To honor military conquest, the Romans held games, organized ceremonial processions, and built triumphal arches. Today, we have films. To be sure, memorials crowd our capital. As important as these are, however, only film has the capacity both to reach a vast audience and to arouse the emotions most appropriate to the remembrance of the sacrifices made in war. The medium’s necessary drawback in this role is, of course, its transience. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, perhaps the best film about World War I, seldom appears on the shelves of local video stores, and the image of George C. Scott in his celebrated role as General George S. Patton has receded from our collective memory.
Nevertheless, movies — more than a static image of triumph chiseled onto the frieze of a Roman arch — have the capacity to awaken in the viewer the passions experienced by combatants and the purposes to which those passions are directed. Sadly, Hollywood has often fallen short in its attempts to commemorate the sacrifices of the “greatest generation.” Since the onset of the Second World War, an uninterrupted stream of films have endeavored alternatively to celebrate, condemn, entertain with or teach about the great conflict, but only a handful have shed light on the toll paid by its participants.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan(1998) lived up to the GI’s experience in the war. For its sheer technical wizardry (notable because of its very unobtrusiveness), the portrayal of D-Day contained in the first twenty minutes of the film deserves accolades. Indeed, veterans themselves testified that the cacophanous gunfire, blasted landscapes and casual death of the opening minutes were closer to their experiences than any film has presented. Yet something was missing.
As critic Andrew J. Bacevich has remarked, the film failed to portray the character of the American soldier himself. In Spielberg’s rendering, the “GIs flunked the litmus test of ideology. They manifested little appreciation of Nazism as a threat to liberty,” and “just did as they were told, hoping that by saving Ryan, they might earn their passage home.” Thus, as a monument to the horrors of war, Saving Private Ryan excelled, but as a monument to the reason Americans suffered those horrors, it left much to be desired.
As if mindful of this criticism, Spielberg has returned to offer us the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, another rendition of the American soldier in the first truly global conflict. As co-executive producer (along with Tom Hanks, the star of Saving Private Ryan), Spielberg has combined the stunning visual and aural success of his first effort with a unique historical perspective gleaned from Stephen Ambrose’s acclaimed book of the same name. The ten-part series, which will premier a new one-hour episode each Sunday through November 4, traces the footsteps of the men of Easy Company, 101st Airborne, from their training in the United States, to their first combat drop in Normandy on D-Day, to the surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945.
Unlike Ryan, Band of Brothers has remained largely unmolested by a rigid plot line. Rather, each episode presents a panoply of characters, some recurring, some not, whose anecdotes and experiences are based on first-hand accounts and thus only loosely tied together. The first episode, “Currahee,” follows Easy Company from their training camp in Georgia to the staging grounds of England, where the non-commissioned officers of the unit mount what amounts to a mutiny, leading to the replacement of their less-than-competent field commander, Lt. Sobel (played by David Schwimmer of Friends). The episode underscores an important historical fact about the war, well documented by Stephen Ambrose in his European Theater history Citizen Soldiers: the effectiveness and popularity of American non-commissioned officers.
Episode two recreates the chaos of the nighttime drop over France just before D-Day, as well as a harrowing expedition by a handful of soldiers to destroy four German “88s”– powerful artillery pieces that were used to shell American troops landing on the Normandy beaches. The latter sequence — the first major engagement portrayed in the series — is as jolting to the viewer as the D-Day scenes in Saving Private Ryan. It distinguishes itself from that film, however, by showing more than just the futility and carnage of war. In the midst of storming an enemy foxhole, surrounded by the unreal, popcorn sound of machine gun fire and the dust and debris thrown up by near-misses, the soldiers are suddenly confronted by a Wehrmacht soldier. His hands in the air, the soldier screams “Nicht Schiessen! Nicht Schiessen!” With only seconds to react or even to process the sight, a GI knocks out the German with the butt of his rifle. One could easily imagine the soldiers having made a different decision.
Subsequent episodes have portrayed themes both many and varied, but all have been strung together to produce a psychological portrait of the soldiers that is lacking in Saving Private Ryan and, indeed, most World War II film to date. Ambrose emphasizes the first element of that portrait, unit cohesion or camaraderie, in Citizen Soldiers: “teamwork, the development of a sense of family in the squad and the platoon, are the qualities most World War II combat veterans point to when asked how they survived and won.” The second element, subtly depicted by both the actors in Band and the real soldiers themselves, is “cause and country.” “They knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it,” Ambrose writes. But World War I, the Great War, had changed the tenor of patriotic bombast, making it “sound hollow, unacceptable, ridiculous, especially for the next set of young Americans sent to Europe to fight over the same battlefields their fathers had fought over.”
Band of Brothers‘ skillful, unpretentious portraiture could hardly have appeared at a better time. Though it premiered two days before the events of September 11, which disrupted everything from Major League Baseball to sitcom premiers, Band of Brothers ran uninterrupted. One cannot help but think that this tale of a past generation in a moment of crisis — delivered simply and without the interference of much hand-wringing and over-interpretation — will do much to steel a nation’s nerve as it prepares to confront the present danger. That which is presaged in President Bush’s recent words would also have rung true to the men of Easy Company yesterday: “Freedom itself was attacked today, and freedom will be defended.”