When it was first shown in 2001, the World War Two drama series from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks was the most expensive ever made. Looking at it now, just as companion piece Masters of the Air is about to premiere, it’s a history lesson that is urgently needed.
Here’s a quick question to fox your friends: which TV show featured James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Simon Pegg, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham and Andrew Scott? The answer, as the text at the top of this article might have hinted, is Band of Brothers, the 10-part HBO miniseries that followed a regiment of US paratroopers across Nazi-occupied Europe during the last year of World War Two.
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The two main characters are played by Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston, and their co-stars include David Schwimmer, Donnie Wahlberg, Dexter Fletcher and Neal McDonough, but as the series was shot in England, dozens of young British and Irish actors crop up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos.
Fassbender, with a hint of an Irish accent, is there in the background throughout; Pegg is on screen for a few seconds as a messenger in episode one; Hardy has a sex scene with a German fraulein in episode nine; and various other actors are little more than extras. But which of them would have turned down a chance to work with the executive producers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, in what was, at the time, the most expensive TV series ever made?
Band of Brothers was first shown on HBO in 2001. It was adapted from Stephen E Ambrose’s non-fiction 1992 book, which was based in turn on his interviews with the veterans of the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, also known as “Easy Company”.
Ambrose’s epic account of bloody firefights in several countries would have been far too challenging for most producers, but Spielberg and Hanks had had a hit with Saving Private Ryan in 1998, so they had the status to oversee a comparable small-screen project.
The series’ behind-the-scenes documentary is a catalogue of record-breaking statistics. The budget was more than $120m. An 1,100-acre backlot stood in for 11 locations. There were 500 speaking roles and 10,000 extras. The costume department had to provide 2,000 military uniforms and 1,200 civilian outfits. The armourers had to provide 700 real weapons and 400 prop guns. And so it goes on.
Even while it was being made, it was clear that Band of Brothers was a long way from your average television series. “I think this is really going to be special TV,” said McDonough in an on-set report. “We’ll never be part of something like this ever again.”
Sure enough, Band of Brothers went on to win an Emmy and a Golden Globe for best miniseries, and it was greeted with rave reviews: a critic in the New York Post called it “the finest piece of work ever produced for television”.
Its creators made another fact-based World War Two drama, The Pacific, in 2010. And a further companion piece, Masters of the Air, is premiering on AppleTV+ on 26 January, with Austin Butler (Elvis) and Barry Keoghan (Saltburn) as US bomber pilots.
Is Band of Brothers an unqualified success, though? That’s open to debate. Compared to the vast majority of television series, it’s a gold-plated triumph, but its status has undoubtedly declined over the past two decades.
In 2021, BBC Culture’s critics’ poll of the best television shows of the 21st Century put Band of Brothers at number 36 – a decent position, but less impressive when you spot that it was tied with Downton Abbey. Two other dramas based on real events, The Crown and Chernobyl, were much higher on the list, as were a host of comedies (The Thick of It, Parks and Recreation), fantasies (Game of Thrones, Watchmen), and series that shattered genre boundaries (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad). The Pacific didn’t appear in the top 100 at all.
Broadcast at the dawn of a new era of groundbreaking prestige television, it towered above what came before it, but it was overshadowed by what came later
BBC Culture’s poll aside, it’s intriguing that Lewis and Livingston didn’t become household names in the way that Jon Hamm became known for Mad Men and Bryan Cranston became known for Breaking Bad. And in the Wikipedia entry for “Golden Age of Television (2000s-present)”, Band of Brothers isn’t even mentioned. It now seems as if the series occupied a unique cultural moment. Broadcast at the dawn of a new era of groundbreaking prestige television, it towered above what came before it, but it was overshadowed by what came later.
The key difference is that much of what came later was iconoclastic and ironic, whereas Band of Brothers is doggedly sober and respectful. Sticking to a colour palette of desaturated greys and browns, it doesn’t shy away from the chaos and cruelty of warfare, and it doesn’t stint on gruesome wounds and severed limbs. But in most ways, it is a straightforward, straight-faced account of bravery, skill and resilience.
The opening credits have sombre, slow-motion black-and-white sequences accompanied by Michael Kamen’s wistful orchestral score. Lewis’s character, often seen gazing thoughtfully into the distance, is the epitome of decency and modesty. And his well-scrubbed, handsome fellow soldiers are almost all wisecracking paragons. They’re a world away from the toxic anti-heroes of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.
The rise of the anti-hero
Meanwhile, on the big screen, the Hollywood of the 2000s and 2010s was less likely to ponder the noble sacrifices of the so-called “greatest generation” than it was to examine the messy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (as in The Hurt Locker, Green Zone and American Sniper) – conflicts that began shortly after Band of Brothers was first broadcast.
When World War Two films were released in this period, they had the conceptual and technical flashiness of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Joe Wright’s Atonement and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. In contrast, Band of Brothers has a reverential tone which, coupled with a nerdy focus on the logistics of individual battles, can make some episodes feel more like history lessons than unmissable entertainment.
It’s also notable that almost all of its US soldiers, not just those in Easy Company, are white. In episode six, a black nurse helps out in a makeshift hospital in Bastogne, Belgium, but, unlike her white co-worker, she doesn’t have any lines. For all of these reasons, the series has come to seem slightly dated and musty in the 20-odd years since it premiered to universal acclaim.
Still, it would be wrong to see Band of Brothers as a relic. These days, its unvarnished sincerity stands out as its most valuable asset. Committed to getting its facts straight with as little embellishment as possible, it could be the last great uncool television series.
Its most moving segments are the testimonies of the white-haired surviving members of Easy Company, who are still proud of and traumatised by their experiences nearly 60 years before. And its most moving scenes are those in episode nine when the soldiers discover a concentration camp near Landsberg in Germany.
For more than eight hours by this point, the series has celebrated US military heroism without ever discussing why it was needed. And then, out of the blue, the soldiers and the viewers are hit by a nightmarish vista of emaciated prisoners and corpses. It might not be the most radical or innovative way that the Holocaust has ever been put on screen, but it is one of the most powerful.
As the soldiers knew nothing about the massacre of Europe’s Jewish population, their discovery of the camp is deeply shocking to them. And to the viewer who has been with them throughout the series, without expecting the Holocaust to be a big part of it, the discovery is shocking, too.
Last December, a survey by The Economist and YouGov revealed that 20% of young Americans believed the Holocaust to be a myth, and a further 30% weren’t sure whether it happened or not. It’s clear that the information needs to be presented starkly and cogently to each new generation – and that in itself is why Band of Brothers should be valued as much as any of the more fashionable series which succeeded it. If it sometimes feels like a history lesson, it’s a history lesson that is urgently required.
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