Band of Brothers, the HBO Docu-Drama
Where it Stands in WWII Film History
Richard J. Garfunkel
July 4, 2006
A few years ago I had the good fortune to see the complete HBO production of Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book Band of Brothers. After seeing the 10 episode program that docu-dramas the 506th Regiment, “E” (Easy) Company of the famed 101st Airborne Division from it formation in Georgia to its occupying Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, I decided finally to buy the book.
I therefore went to the Amazon website to see if the book was available, and it was. I also picked up Major Richard Winters’ autobiography, Beyond the Band of Brothers, the War Memoirs, and The Filthy Thirteen, From the Dustball to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Richard Killblane and Jake McNiece, the story of 13 rugged Paratroopers who served as a squad of “pathfinders” for the main paratroop attacks. I never really was a fan of Stephen Ambrose, and I have always regarded him as an apologist for both Eisenhower and Nixon. For those who are unaware, he has written multiple volumes on both men. Having little interest in both of those men or their presidencies, I can honestly say that I have not read his books on them. But I happened to read his book on D-Day, D-Day, June 6, 1944, along with three others; Crazy Horse and Custer, Nothing Like it in the World, and The Wild Blue.
Ambrose, with his avid interest in General Eisenhower, whom he met in 1964, became a chronicler of the American Expeditionary Force in Western Europe during Eisenhower’s command of SHAEF, which stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Therefore with this connection and his fondness for Ike, Ambrose had focused basically on our actions from Normandy to VE Day. Through his interest in this phase of the war he became a founder, in 1991, of the D-Day Museum in his hometown of New Orleans.. The museum was finally opened in the year 2000. Of course the D-Day operation, and its eventual success, was very much dependent on the LCVP boat which stands for Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel. In 1940 we had none, and by 1944 we had 30,000 in service. The man most responsible for this production was a New Orleans boat manufacturer named Andrew Higgins (1886-1952). Higgins, who also produced 199 PT Boats for the navy in World War II, (The Higgins’s boat was 78 foot long. and it was similar, but more advanced than the 80 foot long Elco PT-109 Boat that John F. Kennedy commanded in the Solomon’s. Lt. Commander (ret) Fred W. Rosen, 1917-2003, a first cousin once removed of my wife Linda, also captained PT Boat-207 in WWII). The front-opening ramp-typed LCVP was basically copied from the Japanese similar styled craft that had been used in China since 1937. Higgins created a proto-type, and by 1939 he had it in trials on Lake Ponchartrain near New Orleans. Because Eisenhower had stated that Andrew Higgins’s production of LCVP’s was most essential to the winning of WWII, that view was not lost on Ambrose. (Today there remains only eight PT Boats left. Two are preserved in the Battleship Cove Naval Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts. Both boats, an ELCO and a Higgins model sit next to the retired battleship USS Massachusetts (BB-59, 35,000 tons 9-16” gun, commissioned in March of 1942, and stayed in active service until 1962. I have had the pleasure of climbing up, down and around its massive decks a number of times. The last time we were there it was on our way from Boston to Newport with our kids and cousins the Shifrins.)
Of course historian Stephen Ambrose (1936-2002, who was a heavy smoker and died of lung cancer) got into considerable trouble regarding the problems of plagiarism, especially with his book The Wild Blue. He claimed that the quotes in his book were attributed but quotation marks were mistakenly left out. (New York Sun, October 14, 2002) That of course was his defense. But in reality some of his later books were churned out by a team of writer’s led by his son, and in their seeming haste, full paragraphs were directly lifted from other sources. Of course the timing couldn’t have been worse for Ambrose, who became fatally ill, and did not have any time to rehabilitate his flawed reputation.
Ironically though, the HBO production, which was quite loyal to the Ambrose book, wound up being much better. The only part that I thought substantially differed was the story and further reflection on Captain Herbert Sobel, who was the original commanding officer of “Easy” Company. Captain Sobel, who was a severe martinet, eventually because of his inability to “lead” men in the field, was transferred out from the 506th Battalion. Sobel, in both the book version of Band of Brothers, and Lt. Richard Winters’ autobiography; his personal account as on of the leaders “E” Company, was given much more sympathetic credit regarding his preparation of the company through their intense physical training. Sobel, who was Jewish, was characterized, in the book, as that f—king Jew, by many of the men, was responsible for the all of night marches and exercises that prepared “Easy” Company quite well for their eventual nocturnal parachute drops and their ability to reconnoiter in the dark. Frankly the men of “E” Company were not any more prejudiced than others of their time, and Private Joseph Liebgott, one of the Jewish soldiers in “E” Company was treated well, acted heroically, served as their interpreter. Pfc. Liebgott, who was understandingly much more anti-German than the rest of the Americans, wound up going out with a small squad to search out a known high ranking German SS soldier, who had been head of a slave labor detention area. The German soldier was accused by many of the DPs (Displaced Persons, a term commonly used for Jews and other refugees who had become slave laborers far from their native lands or were just prisoners in Concentration Camps.) of being guilty of numerous atrocities. After Private Liebgott’s interrogation, the man was escorted out of his hillside hide away by Liebgott and summarily shot!
Of course Captain Sobel was an impossibly difficult person, who had immense personality problems with his fellow officers, the NCOs and the men. When an incident involving the Lt. Winters escalated into a court martial, the leadership of the regiment, under the excellent command of Colonel Robert Sink (1905-65,West Point, 1927, retired as a Lt. General 1961) understood the problem regarding Captain Sobel and had him transferred out of the command of “E” Company to duty which he was better prepared. (Sobel never seemed to recover from his wartime problems and had a miserable embittered life possibly because of his “E” Company experiences, which resulted in divorce, alienation from his children, poverty, attempted suicide and a lonely death.)
I have been a lifelong student of World War II and fan of the countless war movies that depicted almost every facet and theme of the war from the home front to each theater of operations all over the world. After seeing almost all of these films from the earliest efforts in the beginning of war to Saving Private Ryan (1998), I believe that Band of Brothers was by far the greatest production and the most meaningful to me. It had all the drama, action, pathos and realism that anyone would really want and desire. It was as graphic and daunting as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and it was 10 hours long and had over 128 people in the cast along with retrospectives from the actual soldiers reflecting on their memories of 50 years back.
As a very young boy I was exposed to a remarkable four-volume Time-Life pictorial and chronological history of the Second World War. My father bought the 1600 page set of books right after the war and it wasn’t long until I discovered it. It traced pictorially all the history, almost day by day, from September 1, 1939, when the German Army crossed the Polish frontier to the surrender on September 2, 1945, on the deck of the Battleship Missouri (BB-63- 45,000 tons, 9-16” guns-an Iowa Class ship and the last of the line of Dreadnaughts that had been in service since 1906) in Tokyo Bay. Every important personage, offensive, battle and atrocity was covered over those tumultuous years. Because of the starkness and visual obscenity of the war, my father was not happy that I was constantly looking at the books. But in spite of his futile attempts to keep the books out of my reach, I found ways to get to them even when they were placed at the highest level of our family room bookshelf. My earliest memories regarding the reading or looking at any books were of those volumes. Interestingly, in those four volumes and 1600 plus pages, there is only one full-page portrait of an individual. It was not of a war hero, or a general, or an enlisted man, but of President Roosevelt (1882-1945, President 1933-45). The date is, of course, April 12, 1945, and the page is a black-bordered formal portrait of the then late President. As a young boy who had hardly learned to read, I was intrigued by the somberness of the picture, and, of course, the following pages picturing his funereal dirge. I brought the book to my mother and asked her who he was. She answered emotionally that he was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and she simply said “The War Leader.” As I recall, it was the first time I had really heard that famous name.
In conversations with my parents, over the next 55 years, that name would be frequently mentioned and my parents, who held FDR in such awe, never had a word of criticism directed his way. The books opened my eyes to history and the incredibly vast specter of World War II. It was not long after that I became enraptured with the 1952 production of Victory At Sea (26- thirty minute episodes), the magnificent voice of Leonard Graves and the equally brilliant score by Richard Rodgers. To this day I can still hum the great musical themes that accompanied the action portrayed in that grainy black film. (One of the reasons that it was so dark was that most of it was shot originally in color, and because there was also black and white film, and television transmission was in black and white, all the negatives had to be made into black and white positives.) Later on, there would be other notable television documentaries as: Uncommon Valor with Holland Smith (former Marine Lt. General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith), Air Power with Walter Cronkite, The World at War with Lawrence Olivier, The Gathering Storm with Richard Burton, Crusade in Europe and the Pacific with the great voice of Westbrook van Voorhis and numerous other programs with great narrators like Alexander Scourby. All in all, there was much to see if one was interested.
By the time I was twelve I had read most of the World War II books in the large Mount Vernon Public Library. I can remember vividly titles like; Medals for Marines, Guadal- canal Diary, Crusade in Europe, The Lady Lex (after the WWII carrier Lexington), Queen of the Flattops (The carrier Yorktown), The Story of GI Joe, This is Your War, G-D Was My Co-Pilot, Baa-Baa Black Sheep, They Were Expendable, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Story of GI Joe, and The Colditz Story. Many of these books and later ones like The Longest Day, Is Paris Burning? and A Bridge to Far were made into excellent movies. But the greatest of all World War II histories of that era was the 15-volume masterpiece by Professor, and later Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, (1887-1976), The United States Naval Operation in World War II. Though controversial and eternally debated by naval buffs and officers active and retired, it still remains the Bible of naval actions in World War II. Morison, our most pre-eminent naval and maritime historian, was a Professor at Harvard, and author of many books, when he was asked by FDR to serve on as many naval ships as he could, and record the events as they unfolded. This enabled him to be in the most pivotal position to write the definitive naval history of the war. Morison, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Admiral of the Ocean Sea, did just that. He served on almost every type of vessel during the war and these experiences helped him understand the workings and dynamics of a great navy at war.(I got to meet Samuel Eliot Morison, in 1968, at Mount Holyoke College, when the late Henry M. Littlefield, the Dean of Men at Amherst, and my great friend and mentor, invited me to attend a class led by Professor Henry Steele Commager, (1902-1998) who was lecturing at Amherst’s sister college. They co-authored The Growth of the American Republic, 1930, and later the Oxford History of the United States, 1980. Samuel Eliot Morison is honored by a bronze statue of him on Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay, Boston, and a naval frigate is named after him, The USS Samuel Eliot Morison, FFG-13.)
Since those days I have been collecting and reading books on World War II. Of course in looking through the 400 or so titles in my library, one comes easily to the realization that most books on WWII are not made into movies. There are books recording the history of a ships: The Big “E”, the HMS Sheffield, the Lady “Lex” or Brave Men, Brave Ship, or numerous ones about the Arizona. Many are about specific battles or attacks: At Dawn We Slept, Tennazon, or D-Day. Others are biographies and autobiographies of important personages of the war, both political and military: FDR, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Halsey, King, Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur, Patton, Montgomery, Stillwell, Harris, Arnold and others. Many now are of lesser personalities, but are still considered quite important on a more localized level: Ridgeway, Taylor, Clark, Mitscher, Spruance, Chennault and countless others.
Many of the early war-related films that were made at the start of the conflict, were romanticized, and obviously used for patriotic and propagandistic motivation.
There was nothing wrong or unusual with that because most of the studios were opposed to the Nazis and the rise of totalitarian Fascism. Jewish interests controlled most of the major studios, and though the studio heads were not particularly liberal, they, on one hand generally opposed Nazi persecution of Jews, and on the other hand were afraid of alienating the large German distribution market. Therefore not all of the studios were enthusiastic about using their business and art as an extension of their own private political and social fears. Probably, of all of them, Warner Brothers took the lead in dealing with the more current problems that were erupting worldwide with regards to the emerging struggle against Nazism. Confessions of a Nazi Spy, (1939), with Edward G. Robinson, was released just before the outbreak of war. 20th Century Fox came out with the hard-hitting drama Four Sons, (1940) of a Czech family dealing with the crisis that started in the Sudetenland and ended with the fall of Warsaw. MGM also contributed with the Mortal Storm, (1940), which dealt with the conflicts within a German family over support for Nazi politics. RKO’s Hitler’s Children (1943) focused on the indoctrination of a generation of young people into the Hitler Youth. Preparedness issues were covered in Dive Bomber (1941) with Errol Flynn and I Wanted Wings, (1941). Tyrone Power starred as an American volunteer in A Yank in the RAF (1941) for Fox.
When we entered the war after Pearl Harbor those considerations became moot. The early films like Paramount’s Wake Island (1942) and MGM’s Bataan (1943) sent the message that our boys in uniforms and our nurses were brave, diverse and patriotic. Death, dying and being wounded was also seen in a mostly antiseptic light. But the nurses serving in that sector of the war were remembered in So Proudly We Hail (1943) with Claudette Colbert and Cry Havoc (1943) with Joan Blondell and Margaret Sullavan. As the war proceeded almost every aspect of it was covered. Whether it was the “Mosquito Fleet” helping to rescue the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkerque in Mrs. Minver (1942) and Mrs. Miniver/Greer Garson’s confrontation with a shot-down Luftwaffe pilot or the Battle of Midway featured in Wing and a Prayer (1944) with Don Ameche and Charles Bickford, the human elements regarding bravery, and sacrifice were always emphasized. By the end of the worldwide conflict every theater of the war, and almost every battle of note was featured.
Submarine dramas with Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Burt Lancaster in pictures like Destination Tokyo (1943) Run Silent Run Deep (1958), and Up Periscope (1959) chronicled the war in the Pacific. Often these intrepid commanders wouldventure even into the home waters of the Japanese inland sea, but until the German productin Das Boot (1981) many years later, the real horror, claustrophobia and anxiety of undersea warfare had never really been described in such agonizing detail. Captain Eddie (1945) and Lifeboat (1944), with Tallulah Bankhead and William Bendix, brought forth, in graphic detail, the agony and despair facing many of the countless victims of torpedo attacks stranded on the open seas. Naval actions against famous and powerful German capital ships like the Bismarck and the Graf Spee, reflected the mighty contribution of the Royal Navy. In the same way, Hollywood often made major features about the Battle of Midway, the actions of Admiral Halsey and his hit and run tactics, and numerous high budget treatments regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor, as James Jones’ novel turned into the film From Here to Eternity (1953) with Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Cliff, and Frank Sinatra, Tora Tora, Tora! (1970), an excellent documentary told the story from both sides of the Pacific, and Pearl Harbor (2001), a more fanciful and technological treatment that was not appreciated by critics or the box office, also told the story of the Day of Infamy.
The War in the Pacific had many opportunities for filmmakers to capitalize on the variety of action. The Pacific War was basically a naval war stretched over hundreds of thousands of square miles of open ocean. The brunt of the fighting involved the navy and its ability to transport its Marine military arm to mostly out of the way barely inhabited places where the Imperial Japanese armed forces had either conquered or re-enforced. Of course many of the islands looked the same, but each had a theoretical strategic importance and therefore had a story all its own. But places like Saipan, Kwajalein, Peliliu, and others took a back seat to the better-known battles at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Marines received the lion’s share of the coverage, where in the Western Pacific under the command of General MacArthur, the US my’s infantry’s efforts in New Guinea were largely overlooked. As MacArthur moved into the Philippines more Hollywood interest was shown with the film Back to Bataan (1945). After the war the film American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950) with Tyrone Power told of American-Filipino resistance to the Japanese occupation.
Early on in the war, the Germans invaded North Africa. The British 8th Army’s victories and losses at El Alamein and Tobruk, against General Erwin Rommel, The Desert Fox (1951) were covered in films like The Immortal Sergeant, (1943) Sahara (1943), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Tobruk (1967) and many others. Eventually the film Patton (1970) told how we turned around our early failures in North Africa, especially after the Battle of Kasserine Pass, and went on to victory by bottling up the remnants of the German Army in Tunisia. Italy was invaded and the struggles and mistakes at both landings; Anzio (1968) and Salerno were covered in a number of film treatments. Both Fox’s A Walk in the Sun (1945) and UA’s The Story of GI Joe (1945) reflected two different and extreme climatic conditions facing the troops in both sunny and muddy Italy. The Story of GI Joe was a very realistic, documentary type treatment seen through the eyes of the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Pyle (1900-1945, a Scripps-Howard reporter and columnist, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, and was killed in action covering the US Marines on le Shima Island off Okinawa in August of 1945) played by Burgess Meredeth along with Robert Mitchum, starring as an Army Captain, were able to convey the utter waste and futility regarding the Allied frontal attack on the ruined ancient monastery of Monte Casino as the Allied armies crossed the Rapido River. (John Ford’s contribution to the Why We Fight, 1943-5, series coordinated by Frank Capra included a vivid documentary of that action showing American servicemen killed in action.). Unfortunately there were many armies from many Allied countries, in the fight for Casino, and they were basically ignored. It was produced, viewed and covered from the American perspective.
In the same way, in Objective Burma, (1945) Errol Flynn, an Australian from Tasmania, played an American soldier leading American troops in Burma without a mention of the British and the great leader of Chindit Force (from Chinthe, the mythical Burmese lion) commanded by Orde Wingate (1903-1944, British Major-General and ardent Zionist and ally of the Jewish community in Palestine in the late 1930’s), who did the vast brunt of the fighting. This unfortunate and insulting omission soured British audiences and historians for years to come. Paramount released The Story of Dr. Wassell, (1944) with Gary Cooper that chronicled a heroic doctor’s efforts in war-torn Java. The story was inspired by a Fireside Chat, given by President Roosevelt, and heard by director Cecil B. De Mille. China wasn’t left out long as the story of our early American Volunteer Group pilots in Flying Tigers (1942) with John Wayne, and G-d is My Co-Pilot (1945) was told along with Dragon Seed (1944) with Katherine Hepburn and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).
In the Pacific, John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, commanded PT Boats in MGM’s They Were Expendable (1945) and portrayed fictional sailors based on the heroic evacuation of General MacArthur from Corregidor by Lt. Commander and later Admiral John D. Bulkeley, (1911-1996, Annapolis, Class of 1933), who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his effort. Later, as the war advanced in the wake of the American aircraft carrier Hornet’s, (CV-8, 20,000 tons, launched in 1940 and sunk in 1942) launching the attack on Tokyo, both Spencer Tracy playing Doolittle (Colonel and Later Lt. General James Doolittle, 1896-1993, Medal of Honor winner) and Van Johnson as Ted W. Lawson (one of the pilots of a B-25 in the Doolittle raid who lost his leg in the crash of their plane in China,) were quite realistic in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, (1944). As a consequence of the attack some of the pilots were shot down and captured.
Dana Andrews’s fine performance in the stark and haunting film Purple Heart (1944) dealt with the unfortunate American pilots who were shot down, captured, tortured, tried and executed as a consequence of that raid. A Wing and a Prayer (1943) told of the anxiety of naval air warfare in the Pacific, along with the movie Flat Top (1952) and Away All Boats (1956) with Jeff Chandler. While later on, Midway (1976) and The Gallant Hours (1960), starring James Cagney, as Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey (1882-1959) would deal with larger more strategic aspects of the Pacific naval battles. Earlier, Cagney would be portrayed in a less flattering light, as an impossible and demanding Captain in the Pacific war comic/drama Mister Roberts (1955) with Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon. Action in the Pacific continued with our first hit and run attack in the Pacific in Gung Ho (1943) with the strike on Makin Island with Carlson’s Raiders featuring Randolph Scott as the fictitious Colonel Thorwald, and the complete omission of Lt. Colonel James Roosevelt (the President’s son) who was second in command. Fox’s Guadalcanal Diary (1943) with Lloyd Nolan, which was based on the award-winning book by Richard Tregaskis, brought the horror of jungle warfare to American viewers. Later The Thin Red Line (1964, and again in 1998) and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1958) with Also Ray would re-visit Guadalcanal again. Pride of the Marines (1945) released by Warner Brother’s, reinforced that view in the story of young Marine Al Schmid, and played by John Garfield, who lost his sight on Guadalcanal. After the war The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), with John Wayne would trace Marine combat, in the Pacific, up and through bloody Iwo Jima. Recently Windtalkers (2002) with Nicholas Cage would explore the role Native Americans (Navajos) would play as Navajo language code transmitters for the Marines.
Aside from the Pacific, smaller areas of conflict were not ignored. Even little Norway was covered in the Moon is Down (1943), The Edge of Darkness (1943) and the later The Heroes of Telemark (1965) where Kirk Douglas disposes of “heavy water” destined for German A-Bomb developmental facilities. The Dutch underground was featured in Soldier of Orange (1977) as young men dealt with the Nazi occupation.
Czech underground activities surrounding the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Governor of Moravia and Bohemia, were addressed in the United Artist release Hangmen Also Die, (1943) with Brian Donlevy and Walter Brennan. The great Guns of Navarone (1971) from the Alistair MacLean novel with Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn, along with Harrison Ford in the exciting Force 10 From Navarone (1978) explored covert combined efforts in secondary theaters of Greece and Yugoslavia.
American filmmakers attempted to democratize many of the American combat outfits of World War II. They did not speculate or analyze about many of the racial implications and realities of our society that created the make-up of our forces. During the better part of our involvement in WWII, African-American troops were used strictly in service roles as documented in the film about trucks transporting supplies across Europe in Red Ball Express (1952). In the Navy, they were servants, porters and workers on the docks, and it wasn’t until later in the War where they were used in actual combat units. Off Okinawa and Iwo Jima many anti-aircraft gun positions were assigned to “Black” troops. On the heroic aircraft carrier Intrepid (CV-11–Essex Class, 27,000 tons, launched 1943), a gun battery of 60 men, all black, kept firing right up until a suicide plane crashed into their position killing most of them. The Marine Corps became integrated in the later battles of the war. Black troops fought in Italy in segregated units commanded by white officers. Not many films dealt with prejudice, but Home of the Brave (1949) did. Originally it was supposedly to deal with anti-Semitism amongst a small group of soldiers stranded on a small island, but a black soldier, played by James Edwards, who was later seen as General Patton’s valet Sergeant in Patton (1970) was substituted.
The controversial issue of Japanese internment in World War II was a bit ameliorated by the film Go For Broke (1951), starring Van Johnson that told the story of the highly decorated 442nd Japanese-American Regimental Combat Team in Italy. Later on, there would be a television production of The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) with Lawrence Fishburne, which related the struggle regarding the creation of the African-American 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Air Force. This air group fought with valor, distinction and skill over the skies of Italy and Europe and never lost a bomber it was screening.
Again almost nothing was left out. Convoys in the North Atlantic were featured in Action in the North Atlantic (1943) with Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart (he served on the SS Leviathan in WWI in the Navy and it was said his lisp came from a splinter from an explosion) and The Cruel Sea (1953) with Jack Hawkins. Later Bogart would play a worn down career Naval officer in the Caine Mutiny (1954), who breaks down while in command of his destroyer-minesweeper, the Caine. Action in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean could be seen vividly in Sink the Bismarck, (1960) Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956), and In Which We Serve, (1942) with Noel Coward, as the Captain of the HMS Torrin (in real life the ship was the Glowworm and he was playing the then Captain Louis Mountbatten, later Lord Mountbatten uncle of Philip, husband of the Queen and the Duke of Edinborough.)
The war in the Atlantic was much different than the Pacific. After the scuttling of the Pocket Battleship Graf Spee off of Montevideo, and the sinking of the HMS Hood and the German battleship Bismarck, action turned to the cat and mouse game of convoys versus the submarine.
The German Kreigsmarine in the film The Enemy Below (1957), with Curt Jurgens turned to the U-Boat in its attempt to strangle Britain with a submarine blockade. For their effort the German Navy lost over 900 U-Boats. There were some movies made about this phase of the war, including the remarkable German produced Das Boot (1981), but generally convoys were not glamorous enough for Hollywood. In retrospect, the long-boring and monotonous war in the North Atlantic, which entailed ships in large convoys, carrying troops to England with goods for both Britain and Russia, which were protected by countless destroyers, blimps and jeep or escort carriers were not interesting to the public. The ships were crowded, sanitation was terrible and they ran silent and blacked out. Most men were seasick and anxious to get to Britain as quickly as possible without being sunk. They were a bit romanticized, if that were possible in Convoy (1940) and Atlantic Convoy (1941).
Prisoner of war life was covered with the award-winning Billy Wilder film Stalag 17, (1953) with William Holden. The Great Escape (1963) with Steve McQueen, The Colditz Story (1955), The Empire and the Sun (1987), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), with Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard,and the great award-winning David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and William Holden.
The air war over Britain and Germany produced some excellent films starting with Gregory Peck in 12’Oclock High (1949), Clark Gable in Command Decison (1948), Spencer Tracy in A Guy Called Joe (1943), The Dam Busters (1954), The Battle of Britain (1969) with Laurence Olivier playing Air Marshal Hugh Dowdling, Hope and Glory (1987) with Sarah Miles, The Memphis Belle (1990) and the award winning documentary by William Wyler, The Memphis Belle, the Making of a Bomber (1944).
With this body of incredible work over the last 60 years it would be virtually impossible for any young person to go back and see all of these films. If one were a serious student of this genre, one could pick a number of the better-rated films that would represent any or all of the combat theaters of World War II. One thing can be accurately stated; much has changed in the last 60 years regarding films on World War II. Most of the early films, that I had previously mentioned, were basically one-sided, more patriotic, more romantic and nobler in purpose. They tried to balance the needs of the audience to feel that their sons, husbands, brother, fathers, friends, and sometimes wives and daughters did not die in vain. The audience was not used to suffering and the reality of combat came as a shock to many if not most. Rarely were dead Americans shown on our newsreels or picture magazines like Life and Look. It took a few years before these magazines started to show our casualties. Also, we of course did not have television, live reporting was unheard of, and if we did, all of it would have had to go through military censorship. We did have imbedded correspondents, of a sort, like the famous Ernie Pyle, called the GI’s buddy. There were many, many others who were famous and not so famous. Also many of the early filmmakers were not privy to vital and secretive information that was closely guarded until decades after the end of the war.
Up until 1970, no one was allowed to mention the breaking of the Enigma Code. This Ultra Secret was incredibly critical to almost all of our strategic decisions in the Second World War. After a thirty-five year black out period had passed, some of the secrets were revealed to the public. In his book the Ultra Secret, author, F.W. Winterbotham, who was a senior careerist in the Air Force section of the British Secret Intelligence Service for ten years at the outbreak of WWII in 1939, tells the initial story of how German secrets and military commands and maneuvers were intercepted and read. It is in this book, long after hundreds of movies and countless books had been written on the war, where the real thinking behind the decision-making was revealed.
According to Ronald Lewin’s book,“Ultra. It saved the British at Dunkerque, beat the Luftwaffe in the skies over England, turned the tide at Alamein, destroyed the U-Boat threat, outfoxed Rommel in the desert, and kept Normandy from being a disaster… It made some Allied generals look like super-geniuses, and other like bloody fools…” Of course even Churchill and Eisenhower’s memoirs of the Second World War and their decision-making are now seen to be incomplete. As for example, the biggest problem Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the commander of the vaunted Afrika Corps and the 10th Panzer Corps, had was his lack of oil for his armored vehicles and his artillery. In the previous months, before the critical battle of El Alamein, Rommel, an instinctive field commander, had been punishing the British 8th Army with his aggressive and seemingly unorthodox tactics. The British were reading, through Ultra, their intercepts of OKW’s (German High Command in Berlin) messages to Rommel. German Headquarters was in reality micro managing his field campaign. Therefore the British expected him to be in places he was not. He was basically not listening to instructions from OKW, but reacting to battlefield realities. Ironically those realities came from the British anticipating that he was following orders.
Of course this added to a great deal of the confusion and frustration at Bletchley Park- Room 20 where the intercepts were read and deciphered. But, conversely, Rommel needed to be supplied constantly, and in order for Rommel’s forces to meet the tankers at the right time and place of delivery, meticulous instructions had to come from the German commander in Italy, Marshall “Smiling” Albert Kesselring (1881-1960). Of course the embarkation of these ships were being constantly read by the code-breakers and the information was delivered to the RAF. In truth it wasn’t as simple as shooting ducks in a barrel. First of all, the Germans and Italians had to be deceived regarding where the information was coming from. Even though the Germans believed their codes were impenetrable, they might have started to worry about whether one of their “Enigma” machines was compromised and in Allied hands. Therefore the Allies had to make sure that these desperately needed convoys were first spotted by planes and then recognized by the ships themselves. This was a vitally important “cover” regarding the real source of information. The Allies did face a problem when there was a thick fog over the Mediterranean and the convoy was obviously shielded from snooping observation aircraft. The British did not wish to allow any convoy to get through to Tunisia, and subsequently sank the ships as they approached the African shores. Admiral Andrew Cunningham (1883-1963), the British Theater Commander made sure that a phony message about the now sunken fleet of tankers was sent to a fictitious spy in Naples.
Unfortunately Winterbotten could only write his book from memory for he was prevented from using any of the still secret files. He was allowed no access to any records or official information from Bletchley Park under the Official Secret’s Act. Four years later, in 1978, the author Richard Lewin wrote Ultra Goes to War. He was first historian to access and to utilize actual (70,000) intercepts. In Lewin’s explosive book, he reveals how the use and misuse of information helped and hurt the Allies. In some leaders it produced over-confidence. Certainly the Allies did not use it effectively at Arnhem and the German secrecy regarding their Ardennes offensive in the Bulge kept Bletchley basically in the dark. Therefore in retrospect all of the films made during the war and up until the 1970’s are victims of the Official Secret’s Act. They were left in the dark like the rest of us! With regards to the smaller, more personal films that information was not really critical.
During the war there were spy stories lake Nazi Agent, (1942) with Conrad Veidt, and Berlin Correspondent (1942), which started to reach the public. James Cagney, as a newspaper reporter in the pre-war days fought with Japanese fascists in UA’s Blood on the Sun (1945). Later after the war, Cagney would star in the OSS drama 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and Lloyd Nolan would be feattured in the real-life spy-thriller, The House on 92nd Street (1948) about spies in NYC relaying information to Germany from a clandestine transmission station out in Long Island. Warner Brother’s Cloak and Dagger (1946) with Gary Cooper loosely dealt with OSS agents and atomic energy.
When one analyzes Band of Brothers, one must mention the films that focused on the action and campaigns that “E” Company and the 101st were involved in the Allied push across northwestern Europe from D-Day to VE Day. This elite Division was directly involved in the critical D-Day invasion, the crossing of the Rhine, the Market-Garden attack into Holland, the siege of the vital crossroad city of Bastogne, under the overall command of the famous Brig. General Anthony McAuliffe (1888-1975) and the taking of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. At the heart of this Division was its unrivaled “Easy” Company.
Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962), with John Wayne and a cast of thousands, wrote the book on wartime recreations. On D-Day the paratroopers of “Easy” Company missed their “Drop Zone” by at least 5 miles. Many units missed their own DZ’s by up to 20 miles. Ironically “Easy” Company’s planned DZ was actually in a heavily fortified area. So as a consequence of this overshoot by their “air drop” C-47 transports, their dispersed unit was able to survive the landing, and was able to regroup, with effectiveness and accomplish their missions. Ironically because of the wholesale foul up regarding all of the paratrooper landings, the Germans were completely confused. They had no idea how big this effort was and though many paratroopers were killed or wounded, the Germans were afraid to drive towards the invasion beaches.
This hesitation enabled the Allies to have extra time in consolidating their gains on the Normandy beaches. After the Allied foothold was assured, heavy slugging remained in the effort to take Caen and though it was weeks before the Allies were able to take St. Lo, they finally broke through into France, with the Germans in almost full retreat. Frankly there are few movies focusing on this part of the campaign. In the same way the Allied landings in southern France (Anvil-Dragoon) under the command of General Alexander Patch (1889-1945) and the 7th US Army is a historically forgotten event. The actual code name of the invasion was switched from Anvil to Dragoon! (Overlord was originally The Hammer and Churchill was opposed to the effort to land in Southern France and wanted the invasion to be in the Balkans. Because he was “dragooned” in to supporting the plan, Anvil was renamed Dragoon!)) As the Allies advance on Paris, as seen in The Train (1964) with Burt Lancaster and Is Paris Burning? (1966) the story is told of the rising up of the French resistance. General Jacques Leclerc, (1902-1947) the commander of a French Division, led the Allies into Paris. The liberation of Paris, and the historic welcome of General Charles DeGaulle (1890-1970), along with the surrender of German General Dietrich von Choltitz 1894-1966) and his refusal to blow up Paris, was the critical element of Is Paris Burning?
With regards to the fight for France and the march towards Germany, Audie Murphy’s medal winning actions were featured in To Hell and Back (1955). Marlon Brando played a quixotic German soldier along with Montgomery Cliff as an American-Jewish soldier experiencing anti-Semitism in The Young Lions (1958). Other well-known films dealing with individuals were the Dirty Dozen (1967), Attack (1956), and Battleground (1949) with Van Johnson and a unit of the 101st at Bastogne. Big Red One (1980), with Lee Marvin also dealt with a company’s experiences fighting through combat in Europe with the Army’s 1st Division. The more important big-budget films like Patton (1970) with George C. Scott in the title role, The Bridge at Remagen (1969) with George Segal and Ben Gazzara, The Battle of the Bulge (1965) with Henry Fonda, Saving Private Ryan (1998) with Tom Hanks and A Bridge to Far (1977) with Sean Connery as Major-General Roy Urquhart and a fabulous cast which included Lawrence Olivier recreated the Market-Garden Operation and the failed capture of Arnhem. These films were about the more important battles of the war in northern Europe and were covered in depth by the American film industry. Of those five last films I would give The Bridge to Far the highest marks. Also a new realism came out of the cinematography of Saving Private Ryan. A great many of those techniques were used in Band of Brothers.
Band of Brothers was a remarkable production. With 600 minutes of content one could get to know the characters and what they were all about. Each of the ten episodes opened with remarks from the original 101st Airborne “E” Company’s veterans that survived the war and were still alive almost 55 years later. They set the scene through their first hand knowledge and impressions of what was to happen.
The casting was remarkable with Damian Lewis in the lead, a Brit playing Major Winters. His understated manner, which exuded trust and confidence, was for me the high light of the series. Lt. and later Captain Nixon was a rich boy who had an excellent education, did his job well and had a world-weary streak of cynicism. He loved his scotch and made every effort to drink whenever he had an opportunity. Lt. Winters took his leadership role with the utmost of seriousness and his concern for his men at the highest level. He was most comfortable as platoon leader and a company commander. When promoted out of those positions to Battalion headquarters, he regretted leaving the hands on control of his men and the thrill of being in the action. David Schwimmer did a remarkable job as the bitter Captain Sobel. He combined an exquisite combination of dedication and the anxiety of self-doubt. The Schwimmer/ Sobel role was an essential backdrop to the first third of “E” Company’s history. Captain Sobel made “Easy” the best Company in one of the most elite Divisions in the American Army in Europe. They were tough, well prepared, and able to operate in the night better then any of their peers, and certainly better then their German foes.
As to the others, the casting of Lieutenants Welsh, Lipton and Compton was also excellent, but the NCOs, Guarnere, Malarky, Toye, Muck, and Randallman were the backbone of “Easy” Company and they were played to perfection. Lt. Winters was assigned the task of taking out four large howitzer artillery pieces that were bombarding our landing forces on Utah Beach. His tactics were textbook and the filming of their attack was remarkable. Many considered his leadership, and the action of taking out those guns as one of the outstanding small squad actions of the war. For that action he was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but received the Distinguished Service Cross, along with two of his men, who were awarded Silver Stars, with the rest being decorated with Bronze Stars. Ironically there were few other medals awarded to these men regardless of their success and actions. They were expected to be elite shock troops and the Army was said to be stingy with medals for enlisted men.
Of course nothing could really equal the attack on Brecourt Manor, but “Easy” Company goes on to further actions and adventures in the assault on Carentan on the Cotentin Peninsular. As this sector was first pacified and occupied, “Easy” Company’s efforts from June 7 to July 12, 1944 ended their time in France. They had jumped into France on June 6 with 139 officers and men. They were pulled out of the line on June 29 with 74 officers and men present for duty. The 506th Regiment had taken the highest casualties of any regiment in the campaign, about 50%.
“From this day to the ending of the World,
…we in it shall be remembered
…we band of brothers.”
Each episode had its action, poignancy and pathos. Of course the main thrust of Band of Brothers was the story of the evolution of a group of young citizen soldiers who volunteered to be molded into a new type of elite fighting group; the “paratroopers.” With regards to “Easy” Company they were from all over America and were a blend of farmers, coal miners, some from the deep South, some desperately poor and others from the middle class. A few came from the Ivy League, and there were two from UCLA. There was only one from the regular Army and some were some from the Reserves and the National Guard.
As these young citizen volunteers evolve first into men, and then into soldiers and eventually into an elite group of fighters, they go through a difficult, demanding and winnowing out process. One can readily appreciate not only the physical demands of training, but also the process that starts to bond these men together as a cohesive unit. As the men experience this demanding regimen of night marches, incredible hikes with full packs, and work without end or rest, organized by Captain Sobel, one starts to see how the men start to resent his leadership. Though they appreciate the vigorous training and conditioning, they see Sobel as some type of unfeeling tyrant that in whom have little confidence. Eventually we see Lt. Winters emerge as the counterpoint to Sobel. He, of course, finally rebels against Sobel’s vindictive use of “Mickey Mouse” style harassment, and when Sobel foolishly thinks that he can threaten Winters with a court martial, Winters does not cave in, but demands his “day in court.”
Eventually Sobel departs from the scene and new leadership comes to “Easy” Company. As their training ends, and the invasion of France looms in the near future, the 101st gears for action. Eventually all the training pays off, and the men prepare for their eventual “baptism under fire.” The flight in the C-47 cargo planes over occupied France and beyond the beaches of Normandy is unnerving and harrowing as the men fight fear and airsickness. Flying through lethal anti-aircraft fire, and in the path and mayhem of streaking yellow tracer bullets the paratroopers bail out from between 500 and 1000 feet above the French countryside. The audience is taken for a bumpy frightening ride into the teeth of the unknown. As the men land, in the darkness before dawn, they are scattered all over the landscape, and far from their originally planned DZ. Lt. Winters and the others eventually match up, find some of their lost equipment, locate their planned objectives, and go about familiarizing themselves with this dark and daunting alien countryside. One can easily feel the anxiety welling up in each of the men as they face the unknown of being behind enemy lines, and knowing that they may be overwhelmed long before there is any “breakout” and link-up with “friendly” forces from beaches of Normandy.
Lt. Winters and a small squad of men are ordered to attack a four-gun battery of German 105mm cannons that are near a large French farmhouse called Brecourt Manor. This battery was shelling the troops landing on Utah Beach. Winters with his small squad take on the 4 guns despite the presence of a 50-man support group of German infantry. His tactics are classic, the guns are taken, spiked and the action is remarkably exciting. Because of this engagement Lt. Winters is recommended for the Medal of Honor, but since only one man per division was given that medal in the whole Normandy campaign, Winters received his DSC. But the filming, sound and special affects rivaled all that was seen in Saving Private Ryan. This type of action used to be limited to only big screen productions, but it was captured brilliantly by HBO’s production.
Of course there would be much more action for the 101st as they were called upon to fly over and parachute into Holland as an advance part of the massive Allied operation known as Market-Garden, or the attempt to take Arnhem and the last bridge of a number of crossings that could lead into the heart of Germany. Of course the totality and utter futility of this battle could have been seen in the film, A Bridge to Far. “Easy” Company distinguishes itself quite well, but their British, Polish Allies and their American compatriots in arms take a severe beating. “Easy” Company goes from being welcomed by the Dutch with open arms, after years of occupation, and then being counter-attacked by a heavy concentration of German armor and infantry. As Allied Forces would push German troops closer to the Fatherland, the German supply lines would be shorter and their ability to bring up reserves and heavily armored units would be easier. Conversely the Allies would be strung out further, and their possibility of being enveloped would be much greater.
In this harrowing episode the specter of defeat is quite real and the 101st Division and “Easy” Company’s training and bonds of friendship comes through and serves them well. As the British XXX Corps and the Guards Armored Division retreat from their failed assault of the Dutch bridges, a general retreat is called for all Allied Forces. The effort by Sergeants Malarkey, Guarnere, and Toye to rescue Lt. Compton and the survival of Sgt. Randleman, who’s position was overrun by German tanks and infantry, really tested “Easy” Company as they retreated in the wake of the failure of the Market-Garden offensive. History showed the Market-Garden initiative failed, because too much offensive (troops and armor) was poured into to narrow a front. In other words the narrow front acted like a bottleneck, and not enough troops could easily flow into the action. “Easy” Company was one of 150 or so companies that were hurt badly by the over confidence of their leaders regarding this operation in Holland. The difficulty of supplying several divisions of British, American and Polish troops through one highway reflected terrible staff planning and disastrous execution.
But the message of Band of Brothers was again that great training and high regard for each other’s safety and well-being would increase survival under the most trying of circumstances.
Again and again the 101st Airborne was called on for the tough assignments. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander, who was under great pressure to halt the German Ardennes offensive in the Bulge, threw both the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions into the important crossroad town of Bastogne, Belgium. It was here that German offensive met a critical challenge. They needed to get beyond Bastogne to be able to advance on and to the Port of Antwerp. “Easy” Company’s great stand, during the teeth of a blizzard that dropped 12” of snow on December 21st that sent temperatures plummeting below zero, along with a constant attack by German armor, made them famous. The scenes in Band of Brother were very reminiscent of Battleground (1949) with Van Johnson and James Whitmore. History does note that when the commander of the surrounding German soldiers, sent a message to General McAuliffe’s HQ, requesting the surrender of the American Forces or their total annihilation, McAuliffe replied with his famous answer “Nuts!” (Of course this is the “sanitized” version of McAuliffe’s remarks.)
Bastogne was eventually relieved, as skies cleared and needed supplies of food and ammunition were dropped, and the 3rd Army, under Lt. General George S. Patton (1885-1945) broke the siege and encirclement by the German forces. As the US Army and the 101st Airborne regained the offensive, “Easy” Company was then called upon to take Foy a small town west of Bastogne. At Foy, the attack directed by the now Captain Winters, was held up by Lt. Dikes’s indecisiveness in the midst of the battle. In the middle of the attack, Captain Winters replaced Dike with Lt. Spears, the attack proceeded, and Foy fell. Again the production reflected the realism of battle and the courage and fortitude of “Easy” Company.
Each episode reflected a different and meaningful perspective on “Easy” Company and its contribution to the war effort. This company, no less the 101st Airborne did not win the war in Europe its own, but the coverage of its experiences was critical to any interested observer’s understanding of what “real” fighting units went through.
When “Easy” Company moved into the line at Haguenau, a city of 20,000, which was a large urban area for them, they were astride the Moder River that was a tributary of the Rhine. Eventually with the arrival from the United States of a newly graduated replacement from the West Point Class of 1944, one 2nd Lt. Hank Jones, an effort was made to cross the Moder and get prisoners. Again “Easy” Company, with many of its original soldiers, from the days when they dropped behind Utah Beach, wounded, replaced, or killed, was up for the task. Jones eagerly volunteered to be part of the night crossing and he, though terribly green and inexperienced, performed quite well. Of course after the successful operation was completed, with Lt. Jones doing his part, while allowing the more experienced NCO’s to direct the action, he was quickly promoted to 1st Lt. and transferred to a staff job at regiment. All the men knew that that Jones was a member of the WPPA, the West Point Protective Association known by the ring they all wore. Knowing that the conclusion of the war was not far in the future, it was rumored that the army was not going to put its young West Point graduates in harm’s way. It would be those men who would staff and lead the peacetime army. (Unfortunately Lt. Jones was later killed when his jeep hit a mine.)
“Easy” Company would eventually become occupiers in Germany, interact with the German civilian population and deal with the problem of fraternization with the opposite sex. Eventually as they moved through Germany, while brushing aside some fanatical pockets of SS troops, the came upon their first concentration camp near Landsberg. It was a work camp, part of the Dachau complex, not an exetermination camp, but the horrors they saw startled and shocked them. General Maxwell Taylor, so incensed by what he learned and saw, declared martial law and ordered all of the citizenry of Landsberg from age fourteen to eighty to be rounded up and sent to the camp to bury the dead and clean up the camp. Winters, along with all of the men quickly learned “why they were there!” There were a few films other than Shindler’s List (1993) and the made for television drama Holocaust (1978) that showed the horror of the concentration camps in graphic detail.
Eventually, as the war came to an end, “Easy” Company captured Berchtesgaden and Hitler’s Eagle’s nest. They became part of the occupation army and the problems inherent in that task. As they killed time, longing to go home, and possibly awaiting assignment to the Pacific, more problems ensued. They dealt with them as best as possible and slowly but surely some of them departed for the states.
While relaxing and “killing time” in the beautiful Austrian countryside, peace came with the large “bangs” from the Atomic Bombs, and the war ended sending most of them back to civilian life.
All in all, their story was remarkable, and the coverage from their early days in 1942 where they were raw recruits ended with them returning as legendary heroes. No novel could have said it so poignantly or as well.
After a lifetime of reading books and seeing films, documentaries and dramatizations on WWII like; Holocaust (1978) Herman Wouk’s Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988) I feel comfortable in my view that Band of Brothers was the best that has been produced. Band of Brothers certainly was not on the scale of the Wouk productions. They were each 883 minutes and 1620 minutes long. They covered the whole scope of history from the perspective of one fictional family and its lives and loves, with a backdrop on the whole scope of the war from the Blitz, to Pearl Harbor, to Russia to the Sahara, to Berlin and finally to the liberation of Auschwitz. No matter what one would think of the casting, or miscasting, or the story line regarding Captain “Pug” Henry, one can never take the importance of those efforts from their historical place in film greatness.
But Band of Brothers is a real story about real men. There is no backdrop regarding the melodrama of their lives. The melodrama is their lives in combat, told in their own words and voices. There was no cover-up, no romanticizing, and no embellishment. It allows us to experience the story of their evolution from raw recruits to heroic men of action. It enabled us to understand the sacrifice of “real” men, not fictitious ones created by some novelist or scriptwriter. It brought into our homes the real sacrifices of a generation that helped save the world from enslavement and darkness.