliche like "They got me!" after being shot.
• While Webster is gone, Buck Compton returns from the four-hole buttocks wound he got in "Replacements," but it's clear he's a changed, haunted man from his time in the hospital, and Neal McDonough does a hell of a job depicting the transformation from the cocky, outgoing Buck of the earlier episodes.
• I had completely forgotten the bit about Guarnere returning from a jeep accident. Feels like one of those situations where they had to cut the scene where he actually gets sidelined, but needed to keep in the return scene because of the other exposition in it.
• The movie the men are watching when they're ordered to Bastogne is "Seven Sinners," with John Wayne, and with Marlene Dietrich doing her usual butch cabaret thing.
• Thoughts on the Jimmy Fallon cameo? Maybe it's because I've recently warmed to his talk show, but I don't mind it that much. Yes, it's a little jarring to see a relatively recognizable, incongruous face in the middle of these men we've now started to believe as their characters, but it's a small part, and the overall troop transport scene is so well done that it's a relief to have anyone bringing these guys some ammo, even if it's the mumbly guy from "SNL."
Coming up next (probably Thursday): "Bastogne," maybe my favorite episode of the series, as we get a medic's-eye-view of the Battle of the Bulge.
What did everybody else think?