Thursday, June 25, 2009

Band of Brothers rewind, episode 8: "The Last Patrol"

Getting very close to the end of our trip back through "Band of Brothers" -- close enough, in fact, that I'm going to break my rule about who lives and who dies to discuss the fate of the episode's central character -- so know that there are bigger-than-usual spoilers for "The Last Patrol" coming up just as soon as (and I mean that) I divvy up the PX supplies...

We're close enough to the end of the series -- and Easy Company is close enough to the end of the war, with "The Last Patrol" offering up the last significant combat action we'll see -- that I'm going to violate the "who dies" rule. There are still some casualties to come, but I don't think I can properly discuss "The Last Patrol" without saying that David Kenyon Webster did, in fact, survive the war, but died decades before Ambrose's book was written.

Webster was a would-be author himself, and while he never found a publisher for his combat diaries while he was alive (though he did put out a book about sharks), Ambrose was so enamored with his writing that he helped get them published in the early '90s, under the title "Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper's Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich." And before that, Ambrose liberally quoted from Webster's unpublished manuscripts in "Band of Brothers" (several passages of which are turned into voiceover narration here), and talks quite a bit about Webster beyond that -- arguably moreso than any other Easy Company soldier who wasn't with the company for either Normandy or Bastogne.

I say all of this because it's obvious Ambrose had some affection for the Webster he met in those unpublished pages, no doubt finding a kinship with the Harvard-educated English major, and I have this feeling that he looks on Webster more fondly than the men who actually served with him. Ambrose doesn't judge Webster for his refusal to be promoted above Private First Class, or to volunteer for any kind of hazardous duty, or to bolt out of the hospital early to get back to the men -- as we've seen Popeye Wynn, Joe Toye and others do in previous episodes. (Toye lost a leg as a result.) And Ambrose's account of the Hagenau patrol doesn't in any way mention the hostility that Liebgott and others show for Webster upon his return. (Nor does it deal with the switcheroo in who got to lead the patrol, which was actually led by Ken Mercier, who's not a character in the miniseries.)

The way I see it, there are two possibilities: 1)Erik Bork and Bruce McKenna needed an easy way to illustrate how much Bastogne changed the men who were there -- and how much they resented those who weren't there -- and Webster was an easy choice, given the timing of his return from the hospital; or 2)The survivors didn't much like Webster, and when they were talking to the producers, they gave them more dirt than either Ambrose knew or wanted to get into.

Now, I suspect little to none of this matters to your appreciation of "The Last Patrol." But given that Webster will be fairly prominent in these final three episodes, and is one of the more unusual characters of both book and miniseries, I'm curious about which portrayal is the more accurate one.

Either way, "The Last Patrol" works as a sequel of sorts to "Replacements," only instead of showing how the newcomers were in awe of the tested and heroic Normandy veterans, we see how an actual veteran could become so disconnected from the company because he wasn't in Bastogne. And, through Webster's eyes, we see just how devastated the company was in those months while he was away.

Compare the welcome Webster gets when he returns (surprised, begrudging, irritated) to the enthusiastic one given to Perconte, who was not only present for the Battle of the Bulge, but has busted out of the hospital to rejoin the company only a few weeks after getting shot at Foy. Or compare the way Webster still reacts to exploding mortar rounds to the way the Bastogne veterans just shrug them off, because they heard and felt worse out in the forest. Or compare the Malarkey from even as recent an episode as "Crossroads" (where he's giddy to show off his gambling winnings to Skip Muck) to the shell of a man he is after losing so many friends in the Ardennes.

(Though this is primarily Webster's episode, Malarkey is the one who has to symbolize the sorry state of Easy after the Bulge, and Scott Grimes and the hair and makeup team do a terrific job of capturing that. He looks so much older, and emptier -- particularly in the shower scene -- and all the red color has vanished from his hair. He's seen too much, and lost too much, to resemble the enthusiastic, foolhardy kid he was in the early episodes.)

In addition to the depression of the men, what "The Last Patrol" shows is that, despite Speirs' appointment as the new company commander, not all is right with Easy's leadership. Speirs is in charge, but with Lipton sidelined by pneumonia and Harry Welsh not returning until episode's end, they're still so short on experienced officers to lead the platoons (since Colonel Sink kept promoting the best ones to batallion or regimental staff) that newbie Lt. Jones gets sent on the patrol to secure prisoners -- and even Jones has the perspective, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, to realize he's not qualified to do anything but observe.

As the real-life Easy veterans talk about in the introductory piece, they were now close enough to the end of the war that everyone was particularly self-conscious about not being in a position where they could get killed. (Or, in the case of Jones or the soldier from the PX who asked to be put on the patrol, concerned about seeing some action before the war stops.) So "The Last Patrol" focuses more on combat fatigue, and on paranoia, and on the careful preparation each man puts into so minor an action as the combat patrol.

Again, this is the last major action set piece of the series, and it's a good one, suitably chaotic and intense, with the ante upped by Pvt. Jackson's screams as he dies slowly from his own grenade.

And in the end, we find out that Dick Winters continues to look out for Easy Company even though he's no longer their direct commander, as he disobeys Col. Sink's order for a second patrol because he knows it would be as dangerous as it would be pointless. In real life, Winters' promotion to major didn't come for another couple of weeks, but it feels appropriate to see him getting those oak leaf clusters immediately after one of his braver bits of leadership in the war.

Some other thoughts:

• The miniseries isn't exactly consistent on how well Webster speaks German. He can make basic conversation and shout out commands here and in "Replacements," while his command of the language seems far less (if not non-existent) in "Why We Fight" and "Points." And Wikipedia (I know, I know) suggests he didn't speak it at all.

• As with the Jimmy Fallon cameo in "Crossroads," I find Colin Hanks' presence as Lt. Jones much less distracting this time than I did in 2001 -- though in this case, it's because I've seen Hanks do enough good dramatic work elsewhere (most recently on "Mad Men") that I can accept that, while nepotism undoubtedly got him the part, he fits it well.

• Ambrose writes that Webster and another private tried and failed repeatedly to use grenades to kill the wounded German on the opposite bank, before Cobb (who, again, gets the short end of the stick in this episode and is depicted as a cowardly bully) got sick of the wheezing and killed the German with a more accurate throw.

• Rick Gomez has some fine comic moments throughout the series as George Luz, but none may be better than the scene where he's dealing with the chocolate bars and the order to blow up a house across the river.

Coming up next (probably on Monday): "Why We Fight," in which Nixon runs low on his preferred brand of booze, while Perconte makes a horrifying discovery.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

This episode always gets shafted, being sandwiched between the 2 best episodes of the series. But it's very solid on its own merits, and I want to give some credit to the design people for making the city they were stationed in feel just as worn our and tired as the men themselves. I just really remember thinking the production design on this episode was like the best version of a Call of Duty mission.


Toeknee said...

Another great episode. However this one would be in the bottom half of my rankings. The patrol scene itself was very intense, but just the idea of having to do these seemingly needless patrols at this point in the war is depressing to me. But I’m sure a lot of people were thinking the same thing back in December 1944, and then the Battle of the Bulge happened.

From what I’ve read and heard, there was a combination of feelings about Webster – several E Co. men did regard him with disdain as shown in this episode, but not everyone felt that way. And apparently, in the years after the war, Winters and some others didn’t even remember him. So I think a lot of what was presented here was fictionalized. For example, Webster didn’t even go on the patrol.

I agree that the portrayal of Malarkey is heartbreaking. Contrast these scenes with the one where he’s joyriding in the motorcycle earlier in the series.

Regarding Cobb’s portrayal as “cowardly”….I believe the events depicted in this episode are more or less accurate – he was eventually court martialled for assaulting an officer after the events of this episode. In fact, at the end of the episode you can see him being driven off in a jeep by some MPs.

I liked Colin Hanks’ performance. I was ready for it to be either over-the-top, or not respectful of the material, but I thought he did a good job. He conveyed the character’s embarrassment at being too “by-the-books” with his “ten-hut!” when Winters entered the room. He was rightfully deferential to a Sergeant (Martin) on the patrol. And he didn’t feel it was beneath himself to console Vest after Jackson got killed. He seems to have the makings of a good leader, not unlike Winters.

Carl said...

I think of all episodes that benefit from a re-watching of BoB, this is the one that benefits most. It showcases several characters that have been mostly background players, one totally new character and one character who was not seen for several episodes. I remember when first watching The Last Patrol, I had thought that Webb was introduced out of the blue and given a backstory (a-la Nikki and Paolo from Lost) and could not believe the character was actually around at the beginning of the series -- and now he's even getting the voice-over treatment? Upon a second viewing, however, things just fit into place a lot more. The men of the second platoon are recognizable, even if some are one-note, like Cobb. The weight of Bastogne wearing on the Toccoa men -- Malarky in particular and their hostility toward Webb and Jones all make much more sense. One thing I didn't appreciate so much was Lutz turning into the company's Klinger in the face of such depressing moments for the rest of the company, especially the men who were picked to go on patrol.

Sister T said...

I liked the casting of Colin Hanks. The character is a West Pointer who graduated with well admired and very powerful General Eisenhower's son/grandson, which connected with the nepotism of casting the son of one of the well admired producers of the miniseries. Plus, the casting of a son of a great, probably eventually legendary actor, also gave me the impression of a generational gulf between veterans of Normandy/Holland/Bastogne (the "greatest generation" and soldiers who experienced war thereafter ("baby boomer"). Of course, the comparison is flawed, but that's the impression I got. Also I read way too much into casting.

Anonymous said...

Alan, when do you think the review will be up for Why We Fight? The moment you anounced this little re-watch, my first thought was I want to see what you have to say about episode 9. Very much looking forward to the review, and I suppose watching it, though its not easy to watch.


Alyson said...

Alan, is it kosher to discuss Lt. Jones' eventual fate, given that we won't see him again? I think it's pertinent relative to a motif that will come up again in "Points".

I didn't mind Webster as much in this episode as I did in "Why We Fight" - that's really where the character starts to run off the rails for me, and it's less about Eion Bailey's performance (I think he does the best he can with what he's given) than with the fact that Webster is thrust so prominently back into the action so unexpectedly, and he's right there for the remainder of the series.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alyson, go for it with Lt. Jones if you want.

Hatfield said...

Yeah, I was confused when he was the central figure here too, because so much had happened since he left that I had more or less forgotten him. However, I really, really like him. He's cerebral, and certainly very afraid for his own life, but he's not a bad soldier, and after he goes on patrol you can see even Liebgott warm to him, along with Martin telling Cobb to shut up when he takes pointless shots at Webster for being a "college boy." I probably identify with the English major in him (as much as I identify with the smartass in Luz), but I dig him.

I forgot to mention this in the review of "The Breaking Point," but that episode was the one that made me finally retreat to Wikipedia to see who lived, and I was surprised to see the timeline for Webster. I'll keep mum, but I was glad that at least this somewhat peculiar character would be around until the end.

I love Nixon's reaction to Jones. That laugh and then, "Don't get hurt" is classic.

Jones and Webster ducking and hiding their way to the place where 2nd platoon is holed up while everyone else just walks around in the open, and then Malarkey's indifference to Jones telling him about the mortars, is a nice touch too.

Alyson said...

For those who didn't know - Lt. Jones was killed in car accident just days after he transferred out of Easy Company. It further illustrates what will become a key motif in "Points" - that even though the war is winding down, and the men are doing the best they can to stay out of combat, casualties are going to happen, and they're going to happen in the most random and unfair ways.

Also, an interesting moment illustrating the contrast between Jones the West Point grad, and Dike, the Ivy Leaguer - Dike wears his class ring like it's a beacon, where Jones has the presence of mind to take the ring off before the company goes on patrol and put it on his dog tags chain to wear around his neck.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alyson, someone on the Wild Bill Guarnere board said that, while Winters said Jones died in a car crash, he wasn't sure on the date, and it seems like it was well after these events, if not after the war altogether.

Toeknee said...

Alan - did you see you're getting some well-deserved props over at WBG?

To Anonymous/DamnYankees: Alan said at the end of his post that he hopes to have the Ep. 9 review up on Monday.

Alyson said...

Alan - you're correct that my timeline is off, but apparently not by too much; according to this forum:
Jones died in a Jeep accident while still overseas in '47.

I think the point still stands though - the other shoe is going to drop for a couple of these guys still, made even more horrifying and frustrating by the fact that they're thisclose to finally going home.

tinmann0715 said...

I think this episode is very underrated. My only complaint was that Easy saw a lot more action immediately after Foy. I would have liked to see what occurred there.
My random thoughts:

- Did you guys heed my note from the last episode and pay attention the buildings? Every city scene, Carentan, Eindhoven, Bastogne, Foy, Hagenau and outside Landsberg used this set.
- Notice when Lt. Jones tries to restrain one of the soldiers after the patrol by sitting in the chair they both actually knock heads. Later on Jones's swelled up pretty good.
- This episode further proves that the Cobb character was created to carry the burden of all the negative traits of a combat soldier. Lt. Welsh was a brawler and kept getting into trouble. We never see evidence of that in the series.
- Does anybody get why they all were laughing when they ran into the basement? Were they playing a joke on Lt. Jones?
- Officers would not have been standing on the riverbank like they did. Snipers would have picked them off.

Carl said...

I definitely agree about the officers standing by the river bank in the light of day -- I guess setting the scene from inside a third story room with a window wouldn't have been as effective.

In regards to the laughing soldiers in the basement and other 'lighter' moment from this episode, I got a real Catch-22/absurdity of war vibe from it all. Did anyone else?

TW said...

According to Mark Bando's website which I've been following during the rewatch, Speirs and Winters did indeed stand outside in the open.

More here:

Anonymous said...

I would like to rank this episode much higher than I do, but I can't seem to get past my dislike of two characters prominently featured in this episode: Webster and Jones.

I don't know if it's the actors that portray them or what, but I don't have nearly the same amount of affection for them or their characters as I do for even minor characters featured in other episodes.

Loved how Winters disobeyed Sink's command in order to make sure Easy remained safe.

Thanks again, Alan for a great post.

Pch101 said...

I like all of the episodes, although this particular one took a lot of liberties with fairly important details of the actual events. For those interested in seeing an earlier edition of the script, you can find it here: It's quite different from what ended up on the screen, and somewhat closer to real-life events in terms of what happened with the patrol itself.

Re: Webster, it's fairly clear that the miniseries is a semi-fictionalized account based upon a blend of Ambrose's original book, Webster's then-unpublished manuscript, and feedback from some of the various vets, such as Malarkey and Winters. The end result is a blend of the positive from Webster and Ambrose and the negative from the others, with an apparent emphasis on the negative.

It appears that those who felt most negatively about him also happened to be behind the scenes in the making of the miniseries. Malarkey's book "Easy Company Soldier," published recently, exhibits a lot of contempt for Webster, which comes through loud and clear in the miniseries, while Winters claimed dismissively in his own autobiography that he couldn't remember who he was. Mark Bando's website precedes the publication of a lot of the subsequent books, so his fuming about inaccuracies may in part come from the fact that he didn't have all of that information. (He also seems upset that Dale Dye was hired as the consultant, instead of him.)

It's not my place to take sides, but it appears to me that Webster wanted to lead the writer's life, more so than anything else. (He was a fine writer, so that's understandable.) He wanted to experience the war largely as an observer who could document it, not to be a hero. He was admittedly a poor shot. He hated the army, and although he empathized with the enlisted men more than the officers, he didn't really relate to many of them, either. I have my doubts that he was ever one of the guys.

His opponents viewed him as a goldbrick, and presumably believed him to be a snob. They may also be somewhat dishonest in not admitting that they may have also viewed him negatively because they saw him as a replacement, and replacements often got no respect.

Unlike what the character says during his VO in this episode, Webster joined E Company after Normandy, so he would have been with the unit for only a short time before he was wounded on "The Island." (Webster volunteered to switch because he wanted to see more combat. He surely could have been an officer had he wanted to, given his education and intelligence.) It's probably not surprising that Winters would have barely known him; he would have had little reason to interact with a PFC replacement.

Anna said...

Webster didn't always avoid dangerous situations. He volunteered and went to look for Bull.

Also, I agree that this episode is much better now that I know the characters. I loved Martin (and I've really noticed and appreciated him this time around).

Loved the scene where Jones volunteers (and keeps asking) and is denied, then the clerk shows up asks once and Winters approves.

Toeknee said...

Pch101 – Thank you so much for that link to the earlier version of the script. A great read, an interesting to see the differences between that and the final version. When I first watched this episode years ago, Cobb’s angry, drunken scenes at the end didn’t make much sense to me, but reading the early script sheds a lot of light on that character. I can imagine that the producers cut a lot of that out soas not to completely vilify the man. Also, that enabled them to give Liebgott more screen time and have him interact with Webster in this episode to sort of prepare for the next two episodes.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Webster didn't always avoid dangerous situations. He volunteered and went to look for Bull.

That was fictionalized for the miniseries. In real life, Easy just returned to Nuenen en masse the next morning and found Bull there waiting for him.

And it's not that Webster was a coward. He just didn't believe in volunteering.

carrie said...

does anyone know if the final scripts are online? that would make it a lot easier to follow who is who.

Hatfield said...

So did Winters really lie to his superiors about the second patrol that never happened, or was that also a dramatic addition? I know I can't just assume this all happened as it's shown, but that was one of those moments that made me appreciate him all the more, so I hope it's real.

And what's up with Ramirez? I know he's been around, but he hasn't been featured hardly at all, and the actor keeps getting his name in the opening credits? I know I asked about this on a previous post, but it still baffles me

Alan Sepinwall said...

Winters lied about the patrol, and was helped by the fact that Colonel Sink was very drunk at the time he ordered it and therefore slept soundly through that night. The only dramatic license is that the promotion to major didn't come until after Easy had left Hagenau.

And don't spend too much time trying to make sense of the billing. I remember once chatting with Abraham Benrubi, who played Jerry the desk clerk on "ER," and asked why his name was always in the main guest credits that aired at the start of the episode, while at the time many of the actors playing the nurses weren't billed until the closing credits. He shrugged and said, "That's always something to do with the agent. I don't understand it any more than you do."

Pch101 said...

I can imagine that the producers cut a lot of that out so as not to completely vilify the man.

I have to differ with you there. Take a look at a draft of Carentan (same link as above, but change the "8" in the URL into a "3"), and you can see that changes were from that earlier version that make Cobb look bad. (There was also another edit that resulted in Spiers seeming more brutal than he ultimately appears in the series.)

I have no opinion on Cobb myself, but his script character clearly morphed into a petty malcontent during the writing process. If there is a weakness in this episode, it's that the scene involving Cobb versus Jones and Martin appears to be somewhat out of context. I suppose that they could only cram in so much, and what made it onto the screen is a bit muddy.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I suspect that this script was changed in large part as an accommodation to the veterans behind the scenes who much have objected to Webster being given so much attention. Whereas the draft was a fairly straightforward portrayal of their final patrol, the screen version became an analysis of the conflict between Webster's self-perceptions and the views of at least some of the others who worked with him.

The final also made it possible to give Martin (Dexter Fletcher) more screen time, while avoiding the character development of Mercier, who actually led the patrol. This may have made things easier for the viewers, who have previously been introduced to Martin on more than one occasion, but would have not been familiar with Mercier. For the record, Webster wasn't on the patrol, either; he was a machine gunner, and was manning one on their side of the bank.

Anonymous said...

I have seen this episode many times and had always assumed that Lt. jones must have been a made up character. Maybe it was the name, Lt. Jones that was so generic, that I just assumed he was added for dramatic effect. Interesting that he was a real person. As for the things that actually are fictionalized, I can live with most them, although the confusion about Webster's German speaking ability is annoying when you watch the rest of the min-series.

Carolyn said...

I'd say Colin Hanks was one of the few actors in this series that didn't (at least for a second) really take me out of his character to think about what else I've seen him in...but that's mostly bgecause he's really been prominent in so FEW other things.

i.e., even "Malarkey" is more familiar to me although arguably a less well-known personage as no famous parent.

I liked how this episode showed how the men are always warring between "how much everything sucks and how can they get out of it" and "OK i was told to do this, i'll go do it and do it well". Plenty of grousing behind the scenes, but they continue to put forth when needed.