HBO’s “Band of Brothers”: Some of TV’s Finest Hours

by Joseph Baruch Rosenberg
Keep an eye out for when “Band of Brothers” is broadcast again.

Since T-Day—September 11— those of us born after Pearl Harbor have been thinking along parallel but differing lines.

Old mode of feeling safe and secure in our country, doing routine things in “normal” ways, is compromised. There’s a great sense of fear and violation that had never before entered into our psyches (unless we served in Vietnam or another war zone).

HBO thrusts us into this zone with 10 episodes of “Band of Brothers,” based on the true story of the men of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. The series takes this group of young men from paratrooper training through V-J day, with stops in Normandy, Holland, Bastogne (Belgium), Germany and Austria.

What these soldiers went through was our worst nightmare, spending endless days under direct attack. We witness the randomness of combat, cowardice, a near mutiny, arrogance, the killing of prisoners, the liberation of a work camp, incompetence, tragedy and celebration.

As adapted from Stephen E. Ambrose’s book, producers Hanks and Spielburg have created some of the finest hours of television.

I grew up in television’s Golden Age, where every night of the week there was live drama amid the wrestling and roller derbies. These dramas, and the coverage of the Kennedy assassination, had a sense of immediacy that showed us how powerful a tool TV could be.

And then TV became an instrument of mediocrity—the bland leading the bland. Rent a tape of Cliff Robinson in “The Days of Wine and Roses” or Paul Newman in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” if you want to see what TV promised us as an art form. Except for the Hallmark Hall of Fame and “Roots,” very little has engaged the mind and spirit on the flickering tube.

And then this series suddenly appears to show us how another generation dealt with the uncertainty of existence.

“Band of Brothers” is presented as ten dramas, each taking the viewer through a period of time from the viewpoint of the men of Easy. Some have lines or action in every episode; others just disappear or are killed. The two men the series deals with most are Richard Winters, their leader, and Lewis Nixon, his friend. Winters is brave, tactful, sincere and idealistic, a natural leader of men. Nixon is brooding, alcoholic, brave and damaged almost beyond repair from what he sees of war.

There are two moments of surpassing profundity. One, in the episode “Bastogne,” is seen through the eyes of Medic Eugene “Doc” Roe, who is severely affected by the carnage. On a trip into Bastogne he meets a Belgian nurse and assists her in treating the wounded. They bond, and his spirits lift. Then the Germans shell the town and Roe discovers the nurse’s dead body, and takes the scarf she wears on her head as a memento. Soon Roe is confronted with a bleeding soldier and reluctantly has to use the scarf as a bandage. Few words are needed, just the looks of exhaustion, fear, and love.

The penultimate episode, “Why We Fight,” deals with Easy’s entrance into Germany and the feelings of admiration the soldiers have for the Germans they meet—for the soldiers’ discipline and for the cleanliness and orderliness of the German people.

Then come the four paragraphs that turn into a most telling visualization of the evil that was the Third Reich. A routine patrol encounters the Landberg work camp and the emaciated bodies of the living dead, the stench of starvation, the sense of futility. We see in each soldier’s eyes and body language the horror they are witnessing.

One liberated prisoner grabs onto a GI and just hugs him in thanksgiving. Its is a moment pristine in its purity.

“We Stand Alone Together” is the documentary that followed the series. It shows interviews of the surviving members of Easy, as well as documentary footage of them and the events they were a part of.

Fifty-five years later, the emotions are still raw as the old warriors break down in tears and can’t talk about the things they saw and endured. The men are seen at reunions and returning to Normandy.

What they have to say enhances the feelings of comradely love, courage and sacrifice. At the very end, an honor roll of the men of Easy killed in World War II was displayed, and I got up from the couch, stood at attention, and saluted the flickering screen. It was the least I could do.

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This story was published on December 5, 2001.