03 January 2011

Movie Adaptations: Band of Brothers

By Carrie Lofty

One of the major contributors to my fascination with WWII history was the 2001 HBO miniseries, "Band of Brothers." I'd already been influenced by films such as Schindler's List, Memphis Belle, and even It's a Wonderful Life, where the specter of WWII loomed so large in the life of George Bailey. But "Band of Brothers" cemented my interest, sparking a level of historical interest only rivaled by my interest in Old West gunfighters.

What resonated about "Band of Brothers" where other WWII films did not has to do with a number of factors. First, the cast was fairly anonymous. While several actors have gone on to become better known, including "Life"'s Damian Lewis and "ER"'s Scott Grimes, most of the actors began the ten-part miniseries as nameless faces. Only after the harrowing journey is complete do you come away with a sense that each man portrayed an individual in history, and that those individuals were only small parts of the larger conflict.

Compare this to other WWII movies such as The Longest Day or even, more recently, The Thin Red Line, where the selling point had to do with the size of the cast. In either of those adaptations, I found myself more intrigued by the depth of the cast than anything else.

Second, "Band of Brothers" comes relatively close to each man's real age during the conflict. For example, he heart of the 501st Easy Company, Richard Winters, was 26 when he jumped on Normandy. Damian Lewis was 29 when he portrayed Winters in "Band of Brothers" (above). Compare this to the almost ridiculous disparities in The Longest Day, in which Robert Ryan (age 52) depicted my favorite parachuting hottie, James Gavin (age 35), and John Wayne (age 52), played 27-year-old Ben Vandervoort.

Perhaps we are uncomfortable, as viewers, with seeing accurate representations of soldiers who were, on occasion, as young as sixteen. But to see them portrayed by seasoned actors in their 50s not only detracts from the youthful accomplishment and bravery of the men who served, but lulls us into thinking that the soldiers weren't nearly so baby-faced as they actually were. "Band of Brothers" is not perfect in this score, but it genuinely made the attempt to gather actors in their 20s to best represent their historic namesakes.

Finally, I very much enjoyed the worm's eye view of history that "Band of Brothers" depicts. Films from the 1960s, in particular, showed command decisions from the top down, with sage generals and even world leaders espousing their rationales. This created, for me, a sense of disconnect with the everyday solider. Where were the trenches? Relying on many of those older films would leave one with a sense that every man in the field slept indoors and was accompanied by a clerk, complete with typewriter. "Band of Brothers" followed privates, medics, and even an uncertain new lieutenant fresh from West Point. These "real" experiences served to create a mosaic of how regular men became heroes.

This isn't to say that "Band of Brothers" is flawless. For example, one private named Roy Cobb was recounted in Stephen Ambrose's book as being an alcoholic who was often disciplined for drinking and insubordination. Cobb's character in the miniseries is annoying and contrary, but he's not openly punished. To portray one man so accurately might have detracted from the overall heroism of Easy Company. But in general, if you can stand the gore and immerse yourself in the drama, "Band of Brothers" is the most moving representation of WWII yet committed to film.

Below is one of my favorite clips from the entire miniseries, in which an Winters replaces an ineffective new lieutenant when he fails to lead Easy into the tiny French town of Foy. The carnage and confusion are gruesomely real. And see if you can spot Jamie Bamber as Lt. Foley before his turn as Apollo on "Battlestar Galactica."

Carrie Lofty's latest historical romances, SCOUNDREL'S KISS and SONG OF SEDUCTION, are available now. In 2011 watch for Carrie's new Victorian series from Pocket, as well as her "Dark Age Dawning" apocalyptic romance trilogy from Berkley, co-written with Ann Aguirre as Ellen Connor. "Historical romance needs more risk-takers like Lofty." ~ Wendy the Super Librarian


Delia DeLeest said...

Interesting thought about having age appropriate actors playing the roles making them more effective in war movies. I never thought about it, but you're absolutely right. Their true 'hero-ness' will shine more brightly when you realize that, essentially, these are just a bunch of boys.

librarypat said...

I have always wondered at the unrealistic representation of war in movies. That has certainly changed in recent years. They have become much more real in depicting the heartbreak and death that is ever present. Saving Private Ryan like Band Of Brothers showed the war from the gruesome, ground troop level as well as from the command level and I think did a good job of each.