To say that "Band of Brothers" was a labor of love for Tom Hanks is no exaggeration a labor of love that HBO has poured $120 million into, with astounding results.
To say that "Band of Brothers," which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO, looks like the television event of the season also appears to be no exaggeration. It doesn't even look like a TV miniseries it's more like 10 theatrical films that do an amazing job re-creating battles. Shot mostly on an 1,100-acre backlot in England (an abandoned aerodrome) and two 50,000-square-foot soundstages, the production had already used more pyrotechnics than "Saving Private Ryan" by Episode 3.
But "Band of Brothers" is more than just pyrotechnics. "There are moments that are not action-oriented. . . . We have whole episodes where it really is an interplay between the nature of these characters," Hanks said. Characters who are also real people the young Americans who came together as E Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army paratroopers who dropped into France on D-Day and fought some of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Hanks, who executive-produced "Brother" along with Steven Spielberg, said he read Steven Ambrose's book "Band of Brothers" while doing research for "Saving Private Ryan" and that, "I thought Mr. Ambrose had stumbled upon the perfect avenue in which to communicate the breadth of the European war from beginning to end in the manifestation of (Easy Company)."
Ambrose said that what drew him to the story of E Company was how close its members were during the war and remained half-a-century after the war.
"They started in Georgia, they ended up at Hitler's Eagle's Nest and they covered everything in between," he said. "But what fascinated me the most was not their battle record, which is outstanding, but their closeness. . . . And that was the part of it, more than anything else, I wanted to get at. How did these guys become so bonded that they are a band of brothers?"
If nothing else brings a tear to your eye, the end of the series will reach out and grab at your heart, just the way it did with Hanks. "I must say that every time I've seen this, the last eight minutes of the series . . . still tear me up, because it's not talking about what they did in the war; it's talking about what they did after the war, and where they went, and what
happened to them," Hanks said. "I don't know how they got on with things afterwards and were able to somehow put it all in its proper perspective. And it's those moments in the series when we were able to land those; those are the things that got me the most."
The sheer scope of "Band of Brothers" is astounding. There are more than 500 speaking parts (all but a handful going to unknowns), and the production employed more than 10,000 extras. (Viewers have to pay attention. The series' greatest flaw is how difficult it quickly becomes to keep all the characters straight.)
And the look of "Band of Brothers" is amazing. Hanks said they "sweated bullets" over accuracy. "There's two types of authenticity there is one that says all the buttons are right and all the ammunition is correct and all the buildings look like they looked in the photograph," said Hanks, who co-wrote Episode 1 and directed Episode 5. "That's a relatively easy thing to accomplish. The thing that's much harder is, literally, the motivations and the nature of the interplay between the characters."
The battle scenes are frighteningly accurate, according to Ambrose. For example, Episode 6 ("Bastogne") re-creates the horror Easy Company experienced during the Battle of the Bulge, when they had to hold an area under horrific bombardment by the Germans. "It's exactly what happened. That's true of the whole series," Ambrose said.
Hanks readily acknowledges that "Band of Brothers" is, of course, a dramatization of actual events, not a documentary. "We said, 'Look, if we can't be absolutely truthful to what they said and did at any given moment, we must at least be as authentic as possible, so that it still adheres to the framework of the reality of being there at that moment.'"
But the surviving members of Easy Company have showered "Brothers" with praise. C. Carwood Lipton (who is played by Donnie Wahlberg), said he became "quite emotional" watching it. "I find that as the years go by, I become more emotional," Lipton said. "And the filming of 'Band of Brothers' has had a profound effect on me. It is so well done that it brings back memories that I thought I had long ago lost."
"Band of Brothers" is not, however, for the entire family. There's plenty of R-rated language, one rather gratuitous (and wholly unexpected) sex scene in Episode 9, and a great deal of violence and gore that tells in horrific images what war really entails.
Ambrose said that in most Hollywood depictions of war, Americans suffer quick, painless deaths. "And his C.O. can write home to the grieving widow or to the parents, 'He never knew what hit him. He didn't suffer.' Well, it doesn't happen that way. They do know what hit them. And they do suffer.
"And when you watch . . . 'Band of Brothers,' you're going to see that. You're going to see what a gut shot looks like. You're going to see what happened to Bill Guarnere when his whole leg was blown off. You've got to look at that if you want to try to understand war."
"Band of Brothers" resonates for generations far removed from the one that fought World War II.
"I think, ultimately, it is important because the true scope of what Carwood and his associates went through has not truly been communicated on film . . . in a way that is palpable to the audience," Hanks said. "What I wanted to do, and what I think was important for the average viewer to understand, is that this did not happen overnight. These guys did this at a time when it still took four days to get from Los Angeles to New York. . . . There is a vast amount of time and geography and distance, and a palpable understanding of it, I think, just gives it a type of focus that turns it into a more human endeavor.
"Never mind what it must feel like to see your best friend die in a hole next to you. Never mind what it must look like to see your best friend lose his leg. Never mind what it must feel like to squeeze off a little piece of metal on your rifle and kill some person across the field (who) may be 42 years old or may be 16 years old who could have been a friend under different circumstances.