By any measure of greatness, the acclaimed HBO mini-series, Band of Brothers, stands proud as one of the finest examples of its genre. The source material, inspired from the harrowing accounts of members of “Easy” Company in the 101st Airborne Division during WWII, remains some of the most gripping, personal and inspiring stories ever told on the small screen. Even now, 20 years after the award-winning series debuted, it remains just as entertaining, relevant and important as ever.
The 10-part series feels grounded in both an historical and emotional reality that refuses to betray the structure it establishes for familiar, overly dramatic grand exploits. Instead, the series is able to strike a deep, resonating chord with audiences because it holds its credibility. The series masterfully straddles the need to present a highly entertaining, compelling and thought-provoking content on screen, while being true to its source material and message; these were just normal folks who put their lives on hold to push back the tide of hate, and forged one of the strongest bonds together any person could achieve.
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The most difficult task for any film or mini-series of this genre is avoiding the trap of presenting Nazis as simply monsters — not the humans they were. By turning enemies into inaccessible monsters, we lose touch with the reality being portrayed. It was not a group of mythical or other-worldly creatures who committed such ghastly atrocities, it was people. The series does an excellent job of reminding viewers of humanities capacity for perpetrating such wretched horrors. Including the summary execution of German POW’s, reminding the audience evil can still be committed in the name of good.
One of the great signatures of Band of Brothers is the way the audience embarks on the journey with the men of “Easy” Company from their training through the eventual end of the war with both the Germans and Japanese. During their arduous march through Europe after landing on D-Day, we see the doubt and mental exhaustion the men struggle with why they are they are fighting so far away from home, allowing the viewers to share those sentiments right up until the true horrors of the holocaust come into view.
Band of Brothers continually forces the audience to experience the emotional roller coaster of the men on-screen without trapping the audience into feelings it could regret. A great example is the death of a weak and indecisive Lieutenant whose inaction lead to the deaths of some of his men. While the audience feels anger and resentment towards his failures, his death is never shown on screen. Viewers don’t find themselves cheering uncomfortably for a Nazi who kills an American officer.
Series Executive Producer, Tom Hanks, (who brought the series to life with Steven Spielberg after working on Saving Private Ryan) admits that in order to get as close to the truth as possible, it needed a little fiction. ”We’ve made history fit onto our screens,” he said. ”We had to condense down a vast number of characters, fold other people’s experiences into 10 or 15 people, have people saying and doing things others said or did. We had people take off their helmets to identify them, when they would never have done so in combat. But I still think it is three or four times more accurate than most films like this.”
Another great feature was the incredible roster of acting talent who portrayed the men and really brought them to life. While David Schwimmer was arguably the biggest American star in the series, what it lacked in A-list stars at the time, it certainly made up for in A-list stars of tomorrow. Flash on screen roles and bit-parts where handed to relative unknowns Simon Pegg, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and a baby-faced Tom Hardy. Even Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon has a brief scene on screen. All of which keeps the spotlight on the characters, not the actors.
The poignancy of the interview clips of the real members of “Easy” Company that precedes each episode is the real heart of the series. No matter what is dramatized on screen, hearing the words, seeing the expressions and witnessing their tears is more powerful than anything Hollywood can create. Iconic series like Band of Brothers serves as an important link to our collective past that demands it dare not be forgotten.
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