Ever watched a movie and felt gobsmacked afterwards? So bad that once you managed to slowly pull your jaw off the ground, you leaped into the air…and ran to tell your friends the art they were missing. Well, recently that same scenario happened when a friend of mine told me about Band of Brothers.
The friend who gave me the recommendation is nothing short of an Alpha Male. He dreams about the military, owns a few weapons, and has a few battle scars to back it all up. Hence, my reluctance. Apart from that I sat down on a weekend with him, and the two of (along with his fiancé) and among the gallons of coffee we quaffed away, we watched a couple of episodes back to back.
So before I create any doubt in your mind whether it’s worth watching, I’ve included a review from The Guardian aswell as a few screen shots I found lying around the internet. (Oh, and if you’re tired of doing anymore reading, scroll to the bottom to watch the youtube trailer.)
We’re in this together
Article by: Rupert Smith
It’s just six months since the principal photography finished on Steven Spielberg’s 10-part second world war TV epic Band Of Brothers, and already controversy is brewing. Whipped into a lather by the Daily Mail, a handful of war veterans condemned the series as “an absolute disgrace and an insult to the millions of brave Britons who helped win the war” – without the benefit of having actually seen any of it, of course.
Band Of Brothers treads familiar territory. A group of soldiers from the US airborne division are dropped behind enemy lines in 1944, take part in the D-Day victories and then fight their way through Europe to capture Hitler’s mountain eyrie at Berchtesgarden. Along the way they witness the battle of Arnhem, the battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of the death camps. What’s incensed the Mail is the lack of reference to the British war effort, and the implication that the Americans won the war in Europe. What seems to have passed them by is the fact that the story is, for the most part, true.
Band Of Brothers is based on a book by the prolific American historian Stephen E Ambrose, who compiled the story from extensive interviews with veterans of the “Easy Company”, the Airborne’s 506th Regiment. Ambrose isn’t some hack writer in the pay of the US government: he’s a respected academic, the author of over 30 books including standard works on presidents Nixon and Eisenhower. He’s written big, wide-reaching tomes on second world war history. In Band Of Brothers, he narrowed the focus to tell the story through the eyes of one particular group of men.
Naturally, this kind of people-based history makes good movies, and it so happens that Ambrose, an American writing for a home market, chose to write about American soldiers. For that he cannot be criticised, nor can Steven Spielberg and his fellow executive producer Tom Hanks for their choice of source material.
What rattles the critics is the fact that the BBC have paid a huge sum to acquire the UK broadcast rights to Band Of Brothers (the Mail quoted £15m, which the BBC says is “wildly exaggerated”), in effect using British licence-payers’ money to tell them that the Yanks won the war. They hark back to 1945, when the Errol Flynn vehicle Objective Burma caused riots in Leicester Square for overlooking the British contribution, and was only re-released here seven years later (and even then with a meek apology tacked on to the opening credits). They presumably expected British broadcasters to shun Band Of Brothers, turning their backs on 10 hours of the most expensive telly ever made, or at least to let it languish on a satellite station where such things are more or less a given.
But that was never going to happen. Ever since Band Of Brothers got the green light at Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG production company, British interest has been high. The prime minister met personally with Spielberg and Hanks to ensure that Band Of Brothers was filmed in Britain. Chris Smith, the culture secretary, described it as “a vital production” for the British film industry, and promised it his full support. As well as providing work for British actors and technicians, Band Of Brothers confirmed Britain’s status as Hollywood’s location of choice. Last year, US studios spent £750m in the UK – money that keeps the British film industry alive. With such high-level interest (Tony Blair even got his son Euan a work-experience gig on the set), Band Of Brothers was never going straight-to-cable. If the BBC hadn’t snapped it up, there would have been some awkward questions at Television Centre.
The BBC is remaining tight-lipped about the criticism. Band Of Brothers won’t be shown here until the autumn, by which time the world premiere (at Normandy’s Utah Beach, on D-Day, 6 June) and the full US transmission on HBO should have generated enough enthusiasm to ensure that the carping voices are drowned out in a wave of positive publicity. For the moment, all they’ll say is, “this is event television at its best and will capture the drama, excitement and reality of this remarkable true story”. No surprises there, then.
Band Of Brothers looks like the kind of TV project that comes along once in a generation. The Spielberg/ Hanks connection alone marks it out as landmark television, but the casting and production values should ensure that it lives up to expectations. With a $120m budget, DreamWorks could afford to shoot big crowds on accurate locations, and to spend months in the studio at Hatfield. In comparison, the only domestic war drama of recent years, BBC1’s All The King’s Men (starring David Jason), is a home movie. To retell the tale of Gallipoli, the BBC shot on cheap locations in southern Spain, used close-ups for the big battle scenes to maximise the effect of a small number of extras, and avoided anything remotely wide-angle. The results were impressive, and a cut above those dramas that recreate Tobruk on a quiet afternoon at Camber Sands – but still looked like telly-on-a-shoestring compared to the then recently released Saving Private Ryan.
It was that film more than any other that set new standards for war films, and which set the seal on the American pre-eminence in the field. Subsequent releases have done nothing to redress the balance; the much-criticised U-571 surprised British audiences by suggesting that the American navy captured the German Enigma ma chine that led to the successful cracking of the code at Bletchley Park. The forthcoming Pearl Harbor, starring Ben Affleck, will show the war once again from an American angle.
But it would, wouldn’t it? American films are still principally for American audiences, and they tell American stories. It would take a brave (and probably independent) film-maker to say that the Brits were the real heroes of the war. It wouldn’t go down well in the cineplexes. Spielberg is interested in telling stories that matter to him – Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Band Of Brothers. Perhaps his growing links with Britain (he was knighted in the New Year’s Honours list) will incline him more towards British material, but it’s unlikely that a company as vast as DreamWorks would invest in a project of little interest to the US market. Hollywood has its uses for British characters – who else would blow up Bruce Willis or attempt world domination? – but they’re very rarely heroes. That’s an American job.
Ironically, it’s a British actor who landed the plum role of platoon leader Richard Winters. Before being spotted by Spielberg, Damian Lewis was best known for lead roles in the BBC’s Warriors and Hearts And Bones; now he’s set to become a major American star. Many of his co-stars are British; conversely, Tom Hanks puts in a brief appearance as “British officer”. Band Of Brothers may not be doing much for the popular perception of Britain’s contribution to the second world war, but it’s doing a hell of a lot for our film industry.
And therein lies the strange little Catch-22 at the heart of the Band Of Brothers debate. Without films such as this, or Saving Private Ryan, or Harry Potter, or The Mummy Returns, British film studios would close down, actors and directors would move to Europe or Hollywood, and we’d be stuck with underfunded TV as our only source of home-grown entertainment. As long as we keep taking Hollywood’s dollar, we have the chance to make our own films as well as theirs, to tell stories from a uniquely British perspective. This we continue to do, and with great success – witness Billy Elliott, The Fully Monty, East Is East and co- productions such as Bridget Jones’s Diary. What we don’t do – what producers choose not to do – is make war movies. All The King’s Men was an isolated phenomenon, and there have been no notable British feature films in recent years that have touched on the subject. What we make, and what sells well overseas, are quirky comedies about little people with big dreams. We don’t do epic. We don’t do war, unless it’s Evelyn Waugh.
Perhaps the inevitable success of Band Of Brothers will goad British film-makers into action. The ballyhoo surrounding next month’s D-Day screening shows that there’s support in very high places for this kind of effort. It’s just a shame that, after all his involvement in getting Band Of Brothers off the ground, Tony Blair won’t be able to attend the 6 June show. He’s got a little show of his own to attend to the next day.