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in focus

How Band of Brothers shaped the future of television

‘Masters of the Air’, arriving this week on Apple TV+, marks the reunion of powerhouse Hollywood duo Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Nick Hilton looks back on how the pair’s 2001 collaboration, on the visceral war epic ‘Band of Brothers’, was a blueprint for HBO’s success and the world of prestige TV

Thursday 25 January 2024 09:45 GMT
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Damian Lewis and David Schwimmer portrayed the horrors of the Second World War in ‘Band of Brothers’
Damian Lewis and David Schwimmer portrayed the horrors of the Second World War in ‘Band of Brothers’ (Sky)

It’s 9 September 2001. A young history buff called Tom is sitting down to watch the big new HBO series, Band of Brothers. Like many Americans, Tom’s family don’t have an HBO subscription, and so he’s had to go over to his next-door neighbours, Earl and Doris. “I looked forward to it for a long time,” he says, “but wasn’t prepared for how great it was”. He was in apposite company: Earl had been at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He had met Doris in England, where she had endured the blitz, and married her before taking her back to the United States. And now, some 50 years later, Earl, Doris and Tom were sitting together, watching the most ambitious televisual representation of America’s role in the Second World War ever committed to the screen – just two days before America’s place in the world order would shift once again.

Band of Brothers, a 10-part depiction of the journey of a parachute regiment – Easy Company – across the Western Front and towards Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest outpost, was a landmark moment in television history. It formed the first part of a triptych looking at American participation in the Second World War. Band of Brothers told the story of infantrymen deployed across Europe, while, almost 10 years later, the show’s creators reunited for The Pacific, a vivid retelling of naval warfare in the Eastern theatre. Now, with another decade in the rearview mirror, the air force is having its time in the sun, with Masters of the Air starting this week on Apple TV+. This loose trilogy of shows, which depict the three main branches of the US Army, were all produced by the powerhouse Hollywood duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, with key collaborators including Gary Goetzman and John Orloff binding together a singular vision of American military history.

Back in 2001, Band of Brothers represented a huge punt on public interest in a war fought within living memory. A New York Times article, shortly before the show’s release, proclaimed “HBO Bets Pentagon-Style Budget on a World War II Saga”. The mooted figure of $125m for the series – or $12m an episode – was eye-watering, even by the standards of prestige TV.

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“In HBO’s early days,” says Felix Gillette, co-author of It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution and Future of HBO, “all of its original programmes were made on threadbare budgets.” The dawn of DVD sales in the mid-1990s changed all that, with new revenue streams opening up opportunities for television to challenge the visual supremacy of cinema. “Band of Brothers was the epitome of this new approach,” judges Gillette.

But before it could be a landmark piece of business, changing the premium landscape forever, it had to be a coherent piece of narrative. The show, which follows Damian Lewis’s Dick Winters through the last years of the war, was conceived by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks off the back of their 1998 Oscar-winning hit, Saving Private Ryan. That movie – starring Hanks as a Captain suffering from PTSD as he searches for a young private played by Matt Damon – opens in the shell-stirred waters of Omaha beach. That sequence, where landing craft arrive in Normandy to a hail of German gunfire, was celebrated as one of the most visceral and realistic depictions of the horror of war. Roger Ebert called it “as graphic as any war footage I’ve ever seen”. One of the show’s writers, Erik Bork, says that the series was easy “to make primal and compelling because of the constant battle and life-and-death stakes”.

Pierce Brosnan has led tributes to the late ‘Band of Brothers’ director David Leland

The critical success of this brutal opening would shape the aesthetic sensibility of Band of Brothers, which continues in that nightmarish vein. Death, when it comes, is often swift and unexpected. But sometimes it is chaotic and protracted, as when the parachutists arrive in France only to have machine guns turn their canopies into ribbons. “We read a lot of books and see movies where it’s the gallant general coming in with the bird’s eye view,” observes Marcus Brotherton, a writer who worked with veterans of Easy Company on a collective memoir, A Company of Heroes. “But the war is led by the non-commissioned officers and the war is won or lost on the success of the guy who’s got the rifle in his hands.”

Working with veterans of the conflict, Brotherton had a unique opportunity to ascertain their sense of the authenticity of the drama. Did it capture their experience? Or dress it up as Hollywood cosplay? “The men talked about how the battle scenes were very vivid, realistic, and brought back memories. Many of those memories were traumatic but overall, they were pretty happy with the series.” That’s a view corroborated by Joe Muccia, an Iraq war veteran and historian of Easy Company. “Viewers could view these veterans as if they were someone we knew,” he says. “It provided that kind of connection.”

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“Tom Hanks was such a believer in verisimilitude carrying the day if done right,” says Bork, who co-wrote the finale episode set deep in Nazi Germany. “The real events were so rich and compelling already that verisimilitude would always win.” For Bork, the process of writing for one of the biggest shows ever committed to the small screen was intimately bound up in telling the real stories of life in Easy Company. “We would sometimes modify and shape how events and characters were presented for practical reasons or for clarity, but never to make it ‘more exciting’,” he says. “More understandable, maybe, or more personal and emotional, but never: ‘This isn’t exciting enough on its own.’”

Damian Lewis, Tom Hanks and Ron Livingston on the set of ‘Band of Brothers' (Shutterstock)

Part of that excitement comes from a sense of momentum that builds through the show, from D-Day in 1944 to VE Day less than a year later. This small slice of history is the story of America’s war. Action opens in 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and so the drama begins in media res. When the men of Easy Company arrive in continental Europe, they find it a wartorn husk: the land is already pock-marked from years of mortar fire, the people waiting for star-spangled liberation.

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The BBC, who contributed an unprecedented £7m to co-produce the drama, became skittish about the show and, in a remarkable volte-face, moved it from BBC One to BBC Two just a few weeks before it was due to air. “It’s not too gory,” remarked Lorraine Heggessey, then the controller of BBC One, “but it’s relatively niche and I’m running a mainstream channel.”

In hindsight, the BBC’s cold feet looks like a failure of creative and commercial imagination. “The relationship that men of my generation have with Band of Brothers is amazing,” says Robert Hutton, a British author and co-host of A Pod Too Far, who will be 50 this year. The show, for him, is instructive about “what it is to be a man, to be a leader, to be a comrade”. And while it was inspiring a cohort of young men to be more responsible (and start war movie rewatch podcasts), it was also launching the careers of a host of future household names: Simon Pegg, Tom Hardy, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Graham, Andrew Scott, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender. All appear, fleetingly, as part of Band of Brothers’ sprawling ensemble. As a feat of speculative casting, it displays an investment judgment that would make a Rockefeller jealous.

The cast of Masters of the Air, meanwhile, possibly reflects how bankable the proposition has become. Among its leads, both Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan were Oscar-nominated last year; Ncuti Gatwa and Callum Turner, meanwhile, have already graced the big-time worlds of Doctor Who and Harry Potter.

Austin Butler is among the star-studden ensemble in ‘Masters of the Air’ (Courtesy of Apple)

Watch Band of Brothers now, more than two decades later, and the show is an obvious blueprint for HBO’s success. Their hit shows from the pre-Band of Brothers era – The Sopranos, which was two years into its eight-year run, and Six Feet Under, which premiered a few months before Spielberg’s miniseries – feel less emblematic of HBO’s future success than the Spielberg/Hanks opus. “The real legacy of Band of Brothers at HBO,” says James Andrew Miller, author of Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, “wasn’t solely reflected in its appetite for miniseries, but rather its comfort with taking big chances that required writing big cheques.” For Miller, Rome, Westworld and, most strikingly, Game of Thrones are all descended from Band of Brothers. “You can draw a direct line from Band of Brothers to these later ambitions,” he says.

And yet, perhaps because of its Americanness, or the proximity of its release to the 11 September attacks and changing social mores about the military, Band of Brothers feels, at times, like a forgotten chapter in modern televisual history. Some of the qualities of the show pointed out by veteran Muccia – “it stresses service to your nation and faith in your comrades… there is a purity and goodness in that” – already feels old-fashioned. Recent critically acclaimed war movies, such as All Quiet on the Western Front or Dunkirk, or more modern offerings like Zero Dark Thirty or The Hurt Locker, have traded more directly in moral ambivalence. And even long before Band of Brothers, “war movies in the 1980s were about Vietnam, and full of complexity about why the troops were there”, says Hutton. In contrast, Spielberg’s Second World War dramas, both Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, are classic “mission” stories. If war is hell, then Easy Company is Orpheus descending into the underworld, on a tragic quest where there is only one direction of travel.

Easy Company parachutes into France on D-Day in ‘Band of Brothers' (Sky)

But looking back, as Orpheus shouldn’t have, the lack of a politicised angle to Band of Brothers gives it a timeless quality. Unlike Top Gun or American Sniper, there can be no insinuation that it is recruitment propaganda for the US military. But, equally, it is no Platoon or The Thin Red Line; there is no route for it to be read as an anti-war diatribe. Released 60 years on from the Pearl Harbor attack (and shortly after the Michael Bay film of the same name disgraced cinema screens), Band of Brothers was an opportunity to relearn the experiences of a generation of veterans, in their twilight years.

“I hope that we can continue to educate this generation and future generations,” says Brotherton, whose oral histories of Easy Company were one of the last opportunities for that regiment to tell their stories directly. Now, 80 years after D-Day, there are few who remain to tell the tale of the liberation of France, Europe and the survival, for now, of Western democracy.

It is easy to see the America of early September 2001, when the show debuted, as a prelapsarian paradise of naive bliss. Two days later, 9/11 would replace Pearl Harbor as the deadliest attack ever committed on American soil. And yet, if you look at Tom, Earl and Doris huddled around a single HBO subscription, watching that opening episode, the fantasy of innocence evaporates. Earl and Doris were there, not in itchy replica costumes and muddy make-up, but in the thrust of the narrative. For veterans and new viewers and executives at HBO shaping the future of television, Band of Brothers provided a definitive bookend to a tumultuous century – and became the final draft of a living, breathing history.

‘Masters of the Air’ is out on Apple TV+ on Friday 26 January.

Watch ‘Masters of the Air’ for free with Apple TV+’s seven-day free trial

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