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Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan
The Church of Hanks and Spielberg
During the opening and closing sequences of ‘Why We Fight’, the ninth episode of Band of Brothers (2001), we watch a mournful string quartet playing in a street. It appears to be an emotional and spontaneous performance by defeated German citizens. Around them their neighbours are clearing bomb debris, watched by victorious Allied soldiers. It’s the beginning of May in 1945 - we know this because one of the soldiers reports the news of Hitler’s suicide - and the amateur musicians, sitting on derelict chairs in the ruins, are playing Beethoven.
There’s another level to this musical sequence, but unless you’re Jewish and/or a music buff you have to dig a bit to find it. The piece they are playing, an adagio from the 14th Quartet, revolves around a musical phrase taken from Kol Nidrei, a Jewish service held on the eve of Yom Kippur, ‘the Day of Atonement’. Kol Nidrei includes a plea to god to be released from unfulfilled promises, especially those that were made under duress. It addresses fallibility, regret and making amends.
Band of Brothers was a relatively early ‘prestige TV’ project, if not quite an OG like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. It follows a real-life company of US paratroopers from recruitment and training to the end of the war. ‘Why We Fight’, the penultimate episode, focuses on the discovery by these troops of Kaufering IV, a sub-camp of Dachau, a couple of miles away from the musicians’ homes. It addresses the silent complicity of the Bavarians who have gone busily about their lives next-door to a concentration camp, and shows them being held sternly to account by outraged soldiers.
The poetic justice is a bit too cartoonish, and in parts it exhibits the peculiarly American self-righteousness that comes with knowing that you are, and have been for some time, Top Nation. (British cultural artefacts displayed the same quality until the fact of Britain’s international decline became too obvious to ignore.) A plump Bavarian baker - looking like an illustration from a children’s book, literally dusted with flour - is blusteringly angry until an American soldier points a gun at him, at which point he falls silent and puts his hands up. Nazis! I hate these guys. But this is the penultimate episode of Band of Brothers; by now you’re along for the ride, and you forgive the odd tin-eared moment because of the care and intelligence that’s applied elsewhere. Which leads us back to the inclusion of this particular Beethoven piece.
If you look it up online you’ll find theories about how Beethoven - who was not Jewish, and was deaf by the time he wrote the 14th Quartet - came to know this musical theme from the Kol Nidrei service. One guess is that he heard it pouring out of a synagogue during his childhood in Bonn, at a time when the city’s Jewish citizens had been forced into a ghetto. And before you know it you’re thinking about the long and frequently miserable history of the Jewish experience in Europe, and how great art draws its influences, voraciously, from diverse sources. You find yourself thinking about the richness of German culture and its astonishing collapse and - with a certain amount of empathy - about the cramped shame of post-war Germans. The show actively encourages this empathy; the clear implication is that the musicians chose to play this particular piece at this particular time, because of its associations with atonement. In an episode about the Holocaust, the final note makes you consider how Europeans learned to live together again, drawing on deep and diverse cultural wellsprings.
Around the turn of the millennium, quite a few middle-aged men were publicly working through their feelings about not having fought in the Second World War. In the UK Melvyn Bragg and Jeremy Paxman did this in the usual way of the British middle classes - the way of a culture that is most definitely no longer Top Nation: with lots of shame and comic self-deprecation. Our fathers saved the world; we, their sons, perfected power steering and the drum solo. What miserable worms we are. In the USA, similar impulses were seized and led in a different direction by America’s sweetest men, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Together they worked first on Saving Private Ryan (1998) and then on Band of Brothers.
Ryan and Brothers do a couple of straightforward things extremely well. They show the mythic, Manichean qualities of the Second World War, emphasising that it was an existential battle against an extraordinary evil. They also give us a concrete sense of the terrifying experiences of these ordinary American boys who travelled thousands of miles from home to do extraordinary things. What makes them really stand out, though, is the respect they have for both their source materials and their audience. At their best they have a quiet mastery of tone, a perfectly judged blend of myth and reality that gives them space to portray serious ethical complexity and moral degradation without losing the attention or sympathy of an entirely average viewer. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at the first episode of Band of Brothers. You’ll find a jewel-perfect narrative: both a wholly satisfying back-story and an irresistible set-up.
Neither Saving Private Ryan nor Band of Brothers are exacting pieces of brute realism, but that’s all to the good if you’re trying to tell a Wednesday night multiplex audience things they didn’t already know. A bit of sugar helps, and there’s quite a lot of sugar here, flattening out and romanticising. The Red Army is barely mentioned, and the racist segregation of US troops is only glancingly acknowledged. They don’t quite know how to portray heroism without tipping into worship: Hanks’s Captain Miller in Ryan and Dick Winters in Brothers (Damian Lewis) are models of morality, competence and judgement.1 Everyone in Brothers, whether a major character (Ron Livingstone’s Lewis Nixon) or minor (Tom Hardy’s John Janovec), is absolutely gorgeous.
But for Hanks and Spielberg, even mass-market shows and movies about the Second World War - or rather, especially mass-market shows and movies about the Second World War - deserve a superabundance of care and thoughtfulness. I say ‘especially’ because - like Hanks and Spielberg - I think the stories we tell ourselves about the Second World War really matter. It’s not only a historical event; it’s a foundational myth of American and British culture. And while, yes, in this instance we were definitely right and definitely victorious, it’s healthier if our foundational myth can also acknowledge the complexity of the story: the segregated troops, the vital contribution of ‘the colonies’, the betrayal of Poland.
Just as lazy crime dramas use sexual violence to grab a bit of unearned gravitas, the Second World War is too easily deployed as a profundity-generator. Real-life horror and fear is pressed into service manufacturing jeopardy for fictional characters. War novels abound, and nearly every year there’s a smoothly featureless movie based on real-life events. Streaming platforms pump out beautifully rendered alternate universes in which the Nazis rule Britain or goosestep around present-day Washington and Berlin: all of the thrills, none of the pain.
Ryan and Brothers achieve something rare in a crowded field. They are neither uncomplicatedly jingoistic nor self-consciously ‘challenging’; neither Cockleshell Heroes nor Catch-22 (although in their confident handling of ambiguity they share something with Casablanca). The ‘good guys’ are not always good, and some of the ‘bad guys’ are terrified and fundamentally innocent. Incompetent American officers are raised up by blind favouritism, and mad orders cause unnecessary deaths. Moral compromise is everywhere, but there’s never any doubt about the moral imperative of Allied success. They draw you in by burnishing the legends of Omaha Beach and the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, and then they show you ambivalence, sadism and chaos. (My teenage son, raised on Marvel movies and questionable Netflix series about druglords, watched the famously brutal opening to Saving Private Ryan in shocked silence.) They force you to come face-to-face with the truth: that, sitting on your sofa in 2022, you believe that the pain and death and grief were a price worth paying. Which is not necessarily wrong, but is quite an easy thing to believe if you don’t have to personally pay that price.
For British viewers the dramatic string-pulling and narrative romanticisation are most evident, and most seductive and flattering, when Easy Company - the real-life squad at the heart of Band of Brothers - is quartered in creamy old rural England as they prepare for the invasion of France. It’s all pubs and stone houses and kind laundresses and urbane old men on bicycles; not a grimy Docklands street or a snaggle-toothed labourer in sight. (In real life, dockers at Tilbury managed to call a strike directly before D-Day, affecting the loading of the ships.) The scenes showing the launch of the D-Day invasion are taut and terrifying in the twilight of a hot English summer’s day. As the paratroopers’ overloaded planes take off against a blazing sunset, Eisenhower’s address to the D-Day force appears on screen:
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
I love this sequence, not despite its emotional manipulation but because of it; because it is so successful, and so masterfully brings home the solemnity and significance of the moment. For a child of the Smash Hits generation I knew a reasonable amount about the D-Day story when I was young. My father made a documentary about it in the 1980s and we spent a damp summer in Normandy staring at beaches. But I hadn’t really paid much attention. It was Band of Brothers that made me find out more.
Hanks and Spielberg earn the right to take dramatic liberties because elsewhere they are such good, engaging teachers, and they do so much to acknowledge difficulty and compromise. In Saving Private Ryan we’re asked to consider which is worse: a fourth son from one family dying in combat, or multiple men dying to save that fourth son. And more: what if the man you’re saving is unremarkable, and the men who die to save him are not? In a painfully well-executed scene, Ryan (Matt Damon) recounts a fatuous and unpleasant story about a teenage sexual fumble, and Captain Miller - a devoted husband who will later die in the course of Ryan’s rescue - recoils. Ryan’s youth and plain, dumb ordinariness are revealed and his rescuers find them hard to forgive, but nevertheless they remain fully committed to their suicidal mission. Perhaps this is a metaphor about higher purposes, and for Private Ryan’s safe passage home we are meant to substitute the liberation of Europe, and of what’s left of her Jewish citizens. It’s a deeply imperfect culture, fragmented and disappointing, fallible and tedious in many ways, but it must not perish from the earth.
Hanks and Spielberg don’t do anything by accident, including the religious reference in ‘Why We Fight’. Brothers and Ryan aren’t explicitly religious, but they are moral works of secular myth-making and devotion. They meditate on higher purposes, sinfulness, forgiveness, atonement, sacrifice, duty and the moral life. Just like the Gettysburg Address, just like Kol Nidrei, and indeed just like John Donne, another preacher with a flair for popular entertainment:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
A big thank you to Harry Freedman, who generously checked my characterisation of Kol Nidrei. Harry’s Substack is a fascinating look at Jewish culture, history and ideas. He’s also written books about Leonard Cohen, among other topics, and has a book about being Jewish in 21st century Britain coming out in the autumn. Any remaining mistakes are my own stupid fault. Thanks Harry!
For more on the enduring appeal of male camaraderie:
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These are, of course, real people, which might have complicated things (although nobody seems to have had a bad word to say about Winters in real life either). Hanks and Spielberg came across Stephen Ambrose’s book about Easy Company, also called Band of Brothers, when researching Saving Private Ryan. Ryan itself is a narratively supercharged version of the real story of Fritz Niland, a paratrooper whose three brothers were believed to have died in action (one of them, it emerged later, had survived).