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.