"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother"
'Band of Brothers' was a book by the late Stephen Ambrose which, in 2000, was turned into a major television series by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The television series was a substantial critical and commercial success, combining the frank realism of Spielberg's earlier 'Saving Private Ryan' with a more substantial human story. The title comes from the fictitious speech delivered by William Shakespeare's Henry V on the eve of Agincourt. The soldiers addressed by Henry expected to die the next day, overwhelmed and outnumbered, their bodies lying perpetually beneath a corner of a field in France. But the majority did not die; they did not merely survive, they won. The war fought by Henry was not the war fought by Eisenhower and Montgomery and Bradley, a different war for different reasons, different technology, but the people who fought it were much the same. Better-equipped in 1944, the same fear. Neither incarnation of 'Band of Brothers' has any sizeable female roles, no romance; the characters are young men, in a harsh environment, grown old before their time.
The book was published in 1992 and told the tale of Company E - Easy Company - a light infantry element of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Infantry Division of the US Army. Trained between 1942 and 1943 and composed entirely of civilian volunteers, Easy was dropped behind German lines in the first few hours of June 6th, 1944 on a mission to destroy artillery directed at the landing zones. Over the next year the company fought in Holland, Belgium (defending the town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge; their most famous and harrowing battle) and finally Germany and Austria, where they ended the war as soldiers of occupation. During all that time they were in the thick of things and suffered terrible casualties, equivalent to three and a half times the company's original strength. They were disbanded immediately afterwards, and the book follows some of their lives thereafter.
In common with Ambrose's other work, the book utilises a mass of first-hand accounts from the key participants, concentrates on the battles, and is a cracking read; on the down side, Ambrose's obvious admiration for the citizen soldiers - particularly Richard Winters, Lieutenant and Captain and later Major - becomes slightly over-the-top, and his conclusion that the Nazis were defeated by the American political system simplifies the issue somewhat. In contrast the television series avoided moralising; apart from the title music, it was unsentimental, although never aloof.
The book has often been compared with James Bradley's 'Flags of Our Fathers', which does a similar thing for the six Marines who raised the flag over Iwo Jima. Bradley's book has more worth as literature, although both are outstanding.
The series was prompted by Spielberg's research into 'Saving Private Ryan'. The book had been released before Ambrose' latter-day fame and was neither especially well-known in the mainstream nor a blockbuster, but, with Ambrose advising Spielberg on 'Ryan', 'Band of Brothers' came to his attention. The series eventually used the same sets and general film-making style - desaturated colours, a grey/green palette, hand-held cameras, variable frame rates and brutal, realistic violence. The gore was toned down for television, although the show was still intensely visceral. The tone was more frank than most films; it included scenes of American soldiers machine-gunning fleeing German troops in the back - indeed, one of the main characters is shown tommy-gunning German prisoners. That this seemed unexceptional at the time was testament to Spielberg's skill in illustrating war as a place where morality is fleeting.
With HBO and the BBC supplying over $100 million, Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced the ten-part series (with Hanks directing one episode) during 2000. It was filmed entirely in Hertfordshire, England and utilised many British television actors as extras, with Damian Lewis turning in a flawless performance as Major Richard Winters). The British film industry fed well that year, and replica equipment often turns up on eBay.co.uk.
(The BBC caused a minor controversy by deciding to show their hugely expensive co-production on BBC2, the minority arts channel, supposedly because it was not suitable for a mainstream audience. The BBC controller who had overseen the show's production had been replaced before its broadcast by another controller, which led to speculation that the latter was trying to bury the former's baby. This latter controller also produced the BBC2 miniseries 'Dunkirk' in 2003, a well-received show which applied the style of 'Brothers' to the famous, bitter-sweet British defeat).
'Band of Brothers' was punctuated with interviews of some of the 38 surviving members of Easy Company - the number grows smaller each year - and was accompanied by a documentary, 'We Stand Alone Together'. It was nominated for 19 Emmy awards and won 6, including direction and production, for which it also won a Golden Globe. By all accounts it was a fantastic achievement and for eleven weeks was the television highlight of Friday nights; the DVD release compiled the series and the documentary, and came in a tin box.
The series premiered on Sunday, September 9, 2001.