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Band of Brothers 20th Anniversary Retrospective

Photo Credit: HBO

When it comes to popular culture, friendship takes a backseat to romance. Fans online spend hours talking about dream couples. Even shows about a group of friends usually pair friends together. It feels odd that platonic friendship is so undervalued when it’s a very real part of all of our lives.

Concerning male friendships, certain pieces of media have set the standard. Films like Stand by Me come to mind when depicting the bond between boys. For people of a certain age, the TV film Brian’s Song best exemplifies this relationship for men. There is something unique shared by people of the same gender. There is also a bond between soldiers who have fought together. HBO’s 10-part miniseries Band of Brothers, which first aired on September 9, 2001, is about when both come together.

Band of Brothers is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose. It follows Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, which fought in the European theater of World War II. Yours truly read the book in English class in high school. It was an unusual selection, but I had the cool English teacher who had us read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and showed us The Godfather in class. Since this writer went to an all-boys school, it was easy to identify with the material. We watched a little of the show in class, but it wasn’t until later that yours truly watched it in full, after receiving it on DVD as a Christmas gift.

With Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg as executive producers, the miniseries draws heavily from the aesthetic and tone of Saving Private Ryan. Despite the former being historical fiction, Band of Brothers works as a good supplement to the film’s depiction of D-Day. With a production budget of $125 million (almost $200 million today), Band of Brothers brings the experiences of Easy Company to life. 

The only section of Band of Brothers that looks dated is the company’s drop behind enemy lines in Normandy, which resembles pre-visualization more than a finished sequence. The rest of the effects hold up, creating a combat experience that is both exhilarating and terrifying. The Battle of the Bulge is a standout for sure. In real life it’s remarkable the company held together when surrounded by the enemy, facing mortars, artillery guns, and even rockets.

One reason Band of Brothers is such a good story is many parts that feel fictional are true. Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes, 24) really did learn shortly before D-Day that his brother died in Italy, from a note he found when he accidentally took another soldier’s jacket. Similarly, Shifty Powers (Peter Youngblood Hills, The Beach) was as good a shot as in the show, able to hit a sniper in the forehead with his M1. 

There are, of course, elements that are changed or embellished, as well as some embarrassing errors. The show says Joe Liebgott (Ross McCall, White Collar) was Jewish when he was Catholic and that Pvt. Blithe (Marc Warren, The Good Wife) died in 1948 when he died in 1967, a mistake from Ambrose’s book. There’s also no proof Doc Rowe (Shane Taylor, Strike Back) met a famous nurse known as the Angel of Bastogne. Still, skimming through the book I was impressed many events portrayed in the show happened roughly how Ambrose recorded them.

While the effects are essential to the miniseries’ success, the real men depicted on the screen are its heart, chief among them Maj. Dick Winters (Damian Lewis, Billions). Winters is modest, doesn’t drink, and refrains from crass language, yet he’s a leader who all Easy Company reveres. He even becomes best friends with Capt. Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston, Office Space), despite Nixon’s heavy drinking and much wealthier family.

Preceding Winters as company CO is Capt. Herbert Sobel, whose training shapes the unit into what it is, despite his unfairness and own incompetence as a soldier. It should be noted David Schwimmer plays Sobel, one of many recognizable faces in Band of Brothers. Some viewers find it hard to buy Schwimmer as a dramatic actor, but it isn’t a problem for this writer, having seen so little of Friends. The only moment that truly takes you out of the show is a brief appearance by Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, who I can’t take seriously.

As mentioned previously, going to an all-boys school, it’s easy to relate to Band of Brothers. During this time, yours truly went on a retreat with fellow classmates, during which everyone was allowed to let his guard down. It was a beautiful experience. So, while the feelings on the retreat are only a modicum of what the men of Easy Company felt for each other, it’s easy to see parallels between our classmates and Liebgott cradling a wounded comrade. It’s no wonder Easy Company held annual reunions. They went through more together than virtually any group of people has.

While the Allies also committed atrocities, World War II had to be fought to defeat the Axis Powers. The men of Easy weren’t perfect themselves; they had their prejudices and had a penchant for taking souvenirs from the Germans. Still, it’s clear we owe them our gratitude, not just because of what they went through physically, but also because of what we know now about Post-Traumatic Stress. Sgt. Guarnere was a Philadelphia native and visited previous English classes at my school. This writer wasn’t fortunate enough to meet him, though I would have been intimidated both by respect for him and his missing leg.

Band of Brothers remains highly regarded. It won six Emmys, including Outstanding Miniseries, and is one of the top TV shows on IMDb at 9.4 stars out of 10. Both its theme music and the theme for its companion series, The Pacific, play during the National Memorial Day Concert. And while it’s disingenuous to equate every American war with World War II, it’s understandable that the themes of camaraderie, duty, and sacrifice carry over.

A third series entitled Masters of the Air is slated to appear on Apple TV+, though it’s been in development for almost a decade. In the meantime, be sure to check out Band of Brothers and the book it’s based on. There’s no better time than now.

Band of Brothers is streaming on HBO Max.

Aaron Sarnecky
Aaron Sarnecky
Aaron Sarnecky is a Senior Writer and Former TV Editor for The Pop Break. He is a TV/Film grad of Rowan University and the fraternal twin of Senior Columnist Josh Sarnecky. The two record retrospective podcasts together. Aaron probably remembers that canceled show you forgot existed.

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