Band of Brothers Episode 1: "Currahee"

Episode 1: “Currahee” 

Directed by: Phil Alden Robinson

Written by: Erik Jendresen, Tom Hanks

Original Airdate: September 9, 2001

The most striking comparison between Band of Brothers and its shorter, elder brother Saving Private Ryan is the former’s focus on showing the journey this group of soldiers embarks on, from start to finish. Whereas Ryan opens with a gruesome punch to the gut, Brothers opens with our characters’ origin–in terms of The War, their pre-departure training.

Opening with personal interviews with a handful of living Easy Company survivors each telling their reasons for volunteering for the airborne unit (the use of real faces of this company is another brilliant technique that makes Band of Brothers so unique in the pantheon of war films) we instantly realize that the majority of the characters we’re about to spend the next ten hours with were more or less all there for the same reason. Unlike the war in Korea or future wars (our current predicament in the Middle East included) World War II united Americans to fight for a sole cause. Pearl Harbor showed the vulnerability of home turf and as a result men volunteered, often times (as was in the case with many airborne privates) in an outfit they knew nothing about. Many had no idea what the airborne division was only that it was an opportunity to serve and, as we discover, it paid $50 more than other outfits. One veteran perfectly sums up the national attitude of the times when he says, “We came from a small, small town and three fellows in that town that were 4F committed suicide because they couldn’t go. A different time.”

Currahee refers to a mountain in Georgia used as a training camp for American Paratroopers, the boot camp being the setting for Band of Brother’s first act. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, one of the finest and most underappreciated Vietnam War films, Band of Brothers spends its first hour showcasing the mental and physical preparation required to go to war. Basic training is more than just gaining physical endurance and learned battle skills. The rigorous nature of the training is more about preparing the mind for the utter horror the psyche is soon to endure. In Jacket Drill Instructor Hartman (played beautifully by a brash R. Lee Erney) appears at first as nothing more than an amusing caricature of discipline and routine. We later learn that his tactics, no matter how cruel or intense they may seem, are nothing compared to the true chaos of combat.

We meet Easy Company in basic training under the strict tutelage of Captain Herbert Sobel. The casting of ex-Friends player David Schwimmer as Sobel was scoffed at upon the series initial release and watching the first episode, which focuses primarily on his character, it’s easy to see why the choice was a bit odd. Besides physically resembling the real Sobel (as a quick Wikipedia search confirmed) Schwimmer is a bit distracting in the role–a superstar mug amidst a cast of otherwise unknown actors, many of whom are British. Like so many hit television stars Schwimmer will never be able to shed his pretty boy background and his presence is the one minor flaw in an otherwise stellar debut episode.

Sobel, while imperfect (as the viewer and the boy of Easy eventually find out), proves to be the right kind of tough when it comes to not only preparing the men for whatever might come their way but also bringing them together. He forces his men to run the extra mile and march at night while the other platoons are resting. Through his diligence the men become accustomed to dehydration, sudden surprises (as seen in a scene where the company, having just sat down to a heaping spaghetti dinner are summoned to run up Currahee mountain), and even a grueling crawling exercise through piles of rotting animal innards (an atrocious but as we know from Saving Private Ryan, a necessary routine).

As the episode progresses and we become aware of Sobel’s inefficiency in actual combat scenarios, we see the men of Easy bond in a manner that can’t be forced or taught. Sharing the common concern over their superior’s capabilities in the line of fire (and ultimately their survival), they join together in an act of mutiny to rid their company of its dead weight. Trust is a theme that resonates throughout the first episode and looks to be one that will carry through the series.

Sobel’s inabilities shed light on some of the stronger characters of the ensemble most notably Major Richard Winters (Damian Lewis), who early gains the trust of the men of Easy. His friendship with Captain Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston, the only other truly recognizable actor in the ensemble thus far, of Office Space cult stardom) is also hinted to in this episode, a primer for what looks to be another reoccurring part of the series.

This first episode takes its time introducing the faces of Easy Company while also giving a glimpse into the time and energy needed to prepare for war, and more specifically jumping out of a plane (after all this story is about Paratroopers, a terribly dangerous outfit). The episode’s cliffhanger leaves Easy on a plane out of a base in England on its way to a Normandy invasion. What’s fascinating about the way the episode ends is the realization that no matter how much training these men have attained nothing will truly prepare them for what’s in their near future. We the viewer know this and from the nervous looks on many of the company, they do too.


–While David Schwimmer’s presence is a bit distracting his moments of confusion (while lost in a training exercise in the English countryside) and utter fear (seen during a parachute jump exercise) actually work thanks in part to his signature droopy-eye expressions. When he loses Easy Company, even though with high accolades for his training methods, you can see the desperation on his face. Respect and honor are what the commanders strive for.

–Schwimmer and Livingston are the most obvious faces but there are some pleasant surprises including Donnie Wahlberg who we catch brief glimpses of in Episode 1 but who will clearly become more of a prominent figure as the series carries on. Also present is one Kirk Acevedo, a terribly underused actor known among the HBO enthusiast circle as a memorable inmate on OZ but also for his role as a private in Terrence Malick’s mesmerizing Pacific WWII film, The Thin Red Line.

–Nice to see Brit Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz acclaim pop up as Sobel’s awkward right hand man. The ensemble so far has number of British acting leads, a casting tradition not at all foreign to HBO. 

–Including the episode’s prologue of interviews with the last remaining men of Easy was one of the best decisions Spielberg and gang made for this series. Much like Ken Burns’ recent documentary The War, hearing the story firsthand gives the viewer an entirely new perspective on just how monumental the War was. Americans stopping their daily routine and enlisting for a universal cause is something this country hasn’t truly seen since. After Spielberg made Schindler’s List he helped found an organization determined to interview survivors to hear their stories before they were all gone. It appears that he extended broadened this goal during the making of this series. While Band of Brothers is a dramatization anchoring each episode with these testimonials brings a human element to the story that very few traditional war films can ever achieve. 

Once Upon a Time…

Many artists have tackled the leap from music video filmmaking to full-length features, with few successfully making the change. Music videos, like film shorts, carry the luxury of not relying on solid narrative but rather focusing almost solely on stunning visuals.

Take your pick of some of the greats–Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Ferris, David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, to name a few–all made sly transitions from artistic music shorts to acclaimed feature films by bringing along their unique artistic visions and pairing it with good, old fashioned story telling. Then there’s Tarsem Singh (most commonly referred to simply as Tarsem), the Indian born music video and commercial director whose second film, a sophisticated, beautifully imagined but ultimately flawed fairy tale called The Fall, is currently enjoying a limited release, two years after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

Tarsem jumped on the scene after directing the award winning video for R.E.M.’s hit single, “Losing My Religion” in 1991. You might remember it as the video in which Michael Stipe waves his hands a lot while an emotionless Peter Buck somberly strums a mandolin. Actually this video and many other commercials helmed by Tarsem, feature a unique style of lighting, set and costume design, and an overall artistic vision seldom see in music videos.

The director made his feature debut back in 2000 with the visually stunning but mediocre psychological thriller, The Cell.The film starred a still up and coming Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn and benefited from eye-opening and highly imaginative effects but was ultimately weighed down by an uninspired script.

The Fall is a film that took a little over four years to make and was filmed in 28 different countries damn near spanning the globe, including India, Argentina, Indonesia, China, Egypt, South Africa, Romania, and the Czech Republic, among others. Much of the film was financed by Tarsem himself and above all seems to be a personal dream project that the director has been conjuring up in his imagination for a long time. Unfortunately the film, like its predecessor, excels in its stunning visual beauty but falls short due to shoddy acting by a cast of no-name players and dialogue that at times is laughable.

It’s a shame that The Fall managed to get bogged down in something as trivial as the script but then again, therein lies the fine line between visually acute music video directors and feature filmmakers–story and substance must be as important as what the viewer sees. The Fall had the potential to be one of the great modern day fairy tales, a wonderful genre that has almost become extinct amongst the slew of Hollywood blockbusters, remakes and super hero adaptations.

ImageTarsem no doubt envisioned The Fall as an extravagant way to transport audiences into the tender imagination of a child–the stuff that the best fairy tales are made of. Technically set “once upon a time” in Los Angeles during World War I, The Fall tells a story of a stunt man whose heart (woman) and body (accident) are broken. Stuck in a hospital bed he finds comfort telling a wild tall tale of bandits and magic to an innocent little Romanian girl who unfolds the story in her mind and for the viewers delight.

The story itself is a bit simple, albeit predictable, dealing with fairy tale staples like revenge, love, an evil emperor, and a slew of colorful heroes. Told in the classic “an you were there, and you were there,” Wizard of Oz manner, The Fall is undoubtedly the result of one filmmaker’s nostalgic love of escaping to dazzling worlds via the magic of motion pictures. It has everything going for it and carries the potential to be one the great modern day fairy tales had the director focused more attention on the dialogue and laughable cast.

Watching The Fall is a treat for the eyes and it brings up memories of countless other memorable fairy tales that no matter how they age never cease to electrify the imagination. There are the classics such as, The Wizard of Oz or Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride to more recent greats like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children, Guillermo Del Toro’sPan’s Labyrinth, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (or the equally great Howl’s Moving Castle).

Then there are the early films of Terry Gilliam, particularly Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which it’s safe to say influenced Tarsem in terms of brining to life mature tall tales. Gilliam was one of the pioneers of the adult themed fairy tale with films that were eye opening for adults and children alike while maintaining a link to realities of modern life.

Visually The Fall showcases our planet’s natural beauty in an entirely authentic manner, without the reliance of computer generated background effects. It’s no wonder the film took a whopping four years to complete. Watching the film is as much about trekking the globe in search of the perfect panoramic shot, the perfect temple, the perfect island, the perfect mountain, you name it, as it is about watching the fairy tale unfold.

Certain shots and sets pay homage to surrealists like Dalí or naturalists like Winslow Homer, while the costume work is reminiscent of the old Hollywood big budget epics. Finally the pristine cinematography of the natural surroundings brings to mind naturalist films such as Baraka, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, and most recently BBC’s Planet Earth mini series, not to mention filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick.

Coming from a man who spent most of his career dolling up Nike and Levis ads or encouraging Michael Stipe to wiggle for the camera, The Fall is an impressive sophomore release for a director who is just shy of becoming one of the more visually brilliant filmmakers working today. With his third film, an intriguing sounding thriller called The Unforgettable slated for a 2011 release, Tarsem is a promising filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Side note: While The Fall is hardly a flawless film it is definitely worth seeing and deserves to be experienced on the big screen. Like most small films with limited releases it will not be around for long.

Malick’s America

“In this world, a man, himself, ain’t nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”
“You’re wrong there, I’ve seen another world.”
—The Thin Red Line

There are a number of master filmmakers working today, untouchables you might call them, who continue to make the crème of the crop and whose films are judged not in terms of good or bad but rather by levels of brilliance. Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Spielberg, possibly Tarantino, at one point Francis Ford Coppola, are just a couple names that come to mind. Then there is Terrence Malick who, despite having only four films under his belt and lacking the notoriety of the latter names, is one of the finest, critically acclaimed, and most mysterious American filmmakers alive today.

It’s hard to warrant calling someone a master with such a limited film canon; still few filmmakers are as unique and majestic in their craft as Malick. Jumping in the spotlight with 1973’s Badlands, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque epic starring a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Malick quickly established himself as an up and coming visionary due to his unique visual style, passion for natural settings, and a harsh but honest portrayal of the America way of life, the country’s history, and the stark realities of the “American dream,” a theme that carries on through all his films.

Badlands, which was based on a real life murder account set in the Midwest, is a film that deals with two characters’ boredom with the social realities of the America they live in–the normality of Sheen’s character’s dead-end job, the unfair class infrastructure and finally the desire to escape to the vast open spaces of our country. 

I was recently reminded of Malick, whose movies I revisit at least once a year–his films are a sort of mesmerizing experience that only seem to improve with age–after renting Malick’s recently re-released sophomore film, Days of Heaven. Beautifully restored with time and care by the brilliant people over at the Criterion Collection, the only true bastion of the preservation of cinematic classics on DVD, Heaven is one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. 

Arguably Malick’s most eye opening motion picture to date, Heaven is a film that deals with the American frontier dreams as seen through the eyes of some young, ambitious laborers circa the early 20th century. Richard Gere (quite possibly his only substantial role) stars as a young troublemaker who is forced to flee Chicago after a tussle at his factory job, and moves with his girlfriend and her sister to the Texas panhandle to find work as a farm laborer. While the story involves a vicious love triangle and deals with people who try to take the easy road to fortune and prosperity, it is the film’s visuals, particularly the wide angle shots of the American plains set on a backdrop of dawn/dusk half-light that truly makes this film a masterpiece. Watching the film is like witnessing a Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, or Ansel Adams photograph come alive in brilliant color, accompanied by a moving score.

Few filmmakers rely so heavily on stunning cinematography and the use of au natural setting as a major entity of their work as Malick does time after time. He has been labeled a frontier filmmaker for his fascination with the evolution of this country. His work is often riddled with metaphors and underlying philosophical meanings, a facet of his films that often deters viewers who are quick to label him pretentious. Above all though, his films are visually breathtaking, often working with the finest cinematographers and scouting the most picturesque locations.

By capturing the natural beauty of this country and later with the rest of the world (as seen through the South Pacific Islands of The Thin Red Line), Malick is able to showcase the clashing of people and the environment in a way that few filmmakers have ever done. Days of Heaven is a film about frontier Westward expansion and the greed and corruption that came along with it. The scenes of the laborers working in unity as a sort of machine are visually beautiful thanks to Malick’s unique eye but are also saddening because it shows the fast pace of change and expansion that transformed and in many ways destroyed this country’s natural order.

After Days of Heaven, which was well received, even garnering a controversial Academy Award for cinematography (two notable cinematographers, only one recognized); Malick became a J.D. Salinger-esque recluse, vanishing out of the public’s eye for twenty years. Many speculated that Malick was working on the great American novel; others believed he was writing an epic screenplay, some even speculated that he had died. It wasn’t until 1997 that he made his highly anticipated return in the form of The Thin Red Line, an epic Asia-Pacific theatre World War II film with a brilliant cast of notable and up and coming actors. Loosely based on the novel of the same name (supposedly a much longer, “true to the book” cut of the film is out there with narration by Billy Bob Thornton), Line chronicles the U.S. army’s takeover of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific during the war with Japan. Paired with Spielberg’s brutal but mesmerizing Saving Private Ryan (released curiously enough around the same time), this is the finest World War II film ever made. 
While not set on U.S. soil like his two prior films, Line is as much a film about America as it is about ‘the War.’ The many characters featured in the film each cling to the memories of the comfortable America they have in the back of their minds while the realities and chaos of the war around them provide a harsh wakeup call to the fact that the world is lot bigger than the their innocent small town life they’ve come to know. A couple soldiers, particularly Private Witt (played wonderfully by future Jesus Christ superstar, Jim Caviezel), see the grandeur and beauty of the world that they are helping to destroy but are slowly sucked back into their mission. Like all his films, Malick uses images of the vast natural surroundings to show serenity, beauty and the pulsing lifeline of our planet and then depicts its vulnerability through the mayhem of war and man’s devastating footprints. Few films are as affective at showing the absurd, chaotic, and futile nature of war than The Thin Red Line

In 2005 Malick returned to a script that he had been working on since the 70s (possibly what he was toying with during his twenty-year hiatus) about the landing at Jamestown and America’s “unofficial” conception. People were quick to label The New World a retelling of the Pocahontas and John Smith story, sans talking raccoons and boisterous river canoe songs, when in reality (again like all Malick films) there was more to the film than just the love story. 

The New World is in many ways an extension of all of Malick’s previous works and is also a precursor to the American theme he’s worked with throughout his career. The film chronicles America’s first hour and the slow, inevitable downward spiral that followed. It deals with expansion and the birth of modern civilization paired with the slow destruction of the preexistent natural order. The film’s gorgeous opening five minutes set to the stirring string and horn crescendo of Wagner’s beautiful “Vorspiel Prelude” from Das Rheingold is a scene that, in the same vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the perfect pairing of imagery and sound. 

The films of Terrence Malick are not for everyone. His use of long shots, voice-over narration, and scripts that dabble in philosophical prose often leave viewers befuddled. Despite casting big names like Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Sean Penn, George Clooney etc, his movies are not your average popcorn epics. I remember attending an opening night screening of The New World with a group of college friends and being the only one to leave the theater even remotely satisfied (they hated it that much). Still he is an important filmmaker who continues to create unique movies that stand alone, and with a new project, the mysterious The Tree of Life, on the horizon, it’s evident that Malick is eager to contribute more to the world of cinema.