Uneasy Company

Band of Brothers is Private Ryan for grown-ups.

When I heard that Steven Spielberg, together with Tom Hanks, was making a 10-part TV miniseries from Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, his nonfiction best seller about a World War II company of parachute infantry, my spirits sank. I couldn’t put out of my mind the way Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, after an honest, harrowing, 15-minute opening visualizing details of the unbearable bloody mess at Omaha Beach, degenerated into a harmless, uncritical patriotic performance apparently designed to thrill 12-year-old boys during the summer bad-film season. Its genre was pure cowboys and Indians, with the virtuous cowboys of course victorious.

Imagine my relief at finding Band of Brothers (premiering this Sunday, Sept. 9, at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO) a very different piece of merchandise, quite suitable now for grown-ups. It is not an adolescent fantasy but a believably written re-enactment, so authentic that in it one encounters such features as a clinically sadistic company commander, people who can’t say anything without the assistance of the f-word, officers who kill prisoners for the fun of it and also run away in battle, and looters (virtually everybody), together with cowards, anti-Semites, and drunks.

The 10 half-hour episodes, each produced with a different director and by a variety of writers, succeed in maintaining a common tone and notable coherence. The action depicted is that of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division. All its members were volunteers, and in its violent 14-month passage from Normandy to Berchtesgaden, it suffered casualties of 150 percent, reducing its original strength of 147 men and officers to less than half that number. What carried them away were wounds and death, trench foot, and what the Army termed “battle fatigue”—that is, lunacy induced by experience of danger and violence and fear excessively prolonged. Each of the 10 episodes begins with a few words of elegiac testimony from some of the elderly survivors of Easy Company. Even the almost 60 years that have elapsed since these appalling events have not made it easier for them to speak without choking up. Their comments help define the special world of the early 1940s, nicely suggested by Randall Jarrell’s line in his poem “Losses,” “It was not dying: everybody died.”

E Company formed and trained in Toccoa, Ga., in 1942, and it is in these early stages that the men take the measure of their company commander, Capt. Herbert Sobel, who can’t read a map or understand tactics but who loves Saturday-morning inspections, when he can tell soldiers counting on a few good hours off the post, “Pass revoked!” His ineptitude and offensiveness increase until one soldier seems to speak for all when he declares, “I will not follow that man into combat.” After the E Company non-coms threaten to resign en masse if this ghastly officer remains in command, the intelligent regimental commander (played by Dale Dye) kicks him upstairs to a staff job, and the company becomes properly commanded by the continuous hero of the series, Capt. Richard Winters (superbly acted by Damian Lewis. His presence can persuade viewers that there are no actors—in the pejorative sense—in these scenes, only soldiers). The viewer will also come to understand the rationale of the immense expense of this series, the producers’ unwillingness to ruin things by cutting necessary expenses. Credibility is costly, and the scenes of masses of C-47 aircraft and hundreds of slowly descending men in chutes with heavy equipment hanging from them are breathtaking in their verisimilitude. Part of the truth of the film lies in its brave coverage of the depressing abundance of military errors, in training and combat alike, killing hundreds of plane and glider pilots and paratroops with no effect on the enemy. The Allied anti-aircraft people, for example, seem never to have mastered their aircraft identification skills, bringing down friendly planes all too frequently.

Like the Marines, the paratroops were designed for occasional tough battles with resting time in between, but after Normandy, E Company had to behave like an ordinary rifle unit, fighting on foot and in foxholes, until it jumped again to assist Field Marshal Montgomery’s fiasco, the elaborate operation called Market-Garden. This campaign failed in part because there was, as has been said, a bridge too far and because the Dutch crowds welcoming their liberators with wine, flowers, and kisses (scenes of rare joy beautifully photographed by David Nutter) innocently blocked the one highway the Allies required for the battle.

The German counterattack in the Ardennes, the Bulge, was another emergency requiring the paratroops’ attention, and again fighting as ordinary infantry. (By this stage of the war, ground troops were growing very scarce, and all sorts of unhappy expedients had to be tried, like throwing into the line the bitter, intelligent men of the Army Specialized Training Program, who thought they’d been promised some sort of learned non-bellicose duty.)

With the Germans defeated finally at Bastogne and environs, the way is more or less open for the final advance into Germany. One of the film’s best episodes bears the title of the movies shown troops in training to stimulate them to an appropriate hate, “Why We Fight.” E Company discovers one reason when it comes upon a slave-workers’ concentration camp, where the stacks of shrunken corpses and the starving inmates indicate amply what it has all been about. From this point on, the men of E Company find themselves performing various informal, unpublicized acts of retributive justice involving the ad hoc murder by bullets of obvious SS and guilty Wehrmacht officers and men. This all happened, and it is refreshing to see such an appropriate and well-done disclosure.

The final emotion left by this distinguished, serious work of cinema is a profound sadness—at the destruction of so many American soldiers necessary to bring about the destruction of the enemy and the attendant destruction of Europe. What Hitler didn’t finish, the Allied air forces and the looters did. In wiping out the learning and culture of a century, the Germans committed cultural and political suicide, and, as Sir John Keegan has said, “The stain of guilt certainly remains to this day.”

The last thing to celebrate here is Stephen Ambrose’s achievement in his book and in this dramatization. Too young to have experienced the war directly, he has devoted his life to learning about it and, a tendency to romanticizing and sentimentality aside, he has impressively mastered its intimate arcana. Among serious military historians there is sometimes a gesture of condescension toward him, for he is “only” a popular historian. But he is the very best we have, and Americans have learned a great deal that’s valuable from him. His lifetime specialization in The War has resulted here in an eminently useful work of art, for which we should be grateful.