Monday, June 15, 2009

Band of Brothers rewind, episode 5: "Crossroads"

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?


kwig said...

Fallon looks enough like an armored division lieutenant, it's just inelegant the way they use him as an information vessel there at the end.

It's weird, because that's how you'd expect them to get info in that situation, second hand from a guy going the other way, but he doesn't sound at all like a guy from the 40's who has just come from the opening thrust of the battle of the bulge.

Otherwise I really liked this episode at first, I think it was the first one I saw actually. Really only because of the combat engagement at the dyke. Tom Hanks did a pretty good job.

And I love Webster's bemoaning his cliched reaction to getting wounded. No one around him really gets what he's saying, but he can't help being a smarty pants, even with a piece of shrapnel in his leg.

Toeknee said...

I agree that the scenes with Winters in Paris bring this episode down a bit. Kinda like the focus on Blithe in “Carentan” brings that episode down. And for that I’d probably rank “Crossroads” and “Carentan” at #9 and #10. But I still love both of those episodes. Like Alan said the battle scenes (in both episodes) are really fascinating.

When I first saw this back in ‘01, I didn’t know much about Jimmy Fallon, so his appearance had no affect on me, other than I thought, “Thank God for that guy showing up with ammo.”

That last scene is very moving. As Winters watches the men start walking into Bastogne, he looks proud, but almost helpless, like a father watches his children go out into the adult world alone for the first time. This will be their first combat action without him as their CO and I'm sure he wants to be right up at the front lines with each and every one of them and make sure nothing bad happens to them. And I think the viewer feels the same way, especially if you know what will happen to many of these men - watching them walk by is a very bittersweet experience. There's the pride of knowing what they will accomplish, but the sadness at knowing the tragedies they will endure. You almost want to tell them - "Don't Go", but you know that thought isn't even on their mind. And, the scene serves as a nice parallel to the scene in “Currahee” where Winters pulls up each man as they get ready to board the planes on June 5 (credit to appell8 from the boards for that last observation).

Chuck Nottheshow said...

Good perspective on the high highs and low lows (Paris) of the ep. The lieutenant getting shot by friendly fire always scares the snot out of me; kudos to Hanks for that piece of direction.

What sticks with me is Easy's emerging realization that Bastogne is going to suck--as paratroopers, they looked down at the attitude of the guys they were replacing on the line; brief time passes and they realize those guys are fair soldiers who have been traumatized by something very bad.

Anonymous said...

The episodes Carentan and Crossroads will always be high on my list because Winters is still in the field. When he moves to the rear, something in the series is lost. As great as the next two episodes are, I can't always help but think how great they would be with Winters in the thick of it.

Jeff said...

The one thing I was most disappointed about this episode was how Winters' first few shots of his solo charge were handled.

Winters himself talked of how when he reached the top of the dike--after realizing the grenade he chucked over was still taped--he shot the first soldier, and everything he saw began to go in slow motion. The Germans seemed to react so slowly to him that he felt comfortable emptying not only the first clip into the mass, but without taking cover, reloading and emptying a second--I think all from the hip.

The description in the book was so vivid and epic it seemed already perfect for a screen depiction. I always wondered why on earth they didn't film it as Winter's perceived it.

Dan said...

Probably my favorite line of the series, "We're paratroopers. We're supposed to be surrounded."

I always really liked this episode, probably because of, as Alan pointed out, the battle at the crossroads and the march into Bastogne are so well done. The inbetween stuff is kinda slow, but doesn't ruin the episdoe for me in anyway.

I think Fallon was fine, but because it's Jimmy Fallon it's distracting. Anybody could've played that part without brining the "hey look, it's that guy from SNL who can't keep a straight face" distraction. I've seen this episode enough times that I'm over it, but if I'm watching with somebody who hasn't they always have to say something and then invariably miss the info Fallon's character is passing along.

FlopEJoe said...

I agree about Winter's over the hill attack. I had watched BoB when it came out and then read the book a year or two later. Watching was almost confusing for me this time around.

This time I noticed Winters carefully taping the grenades in the beginning and it was jarring when there was nothing about them in the battle.

Cut the lulls and keep the action! But it was probably a needed episode to showed how many lose their trenches job to push paper. And leaders want to be with their troops but have to move on.

Fallon was OK. It may just be typecasting or my impression but he always seems to me smirking at the camera to me.

Pete said...

I think Jimmy Fallon is quite annoying in this, and gives the only true bad acting moment in the series (though I too am not crazy about the guy who plays prvt. Blythe).

And yeah, the episode might be a little slow, but part of that is from comparing it to what comes ahead. The last scene alone makes it all worthwhile though.

Lastly, a review/discussion of 'From the Earth to the Moon' would be much enjoyed. That mini-series is nearly as well done as BoB.

Sister T said...

I enjoy the drama of the scene where they bring in wounded Moe Alley and set up some emotional drama for the battle on the dike. One quibble, again the episode fails to make clear Moe Alley's fate. From the way he was writhing on that table, I thought his wounds were so grievous that he would die or be put out of action, but he shows up in the next episode with barely an explanation.

Love where Winters takes on the whole company of Germans. [And thanks for the comments on the differences from the book version]. Sometimes I watch it and I think, will the rest of Easy Company ever get there to help him out. Sometimes I watch it from the German perspective and imagine this one soldier attacking you and mowing you down and if that weren't bad enough more soldiers come over the hill and more and more.

Funny thought on reviewing: Is the "I'm Polish" bluff by a German soldier during WWII somewhat equivalent to the "I'm Canadian" bluff by a U.S. tourist in Europe when Europeans start complaining about U.S. foreign policy?

I hate when Moose gets shot. HATE IT. It was only after about the fourth time watching this episode, that I could smile at Doc Roe chewing out two officers for not being "grown-ups."

I should have spotted Damian Lewis for a Brit the first time round when I saw how pasty white he was in the bathtub scene.

I agree, on repeated viewings, Jimmy Fallon isn't that distracting or that poor of an actor. I seem to remember that Tina Fey even made fun of his Band of Brother's role on Weekend Update because Jimmy, as a joke, was claiming he won an Emmy because the miniseries had won an Emmy and had thereby done one better than Tina who (at that time) had lost out in the category she was nominated for.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I just realized I neglected to insert the usual disclaimer about trying to be vague about who lives and who dies. So please try to stick to that, okay?

Groovekiller said...

Hey Alan -

I loved this episode, if only for the fact that it was the start of a run when the show became told from the POV of a single character. The flashback structure was also great because it let you, as a viewer, forget about the whole 'who lives, who dies' stress and focus solely on 'how the hell did Winters get them through this one'?

For me, that scene with Winters over the ridge and shooting that German kid going #2 was probably one of the most haunting ones in the series (leaving out Bastogne & Breaking Point which were chockful of them). If we were watching the German equivalent of this show (in a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern kind of way), this kid could have our Liebgott, our Malarkey, our Webster, or any one of 'our' guys.

Groovekiller said...

Also, apparently in real life, Guarnere got shot by a sniper in the leg while driving a motorcycle across a field trying to get to different points of a line of fire that he was leading.

Mapeel said...

I like the Paris scenes for the sheer numbness Lewis conveys. Even for such a natural soldier as Winters, coming off the line like that must be impossible to process, to re-orient your thoughts and psyche. Riding to the end of the Metro line was an elegant way to convey the sense of disassociation.

Eldritch said...

The interlude in Paris, ... 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.

I appreciated that interlude.

One of the captions at the end one of the episodes says even those who were not wounded were casualties. The Paris interlude shows that.

He loses time on the subway haunted by the things he's seen and done. He hasn't become one of those remorseless killers that soldiers are so often portrayed as. The interlude underscores that.

When he returns to camp during the movie, you know what Buck is seeing through his wide, vacant eyes. It's not the John Wayne movie in front of him. It's the horrors that Capt. Kurtz agonizes over in "Apocalypse Now."

The interlude also shows how false and jingoistic John Wayne's movies are compared to real soldiers.

It's the effect of the war on these soldiers which makes the series so good, and a moment to see war's effect on them during peaceful moments seems like a necessary moment.

Eugene Freedman said...

This was one of my favorite episodes for the action sequence, yet one of my least favorite for the direction of that sequence. The back and forth with the typing of the report along with the opening dreamlike sequence (which was identical to the actual scene) still bothers me. Winters' book, as mentioned above, has a riveting description of this battle where he consistently refers to it as an "island" from what I recall.

Fallon was awful. His perfect teeth and gay (in the traditional sense) manner was just not right for the time nor the situation. It was so hard not to notice his perfect smile with veneers on each glowing white. Come on, weeks in the Bulge and he's got perfectly white teeth and a happy go lucky attitude. He must have been Tom Hanks' pool boy or something.

Several other things of note:

Lt. Dykes receiving an order on how to proceed from Winters (who obviously wants to carry out the orders himself) and responding by just passing it along and not taking control himself seemed to really piss Winters off. He didn't say anything, but Dykes doesn't buy into Winters' whole "follow me" mantra.

In the ride out to Bastogne the newest replacements are clearly behind the original replacementsin terms of integration. Seniority has its privileges.

Good additional information about Liebgott. Without reading the books some things get lost. He was picking off the injured SS, but it's not obviously clear why. While the severity of the Holocaust wasn't known, the Jewish Community was aware of a great deal more than the general public. Before Germany invaded Poland, Jewish Germans corresponded with their relatives in the US and Britain. The horrible anti-semitism was well known, including the loss of citizenship, the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnatch where nearly 30,000 Jews were arrested and interned. Baltic Jews left for the US and Cuba subsequent to the blitz on Poland as well.

Hyde said...

I remember watching this for the first time and thinking "Man, that guy sounds just like Jimmy Fallon" even before we could see his face. So it was mildly distracting in that respect.

And while from a dramatic BofB standpoint, it was unfortunate that Winters got promoted, it was a great thing for the real war. And the early episodes showed exactly why it had to happen. The man was brilliant.

By the way, I am enjoying the references to From the Earth to the Moon; I loved it but I so rarely run across anybody else who has seen it.

greentara said...

Just to inject a moment of shallow into the thread: I for one don't mind watching Damian Lewis in a bathtub at all. Other than that, this ep gave the viewer a chance to take a deep breath before the brutal assault at Bastogne, as it was intended to do. Foreshadowing doom is thick as paint here, and I really got a sense of the men's state of mind before jumping back into the breach. Thanks again for recapping this with us, Alan.

Alyson said...

I'm finally caught up (yay!) and I just can't get all that kerfuffled over Jimmy Fallon, partly because A. as a newbie who's been following these posts before actually seeing each ep (so far, at least), I knew he was coming; and B. he's in the episode for all of five minutes, people!

Still loving the Nixon/Winters moments, but that may be due to the almost irrational affection I have for Ron Livingston.

JT said...

Fallon is the Ted Danson of SPR in this ep. Completely takes me out of the episode.

SteveInHouston said...

One of the things I liked about the Paris scenes was showing how normal things had become in that city so soon after liberation. It's not to say things were great, but by pretty much every account, Paris was so spared the destruction of war that it was able to quickly transition to a rear-echelon vacation spot for Allied soldiers. The Blitzkrieg was so unbelievably effective that they pretty much took Paris without a shot (relatively speaking).

Just shows how fortunate they were that they didn't suffer the devastation that London did, to say nothing of the catastrophes that befell fellow capital cities of Berlin (to the Soviets) and Tokyo (to the Americans).

For that matter, what a contrast between the luxuries of Paris compared to what would soon be going down a mere 170 miles away to the northeast. That's about the distance between, say, Austin and Houston.

tinmann0715 said...

Random thoughts:

1. Initially, the French fled the city in 1940 and gave it to the Germans so that it wouldn't be destroyed. In 1944 the German general in charge of Paris abandoned it against strict orders from Hitler to raze it to the ground. The general thought better to go down in history as the man who gave the order to destroy one of the world's most beautiful cities.
2. In an article I read online Winters did not like the portrayal of him at all in this episode. To quote Winters, "It was stupid." Winters commented that he doesn't carry that remorse.
3. Alan, I challenge your comment about Kamen's score being used rarely so magnificently elsewhere in the series. The end of #1 starting when Winters boards the plane and lasting until the end of the episode.

Elsbeth said...

I agree with greentara, I don't mind Winters in the bathtub.

Also, while the Paris (and route to) segments were slow, they worked for me. It was more that you felt that Winters was all alone without the men, not so much the remorse

Hatfield said...

I love this episode, and I'm surprised that anyone would be down on it. The bit with Webster is hilarious to me (perhaps being and English major contributed to that), and that whole fight is amazing. I think the slow parts are a bit of a drag, and I agree maybe it would have been nice to spend some more time with the rest of the guys (especially given the hell they're about to go through), but it still works for me, if only to show the shock of going back somewhere peaceful after all the terrible stuff he's seen.

Carolyn said...

Honestly I loved every moment of this episode. Loved the coloring & tone of the attack at the beginning. Loved the interludes in Paris / functioned as the equivalent of say "comic relief" in a different kind of movie. Giving the audience a respite and a moment, along with Winters, to think about what's come before. Overall, I found it a really powerful episode.

Elizabeth Carter said...

This was a great episode, I dont see why people dont like this one. I mean the opening tracking shot was fantastic, and Winters aprotch was so smart and I love the way every thing was put together.
The opening tracking shot was so great because you really feel the intensity Damian produced. Also, I love tracking shots.
Winters stratagy was so smart because the S.S. men were just waking up and didnt expect an attack. When Dick took the first shot the S.S. were not really sure on what happend but when they just realized some on was attacking, up comes all these american soldiers shooting the crap out of the S.S..
The way every thing flowed and was put together showed Winters thoughts and reactions. The scene on the train where he kept going back to the thought that he shot a kid in the S.S. was a wonderful way of showing how war can haunt even the best of soldiers.
I also wnat to point out Luz's John Wayne's impression, every time I watch it, I crack up.