One of the more interesting graduate courses I took was World War 2 in Film. We analyzed the patterns and messages that emerges through the depiction of this conflict. It’s a rare time in history that the world essentially knows who the bad guys are, while usually it is a little more muddy in separating the “good guys & bad guys”. One of my favorite pieces of WWII cinema is Band of Brothers because of the blending of narrative and real interviews. It offered me a chance to be a fan, an academic, and a teacher, because it was fun to write and research and present this topic. This was a rare opportunity to blend a number of things that peak my interest. So here it goes:
World War Two is a popular moment in history to place films for both Britain and the United States. The European front offers a noble theater that allows the hero’s journey to literally play out, as Allied soldiers take on a proverbial “Dark Lord” in Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In war focused movies, as opposed to Holocaust focused movies of the time period, both the British and Americans use brotherhood and sacrifice as major thematic threads for their soldiers. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks take a real-life story of a company of soldiers from the 101st Airborne that was present in almost all major engagements of the European theater from D-Day forward, and tells of their heroic exploits and melancholic moments. Christopher Nolan shows the significance of sacrifice and brotherhood against overwhelming odds as a sense of British national pride in his film Dunkirk, depicting the true evacuation of British soldiers at Dunkirk, France. Regardless of national experience in World War II, brotherhood and sacrifice are significant thematic elements in British and American films depicting the events of the Second World War.
At the end of the Band of Brothers series, one of the old soldiers, Carwood Lipton, reads a passage from Henry V in which Henry describes the feeling of brotherhood among soldiers. The closing line speaks to the perspective of the American and British combatants, as one of the original soldiers of Easy Company recites the lines from Henry V, “From this day until the ending of the world… we lucky few, we band of brothers. For he who today sheds his blood with me shall be my brother” (“Points” 59:30). This recitation of the monologue from Henry outlines what it is to be brothers in arms. Both Dunkirk and Band of Brothers illustrate Henry’s idea of brotherhood in war films through using the carnage to force these men into brotherhood through personal sacrifice, establishing a clear relation between these films, and the nations that fought on this front. Through the narratives and methods, both films successfully display these thematic elements.
Steven Spielberg found success in Holocaust and World War II films in the 90s and early 2000s. Schindler’s List began his success with this historical period, focusing largely on a mostly real story. He followed this up with Tom Hanks starring in Saving Private Ryan, which depicted a fictional narrative within a real conflict. Following the success of Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks co-produced, with Hanks taking a directorial role as well, Band of Brothers with much of the same film techniques on the small screen as they used on the big screen. With the backing of two Hollywood titans in Hanks and Spielberg, Band of Brothers had a built-in pedigree of success. However, filmed in 2000 and premiered on September 9th, 2001, Band of Brothers did not see as much immediate success as it would have hoped. With the initial run overshadowed by the events of 9/11, audience and critical response was only “lukewarm” (Shartz 76) in the fall of 2001. America seemed disinterested in the drama of simultaneously following both of the “most significant military conflicts in modern American History” (Shartz 76). Even though it’s initial run saw average viewership, a second run, syndication, and DVD release saw a much more lucrative return.
The miniseries became more popular after its initial run as closer attention was paid to the details that set this series apart. With the frame of Band of Brothers around actual people and events, and beginning and sometimes ending, each episode with these interviews, it put Band of Brothers “in a class by itself among WWII films… the testimony of the aged warriors of Easy Company creates an emotional cord that reaches from the ancient conflict of World War Two’’ (Shartz 78). The inclusion of the firsthand accounts creates a deeper connection with the audience in a documentary-style moment within each episode by bringing “reality and dramatic representation into creative tension and symbiosis that is utterly unique and oddly compelling” (Shartz 78). This transcends Band of Brothers from merely a war series into something different among other works within the genre. These interviews and the subsequent dramatization of these moments are critical to the powerful theme of brotherhood running through the series.
Like Band of Brothers, Dunkirk builds a narrative around the events of the British evacuation from Dunkirk, France, in 1940. Christopher Nolan found his own way of being “late to the game of filmmaking” (Baker 2:35) with his own unique, existential style that established his career through the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. Both of these movies are very different from what Spielberg did with Ryan and Schindler’s List, but like Spielberg, Nolan utilizes some of the tools from his prior movies in delivering a new experience to a World War II film. Through his use of overbearing sound, dramatic cinematography, and an almost minimalist approach to dialogue, Nolan certainly brings something new to the WWII genre. However, like Spielberg and Hanks, Nolan relies on a real event to tell the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Dunkirk offers a similar take to the approach of brotherhood and sacrifice as Band of Brothers. With the British soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, the soldiers must wait for ships, some of which are civilian vessels, to arrive to escort them home. Through waiting, the British soldiers are easy pickings for the Luftwaffe and appear as “fish in a barrel” (Dunkirk 16:00), allowing the Nazis to avoid losing men or tanks on a ground assault. Additionally with the Nazis using psychological warfare by sending pamphlets showing the British soldiers that they are surrounded, the survival of the British seems nearly impossible. It is through this desperation of the British soldiers to keep one another alive that Nolan is able to highlight sacrifice and the commitment to each other that so much defines brotherhood throughout these films. The Spitfire pilot Farrier highlights brotherhood through his constant search for a downed pilot, Collins, and relentlessly scans the waters while simultaneously engaging with the Luftwaffe.
Band of Brothers utilizes reality in its understanding of soldiering itself, which is the foundation where brotherhood begins for these films. With war movies being “fundamentally about combat” (Shartz 75), the old soldiers provide testimony in regards to how they view the German soldiers initially as “the only good Kraut is a dead one” and transform their opinion because at the time “they (the German soldiers) were just kids” (“Why We Fight” 0:20). At the forefront of an episode about the soldiers coming across a Nazi concentration camp, the men of Easy Company become more humanized as they have grown to see the German soldiers as being merely doing a job and not supporting the Nazi cause. One of the men goes so far as to say “we might have been good friends, maybe some of them like to fish or like to hunt… but they was trying to do what they were supposed to do, and I was trying to do what I was supposed to do” (“Why We Fight” 0:52). This human element adds a different understanding to the men of Easy Company for the audience. Rather than just being soldiers, they have taken a step back and seen a bigger picture. This works because not everyone will understand other nuanced aspects of “soldiering”.
As the story provides human elements to the men of Easy Company, it also allows a more specific audience to connect deeply with the miniseries. With the title of the series being Band of Brothers, the primary focus and theme is that of forming brotherhood through this immense conflict. In doing so, it connects deeper with current and former service members. In a 2014 TEDTalk titled “Why Veterans Miss War,” war journalist Sebastian Junger defines what brotherhood is and how it affects soldiers, as it is a “mutual agreement that you will put the safety of the group above your own” (Junger 10:10). Though he delivers this message in the context of the war in Afghanistan, the message is carried through within Band of Brothers. As Junger suggests that outside of this world of war, the soldiers miss depending upon someone else and knowing who has their back, or in other words, miss the men they served with, which holds true with what the old warriors of Easy Company say in that “we could depend on each other” (“Points” 57:30). This sentiment establishes one of the oldest cornerstone of soldiers, and that is the bond they build through combat.
Thomas Schartz argues that World War Two films generally try to “rationalize” the carnage of war through focusing on self-sacrifice and camaraderie amongst the soldiers (Schartz 75). It is essentially a Hollywood tool to prop up the “heroes” of a war film as having a moral high ground as they build brotherhood through these events, thus having the audience sympathize further with the characters. However, in Junger’s testimony, and the testimonies of the men of Easy Company, the two are not mutually exclusive, as Schartz seems to suggest. The camaraderie and self-sacrifice in war form the bonds of brotherhood, as “you would not let yourself down, and you would not let your comrades down” (Bastogne 0:14). This, along with one more major element provide an authentic understanding and representation of the combatants.
One of the cornerstones of soldiering is that soldiers do not want to be called heroes but acknowledge the heroics of others. In basic training, drill sergeants ingrain that in the heads of young privates by constantly using “hero” as a pejorative term, as anyone who wants to be a hero is foolish, and the real heroes are the ones that did not make it back (“Bastogne” :12). This sentiment is mirrored throughout the series, and culminates with the final interviews at the end of the last episode. Major Dick Winters, at the end of it, recounts “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson wrote about me… ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war? Grandpa said no,’ but I served in a company of heroes” (“Points” 59:43). Winters, who played a pivotal role in the success of Easy Company, and a highly decorated soldier from his exploits in World War Two, does not view himself as a hero, but those that served with him as the real heroes.
Both Dunkirk and Band of Brothers largely remove the political landscape surrounding the wars to focus almost entirely on the lives of the soldiers engaged in the conflicts. Hanks, Spielberg, and Nolan made the clear decision not to comment on their films to keep the perspectives limited to show as true of experience as they could. The soldiers do not really discuss the politics of it, and are willing to die for each other, but in no part do they say they are dying for their country. This falls in line with “empirical studies” that find “most soldiers risk their lives for a platoon member and not some ideological call or national loyalty” (Frisk “Buddy Sacrifice”). Therefore, regardless of the spin that obituaries tag to soldiers dying for an ideological cause, ultimately it is because of this brotherhood bond that they are willing to sacrifice themselves. Ultimately, Nolan, Hanks, and Spielberg utilize this with significant success in leaving out the tangled web of politics.
Brotherhood is a rather simple term to describe but hard to understand in the terms of warfare. As the soldiers of Easy Company put it, “you would not let your comrade down” (Bastogne 00:14). This sentiment crosses not only the British in Dunkirk, as Commander Bolton does everything to get the men off the beach, and Farrier does in the sky above, nor just the Americans throughout Band of Brothers, but also through a surrendering German colonel in the final episode of Brothers. After he accepts submission, in a speech delivered to his men, he says (translated through one of the American soldiers), “You are a special group, with one another a bond that exists only in combat, we’re brothers” (Points 36:00), once again highlighting that this horrible side of human existence creates bonds that do not exist anywhere else. These depictions of brotherhood and sacrifice from seemingly insignificant players in the war (in leaving out major political and top-brass commanders) extend through nearly all countries and fuel a sort of “unquenched patriotism” through depicting relatively ordinary people “bearing the burdens” of the war (Schirmer 388). Because Dunkirk and Brothers are able to dramatize real events in which sacrifice is made clear, this idea of brotherhood is a little easier to understand.
Even though the ultimate end of these films are more positively reflected in the perceived engagements successes, they both still bring to light that even though brotherhood is a major role in these films, there is the grizzly reality of war. In both films, there is the ever present “intimacy of men in combat,” but also “the corrosion of their humanity” (Crim). In Dunkirk, the men hiding in a beached trawler argue over who to toss out, as the boat will not float with all of them in it (Dunkirk 57:00). In the episode “Points” of Band of Brothers, one replacement soldier drunkenly kills a sergeant, and subsequently gets beaten nearly to death by a significant number of men within the company (“Points” 45:37). Both of these instances do depict what war actually is, and not just a summer camp for men to form bonds, a bloody, violent engagement that chips away at humanity. This, however, does not diminish the deeper sentiments of brotherhood shared by the majority of the soldiers in these films who are willing to sacrifice for one another.
Though Band of Brothers and Dunkirk follow similar tropes of the typical war movie of glorifying the combatants and their exploits, it provides a deeper, more authentic experience than that of other installments of the genre, and are built on sacrifice and brotherhood. With framing these narratives around real world events and accounts of the real men of Easy Company and British soldiers at Dunkirk, this miniseries stands alone as it connects to its audience through the authentic experience of men who participated in the war.
Baker, Aaron. “The Italian Neorealist War Film.” Arizona State University. Lecture.
“Bastogne.” Band of Brothers, created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, written by Tom Hanks, Erik Jendresen, et al, HBO Entertainment, 2001.
Crim, Brian E. “”I Got no Problem Killing My Kin”: Fury (2014) and The Evolution of The World War II Combat Film.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 48 no. 1, 2018, p. 4–14. Project MUSE. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/701449. Accessed 25 November 2020.
Dunkirk. Directed and written by Christopher Nolan, performances by Kenneth Branaugh, Cilian Murphy, and Fionn Whitehead, Warner Brothers, 2017.
Frisk, Kristian. “Post-Heroic Warfare Revisited: Meaning and Legitimation of Military Losses.” Sociology. 2018;52(5):898–914. doi:10.1177/0038038516680313. Accessed 25 November 2020.
Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, Volume 4, World War II, Barry Keith Grant, pp. 385–395.
Junger, Sebastian. “Why Veterans Miss War.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 23 May 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGZMSmcuiXM. Accessed 2 November 2020.
“Points.” Band of Brothers, created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, written by Tom Hanks, Erik Jendresen, et al, HBO Entertainment, 2001.
Schartz, Thomas. “Old War/New War:Band of Brothers and the Revival of the WWII War Film”. Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. Vol. 32, Number 1, 74–78. Center for the Study of Film and Television. 2002. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/400230/pdf. Accessed 2 November 2020.
“Why We Fight.” Band of Brothers, created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, written by Tom Hanks, Erik Jendresen, et al, HBO Entertainment, 2001.