Part One: “Currahee”
*Please note that this write-up contains spoilers*
The first episode of any television series simply has to be good, particularly if it is such a high profile series as Band of Brothers. If it’s not, then the viewers for subsequent episodes will drop. A bad first episode can get a series cancelled. HBO and BBC had a lot riding on Band of Brothers. They had invested $120 million in it, so if the series failed then a lot of money would have gone down the drain and, presumably, some heads would roll.
The Band of Brothers story starts with the training of the men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. This presented a potential problem for executive producers Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg. Audiences tuning in to see a dramatic war story would expect exciting battle scenes and this simply could not be delivered in the first episode. The training of the Easy Company men needed to be presented in a way that would draw audiences in and keep them hooked in anticipation of the battle scenes ahead. This was achieved very successfully, and not only that, this episode is one of the best in the series.
The episode starts with the Easy Company paratroops gathered on the airfield all prepared and ready to get in their C-47 planes to invade Europe on D-Day. The opening scene consists of the men being told that the invasion has been postponed until the next day. Then, the episode flashes back two years to 1942 and follows the men through their training right back up to the point where the episode started. This is a very effective tactic. It gives the viewers anticipation of seeing the men jump into Normandy on D-Day right at the start, and then the interest of how they got to that point can be dealt with, always with the anticipation of some good action scenes to come. It helped that HBO and BBC both screened episodes one and two back to back (Band of Brothers: Episode 2 takes place on D-Day).
The training itself was very watchable. Partly due to watching the men overcome the tough physical conditioning, but mostly it was due to David Schwimmer’s portrayal of Captain Herbert Sobel, the petty tyrant and slightly bumbling goof, the commander of Easy Company. Schwimmer’s performance is outstanding and very accurately captures Sobel’s character. His treatment of the men and his harsh put-downs are entertaining to watch.
The disdain felt by the men towards Sobel provides a constant theme throughout the episode. The men play tricks on Sobel and even resort to mutiny to try and get rid of him. The episode shows how good Sobel was at producing a company of fighting men, but how poor he was as a combat commander. The animosity between Sobel and Lieutenant Richard D. Winters is portrayed well, and this conflict helps to establish Winters’ charismatic character for the rest of the series. The total respect Winters had from the men was established with the mutiny of the non-commissioned officers in response to Sobel’s ridiculously harsh and petty treatment of Winters, resulting in his transfer to battalion Mess Officer. The friendship between Winters and Lieutenant Lewis Nixon that would be a constant theme throughout the series was established too.
The episode closes with the preparations for D-Day. The scenes at the airfield were well executed given their sheer scale – there were hundreds of extras, all of which had to have authentic clothing and equipment. There were even four authentic, fully operational C-47 planes brought in for filming.
The true events and characters’ actions were altered in some respects for dramatic effect throughout the series. There were also some plain errors. None of these detract from the episode or series, but it is important to point out where reality differs from fiction.
- During training, no-one was seen to collapse of sheer exhaustion while running up Mount Currahee outside Camp Toccoa, Georgia. Around half those who began paratroop training failed to complete it and were booted out of the paratroops. Easy Company was no different than the other companies. Perhaps the producers didn’t want the audience to have any idea of Easy failing in some respect. There was one character – a Private White – who refused to run Currahee, but it was not made clear that this would have resulted in his expulsion from the regiment.
- The 2nd Battalion’s (of which Easy Company was part) 120km march from Toccoa to Atlanta, Georgia, was a record-breaker. It took only 75 hours, of which only 33.5 were spent actually marching. This was one of the company’s, and the battalion’s, finest achievements, yet it was not even alluded to in the episode, let alone shown.
- During a scene where the men were negotiating an obstacle course, there was a section where they had to crawl under some barbed wire through a load of pig guts. In actuality, machineguns were firing barely inches above their heads and they had to keep very low to avoid the hail of bullets. For some reason, this was omitted from the show. It would have made a dramatic and striking scene
- The song the men were singing while running up Currahee was slightly, but significantly, inaccurate, although it was based on a standard tune and structure used throughout the 101st Airborne Division. Every regiment had a slightly different version of it. The 501st Parachute Infantry’s version was:
“We're Colonel Johnson's Troopers,
We're fighters of the night,
We're dirty sonsabitches,
We'd rather fuck than fight!
Hi-Dee, Hi-Dee, Christ Almighty,
Who in the Hell are we?
Rim-Ram, Gawd Damn, Parachute Infantry”
The version sung by the Easy Company soldiers in the show ended with “we’re Airborne Infantry” rather than “Parachute Infantry”. It is almost certain that the authentic Easy Company version ended with “Parachute Infantry”. Airborne infantry was a rather more general term that applied to both paratroopers and gliderborne troops. Paratroopers had a disdain and somewhat of a hatred for gliderborne troops. This is why they referred to themselves as parachute infantry rather than using the more encompassing phrase. Paratroops were distinctly proud of their elite status and would have not have placed themselves under the same umbrella as gliderborne troops.
- Dale Dye, who was the senior military advisor on this series (and on Saving Private Ryan and many other productions), played 506th Regimental Commander Colonel Robert F. Sink. In reality, Dye is about 20 years older than Sink. During this episode, he was passable as the correct sort of age, but in later episodes he clearly looked too old.
- The mutiny of the non-commissioned officers was portrayed with inaccuracy. In the episode, the sergeants went through with the act of turning in their stripes and refusing to fight under Captain Sobel. After they were reprimanded by Colonel Sink, they are shown parading past Lieutenant Winters (whom they had mutinied for) and saluting him with great respect. In actuality, Winters talked the NCOs out of mutiny. The sergeants were still reprimanded by Sink, but for their near mutiny, rather than actual mutiny.
- Lieutenant Winters was promoted to First Lieutenant in this episode, but the reason was not made clear. Colonel Sink decided to promote Winters after looking out his window and seeing him leading the men in callisthenics. Sink seeing Winters doing this was shown, but it was not made clear that this was the reason for his promotion. In fact, the two events were fairly far apart in the episode.
- The C-47 planes used for the jump training of the paratroops at Fort Benning in December 1942 had a red dot in the middle of their white star motif. However, these red dots, which were on all American Air Force planes, were ordered to be removed on 18th August, 1942. I don’t know why that is, but they were.
*Thank you to Albert Herring who had informed me that the USAAF removed the red dots as they were too easily confused with the rising sun red dot which were on Japanese aircraft.*
- At Camp Toccoa in 1942, some men were seen with the folding stock version of the M1 Carbine. This didn’t actually begin production until the Autumn of that year, so the Easy Company men wouldn’t not have had it before they left Toccoa in December.
- The character of David Kenyon Webster was seen with Easy Company at jump training at Fort Benning, more training in England, Lieutenant Thomas Meehan’s (Sobel’s replacement as Easy’s commander) briefing about D-Day, and at the airfield getting ready to board the planes. However Webster was not a member of Easy until just prior to Operation Market Garden when they jumped into Holland. Webster trained with F Company (Fox Company), but was transferred to 2nd Battalion Headquarters for his “bitching” before joining Easy after the Normandy campaign in a desire to see more action.
- In Lieutenant Meehan’s D-Day briefing he gave the town of Carentan as one of the objectives. Although Easy are ordered to capture Carentan in episode 3, this was not an original D-Day objective.
- The face-paint the men applied was a bit too sparse to be truly authentic. Main characters didn’t have much applied at all, certainly not enough to mask the white of their faces adequately enough for camouflage. Of course, if main characters had their faces completely covered in burnt cork then the viewer would find it hard to recognise them. What was also absent were the more tribal kind of face painting that some troopers adopted. We see a trooper (possibly Joe Toye, I can’t remember offhand) shaving a mohican hairstyle on another trooper. There were many who adopted this hairstyle and also painted tribal-style markings on their faces. This practice was eventually banned due to it inspiring German propaganda that American paratroopers were all convicted killers.
- The writers feed Damien Lewis, who played Lieutenant Winters, a bad line when he was riding with Lieutenant Buck Compton in a jeep at the airfield before D-Day. Firstly, Winters is explaining to Compton about how tough his men’s training was. Compton had undergone the same kind of training, so Winters would not, and did not, say any such thing. Winters goes on to say that his men volunteered for the paratroopers so that when things got tough the man in next foxhole wouldn’t be “some draftee” who might get them killed. This is unfair, and just wrong. There were at least 45 draftees in Easy Company on D-Day. You didn’t have to enlist in the army to volunteer for the paratroops. As the war progressed and replacements came into the regiment, the percentage of draftees increased until they outnumbered Regular Army men.
- The sheets of paper that were handed out at the airfield before D-Day with the message from Colonel Sink were about twice the size of the actual messages. Sink’s message was printed on the same size paper as Eisenhower’s famous invasion message. For some reason, the producers decided to use bigger sheets of paper, even though correct copies were available.
- The officers throughout the episode wore the enlisted men’s caps, rather than the officers’ cap style. The enlisted men’s caps had blue piping, whereas the officers had gold and black. In addition, all the caps shown in the show were of the same style whereas there were a variety of slightly different styles were worn. The caps worn in the episode all had very high peaks on them whereas in reality only a few were made like this.
- There was also no variety in the divisional eagle patches worn on the right soldiers of the men. In reality, there was something like half a dozen slightly different types, all with the same basic design. It is possible that the producers didn’t want this variety as it may have looked strange to viewers to have people with slightly different patches.
- The 506th Parachute Infantry Regimental “Para Dice” pocket patches were poor fakes.
- In this first episode, all the men wore white name tapes on their chests while in England. The men actually stencilled their names straight on their jackets in black. While officers did wear such white tapes, it appears this was only in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 337th Parachute Field Artillery. I think it is likely the producers chose to use the white tapes so that the character’s names were made clearer to the viewers.
- The little toy cricket noisemakers for signalling at night that were shown made the wrong noise. In the show they made a rather feeble “tick-tick” sound whereas the actual crickets made a much harsher “clack-clack” sound. They also looked different to those actually used.
- When the planes took off on June 5th, 1944, they did so at about 10pm. Although England was on double light saving time, it would have still been a little darker than the light conditions the planes in the show took off in. However, the producers would have wanted to show off the C-47 planes they had got their hands on.
- When the planes took off on D-Day most of the carried equipment parapacks on their undersides. They carried lots of heavier equipment and ammunition and so forth and would be released in the middle of the stick of paratroops as they jumped. This was done in the hope that the stick of troops would land around their equipment. However, no planes in the episode had parapacks.
- The episode shows Lieutenant Nixon discussing a map with Lieutenant Colonel Strayer while in their plane going to Normandy. They are sat next to each other. However, the two men actually were on different aircraft.
- There was a problem with the British soldier dressed as a German at the airfield who talks to Private Donald Malarkey (who is very keen to get his hands on the Brit’s Luger pistol). The British soldier spoke in an outrageously think cockney accent, which was bad enough, but his use of cockney rhyming slang was far too over the top. “You're havin’ a larff if you phink you’re harf ‘inchin’ that, mate!” and so forth. No-one really talks like that, surely!
David Schwimmer’s performance as Captain Sobel is outstanding and the best thing in this episode, and one of the best things in the whole series. Schwimmer makes this episode.
The training was represented well.
The preparations at the airfield before D-Day were grand in scale and well executed. The planes taking off and getting into formation made spectacular scenes.
“Congratulations. Get ya’ nose outta my face!” -- Sergeant William “Wild Bill” Guarnere
Capt. Sobel: What’s your name trooper?
Pvt. Malarkey: Malarkey, sir.
Capt. Sobel: Malarkey. Isn’t that slang for “bullshit”?
Pvt. Malarkey: Yes, sir.
Capt. Sobel: Well then Private Bullshit...
"Hey guys, I'm glad we're going to Europe. [takes out his knife] Hitler gets one of these right across the windpipe. Roosevelt changes Thanksgiving to Joe Toye Day. Pay's me ten grand a year for the rest of my fucking life." -- Sergeant Joe Toye
Lt. Nixon: Sobel's a genius. I had a headmaster in prep school who was just like him. I know the type.
Lt. Winters: Lew, Michaelangelo's a genius. Beethoven's a genius.
Lt. Nixon: You know a man in this company who wouldn't double-time Currahee with a full pack just to piss in that man's morning coffee?
Pvt. Muck: Right now, some lucky bastard's headed for the Pacific, get put on some tropical island, surrounded by six naked native girls, helping him cut up coconuts so he can hand feed them to the flamingos.
Pvt. Domingus: Flamingos are mean. They bite.
Pvt. Sisk: So do the naked native girls.
Pvt. Perconte: With any luck.
"Are those dusty jump wings? How do you expect to slay the Huns with dust on your jump wings?" -- Private George Luz, imitating Captain Sobel
"Now just think, if you had any class or style like me, somebody might've mistaken you for somebody." -- Private Frank Perconte
Pvt. Luz:[imitating Maj. Horton] Is there a problem, Captain Sobel?
Capt. Sobel: Who said that? Who broke silence?
Pvt. Tipper: I think it's Major Horton, sir.
Capt. Sobel: Major Horton? Wh, what is he... Did he join us?
Pvt. Tipper: I think, maybe, he's moving between platoons, sir?
Pvt. Luz: What is the god-damn holdup, Mr. Sobel?
Capt. Sobel: A fence. Sir, uh, god... barbwire fence.
Pvt. Luz: Oh, that dog just ain't gonna hunt. You cut that fence and get this goddamn platoon on the move.
Episode Rating: 9/10
"Band of Brothers" - HBO/BBC
Stephen E. Ambrose, “Band of Brothers”
David Kenyon Webster, “Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich”