A Historian's Critique of the HBO Miniseries-Overview

An Overview
I'd like to begin by saying that I enjoyed watching this series very much and that subsequent viewings become even more enjoyable, as the viewer grasps details that were missed in prior viewings. As stated elsewhere on this site, I rated the series at 8.5 on a scale of 1-10 overall, but I felt through most of the series that 'something' was missing. I'll try to identify that elusive something as my critique progresses. The following will be an episode by episode critique of the series by the webmaster of Trigger Time, with the intent to separate fact from fiction (for those who care to know the difference), and to point out ways in which the series could have been improved. Most of my suggestions could have been implemented with little or no additional expense to the exorbitant budget of 120 million dollars that was spent in producing the series. I feel that the series is fair game for criticisms, largely due to Mr Spielberg's mandate that no expense was to be spared in getting the details right. In retrospect, it was not a question of expense, but rather of consulting the right people. The necessary missing info WAS available.

Better understanding of the whole by detailed examination of the few was the goal of the book as well as the miniseries, and in that, the series has succeeded. The viewer must just bear in mind that there were 26 other Parachute Infantry rifle companies in the 101st Airborne, including other 'Easy' Companies in the 501 and 502 PIRs, and 327th GIR. The company depicted in the series was arguably 'Average', in the sense of being typical among those 27 total PIR companies of the 101st. They were arguably not the most decorated, verifiably not the most wounded, did not suffer the most killed and were not in as many days of contact with the enemy as certain other companies of the WW2 101st Airborne Division. Some other companies killed more Germans too. Nobody is more acutely aware of these facts than the E Co. survivors themselves, and I sense that they are both honored and embarassed at being singled out for this attention, because they realize that all or most of the other 26 rifle companies deserve equal attention and recognition.

This brings me to the point of saying that, taking all portions of Band individually, there are few elements in it that are totally new to watchers of war films. Most of the battle scenarios have been presented in similar form before, which was to be expected. So why spend 120 million to do it again? Because it is the Combination of these events into a coherent, consecutive chronicle of one small unit's evolution and experiences from Training through Combat to the end of the war, that had never been done before. Hopefully, viewing the entire presentation has given those less-familiar with the subject, a perspective of Overview, and a real understanding of that particular slice of WW2 in the ETO. But, as I've continually pointed-out, it does NOT depict the universal experience of ETO soldiers or even of ETO paratroopers or even of 101st paratroopers or even of 506th paratroopers.

The Set
Having now seen the 10 basic episodes, I've realized that the huge budget of this HBO series went into creating realistic sets on which to film the action. Having visited the real locations, from Carentan to the dikes on the Island in Holland to the forest outside Foy, Belgium, I can attest that an awesome job was done on those sets. Whether the importance of that was lost on the average viewer (in terms of appreciation), I can't know. It's a shame that some locations which cost a fortune to reproduce were literally shown for only seconds in the film. Most notable are the church in Bastogne, the houses in Haguenau, and even the dikes on the island in Holland.

The hedges in England cannot replicate the dense and sometimes towering HEDGEROWS of Normandy, and that was one backdrop deficiency in Band as well as in Saving Private Ryan. I suspect that nothing short of filming on location in France would suffice, and that has proven impossible, due to legal complications involving firearms and ordinance.
A 1999 photo showing the massive hedgerows below Beuzeville au Plain, not far from the 'T' junction where Guarnere encountered the Georgian horse carts from le ferme Artilly

The cast for Band consisted mostly of British actors, who had to concentrate on talking like Americans as they spoke their lines. This they did remarkably well, although many of those with secondary roles either mumbled their lines, talked too fast, running over their own words, or the sound pickup system for the dialogue was inadequate. I had to re watch many scenes to pick-up what the actors were saying. In some cases that would still have been virtually impossible to do, had I not read Ambrose's book beforehand and familiarized myself with which characters were involved in certain events. No excuse for mumbled lines or unclear dialogue in a production with this budget, whether it was the fault of the actors or the technical equipment.

Damien Lewis turned-in a great portrayal of Dick Winters
Outstanding actors of the series were no doubt Damian Lewis (above left), who portrayed Dick Winters and captured his unique low key command style, and F.J. Hughes, who portrayed Bill Guarnere. The real Winters spent an entire day with me in spring of 1989, when Ambrose's 'Band of Brothers' book was still in the planning stage. When I asked Mr. Winters for an autographed photo, he didn't have one handy, so he removed the photo (above right) from his wallet and signed it for me on the spot with a ballpoint pen. I don't know how many years he might have carried this little photo around in his wallet, but in spring, 1989, he was not yet world famous.

Being personally acquainted with Winters since 1989, I can attest to Lewis' success in capturing Winters' stance (he looks like him from the rear especially, including the shape of his head), and conveying the essence of his idealistic, exemplary leadership. Fabulous job of acting! (BTW, both Winters and Don Malarkey had blond hair but both were portrayed in the series by redheads).
I first met Wild Bill Guarnere about 20 years ago at a 101st reunion. Frank John Hughes, who portrayed Bill Guarnere also turned-in a fabulous performance. Hughes not only bears a remarkable resemblance to Guarnere, but he mastered the South Philly accent and conveyed the fury which Bill took into combat after learning his brother had been KIA in Italy. Other characters who were outstanding because of the portrayal of their unique personalities and human vulnerabilities were the Malarkey and Compton characters. Donnie Wahlberg's Lipton and Ron Livingston's Nixon were also excellent. As long as the series was, there was inadequate time in the first episode to develop most of the characters. Unfortunately, development of the most interesting characters took place about halfways through the series. So when the first casualties were depicted in Normandy, they didn't have the viewer impact that we experienced upon seeing Muck killed and Toye and Guarnere grievously wounded at Bastogne. David Schwimmer did a superb job of portraying Captain Herb Sobel who was indeed both a hated martinet and a pathetic goofball. Forget what you know of him as a character on 'Friends'. Viewers watching this 100 years from now will get an accurate portrayal of Sobel from Schwimmer's performance. I will follow these introductory remarks with a critique of each episode in chronological order.


Episode 1-Currahee
A writer from the series informed me not long ago that the first (training) episode of the series was the most difficult to execute. I'm not surprised. When I wrote my company history of F/501, I discovered the same problem. The first episode was faced with the challenge of depicting the difficult training, developing characters, llustrating the unique predicament of men under Herb Sobel's command, and all the while not losing the interest of an audience which was ultimately tuned-in to view battle scenes. This was no doubt why the very opening depicted airfield sequences just prior to launching for D-Day,(whetting the audience's anticipation of a combat jump), then flashed back to training, then culminated in the June 5th takeoff. It is also why the 2nd episode followed right behind the first on opening night of the series, so the audience would get a taste of combat the first night the series aired, lest they not bother to come back the following Sunday.

This was a unit in which the training was so gruelling that it was physically much more difficult than combat. As a result dozens of men in every company were weeded out by the early training at Toccoa and forced to transfer out of the outfit. This should have and could have been brought up and depicted by men literally passing out and falling face forward on the Currahee trail, along with a lot of barfing and dry heaving. This didn't have to be done by the men who later went to combat with the company, but by expendable extras who would appear briefly in the training episode and wash out, never to be seen again. Some later episodes of the series benefitted greatly by having VOICEOVER NARRATIONS, by certain characters. That should have been done in Episode one, in combination with images as suggested above, to let the audience know that about half the men who volunteered for parachute duty simply couldn't make the training. Doing justice to this intense training without taking-up enough time to lose your viewing or reading audience is a tricky challenge indeed. But a narrator should have been used, to tie-up loose ends and explain the transition from location to location. Time constraints precluded anything more than a glimpse of the infamous obstacle course at Camp Toccoa, but not even a mention was made of the fact that 2nd Bn. of which Easy was a part, marched about 120 miles from Toccoa to Atlanta when enroute to Ft Benning for jump training. Rather than taking time to SHOW this march, it could have been alluded to by a narrator in a matter of seconds.

The Second Battalion's infamous 'Hawg Innards Problem' was not accurately depicted. While the troops crawled through that mess, machineguns were firing BARELY over their heads. They had to crawl very low and carefully, to avoid being shot.

The song the troops were heard singing while running-up Mt Currahee in one scene was a real WW2 era tune, and each regiment had a slightly different version of it. But you can bet it ended with the words "Parachute Infantry" instead of "We're Airborne Infantry" (6 syllables either way). During WW2, paratroopers never called themselves Airborne-that was a reduction in status for them, because Airborne also included Gliderborne troops which the paratroopers disdained and did not want to be confused with, nor associated with in public recognition. Someone involved in the production no doubt heard the song and melody from some WW2 vets on the set, but decided to change the lyrics-perhaps to make the song more identifiable to modern day soldiers. You can bet that the vets didn't sing "We're Airborne Infantry" at the end of that song when they told the movie people about it. Decades ago, some 501 veterans sang their version of the song for me. The melody was the same, but the lyrics differ:

We're Colonel Johnson's Troopers
We're fighters of the Night
We're dirty sonsabitches
We'd rather fuck than fight!
Hi-Dee, Hi-Dee, Christ Almighty,
Who in the Hell are WE?
Rim-Ram, Gawd Damn, Parachute Infantry"
NOT 'We're Airborne Infantry!' When I heard this impure abomination, it made me mad, because I know that no WW2 paratrooper told them lyrics with 'Airborne Infantry' in them. Paratroopers didn't succumb to that broader, less elite label until after the war ended, when the Parachute Infantry Regiments were redesignated Airborne Infantry Regiments. Small things like that remind you that you are watching a movie, and the magic is gone.

Dale Dye didn't look bad as Colonel Sink at the prop blast party-perhaps Mr Dye DYED his hair, to look younger? In the overseas episodes, he appears more than 20 years older than Sink was in 1944-45, which indeed he IS. A case of cronyism in casting.

Regarding the mutiny of NCO's in E Company in pre Normandy England, Lt Winters knew about the plan, and tried to talk those sergeants out of it. This fact was not shown in the movie, probably so they could set up the scene in which the Non Coms march past Winters in an impromptu parade and salute to show their respect for him, even in the role of Mess Officer. Although he portrayed a despised villain, Schwimmer's Herbert Sobel was the best character in the first episode.

Other Minor points about Episode 1:
Winters was promoted by Sink when he looked out the window and observed him leading P.T.
Red dot in the center of the white star on C-47's (and all other AAF planes), was removed by order of 18 August, 1942, so the planes shown at Benning in December probably wouldn't have had them.
M-1A-1 folding stock carbines began in production in the fall of 1942 and probably didn't reach the 506th before they left Toccoa in December, 1942. I do have a photo showing a 501 man holding one at Toccoa, but that was made in spring of 1943.
It should have been made clear to the audience that Private White's refusal to run Currahee again would have resulted in his expulsion from the 506th.
The David Webster character was depicted as a member of Easy Co. at the airfield suiting-up, and at the map briefing by Lt. Meehan. Technically, Webster started with 'F' Company, went into Normandy with HQ Co 2nd Bn., then joined Easy before Market-Garden.
At Lt Meehan's map briefing for Normandy, Carentan was given as one of the objectives. Although that town was certainly alluded to in those briefings, it was not yet an objective of the 101st. That was decided several days after the jump, when Carentan was added to the agenda of 101st objectives. This was unforseen, which was why BG Max Taylor was able to make his "Give me 3 days and nights of hard fighting and you'll be relieved and sent back to England" speech prior to D-Day.
Face paint at the airfield before D-Day-too sparse and 'artistic-looking'
The above points were made by Drew Cook, George Conduris, and Jake Powers. Now for some plus points by Drew:
Good closeup of detail on brown jump boots with brass eyelets (early type) at prop blast party
Good detail of Riddell football jump helmets at Benning
England:liked firing line shots of all the weapons-especially the bazooka.
Good repro motion sickness pill boxes in closeup.
Leather gloves worn by many, another good detail
The shot of Winters sitting in the door and the long pull back showing the skytrain heading out over the Channel was stunning, a great ending to Part 1.


Misleading Line re:Draftees
There is a scene at the Marshalling area before D-Day wherein Lt Winters is riding in a jeep with Lt Buck Compton, and Winters is explaining to Compton about the training his men have received and why they volunteered (as if Compton wouldn't know that). But Winters was fed a line by the writers which is untrue, misleading and unfair. He says that the men volunteeered so that when things got rough, the man in the hole next to them wouldn't be some DRAFTEE who would get them killed.

You didn't have to enlist in the Regular Army to volunteer for parachute duty during WW2, or even after the war, when Selective Service continued. Draftees were fully eligible to attend The Parachute School, and in fact there were at least 45 men in Easy 506th who won the Combat Infantry Badge in Normandy, who had entered the service as draftees. This was a smaller per capita percentage than in the 501, and as the war progressed with many replacements coming-in, the percentage of draftees even in the 506th eventually outnumbered the Regular Army men. There were relatively few loopholes to avoid the draft during WW2 and most eligible men didn't try to, because this was a highly patriotic war. Draftees brought a great deal of brains, education and talent to the WW2 Army.

Equipment blunders in Epsiode 1:The invasion message sheets from Colonel Sink shown in the series, which were handed out at the airfield were twice the size of actual ones, which were the same size as Ike's Great Crusade message. A lifesized copy of Sink's message appears in my first book. Jake Powers in fact supplied the production with correct-sized copies of the Sink message but these were deliberately ignored. Maybe the producers thought the viewing audience was so dense that they couldn't see a piece of paper half the size of what was shown?

As I had predicted and pointed-out on my website before the series began to air, almost every officer depicted in the first three episodes is shown wearing an enlisted man's overseas cap, with infantry blue piping, instead of the correct gold and black piped officer's version. This was particularly annoying in scenes with Winters, Compton and Nixon at the Marshalling Area in England before D-Day. What a relief to see Sobel finally wearing the correct type of cap at the airfield in Episode 4. I have to conclude that this particular mistake resulted from ignorance (i.e. not knowing), rather than unavailability of the correct type of caps. With a budget of 120 million, they could have had the proper type of caps MADE, if real ones were unavailable. All the overseas caps worn in the first episode had extremely high points at front and rear. Although a few caps were made that way, a variety of styles were actually worn, most having much shallower peaks-it would have been nice to see a variety of those, as well as a variety of eagle patch types. For the handful of characters who were repeatedly shown close-up on camera, I could have provided an array of vintage patch variants, which could have been sewn onto their shoulders in a few minutes. That would have added another small dimension of realism to the series, with negligible additional production costs. The multitudes of Type Ones sewn on the shoulders of the actors who weren't shown close-up would have sufficed. If you think this is too trivial a detail, remember, we're talking about a project in which no expense was to be spared in getting the details right. It COULD have been done so right.

On the subject of patches, the 506th Para dice pocket patches used in the series could be spotted as fakes a mile away by anyone familiar with what a real one looks like. Better repros are currently offered by Chris Wallis

Another fault as to insignia in Episode 1 was the white name tapes worn by officers and EM alike in England. I have NEVER seen a period photo showing ANYONE in 506th wearing white name tapes. The practice in the 506th was to stencil names in black ink directly onto the chest of an M42 jacket. (there are two vintage examples in my collection). Ample evidence of that is shown in the many photos in the 506th regimental history book 'Currahee', with a couple of officers wearing their names stenciled on an OD#3 name tag. White name tapes WERE worn (mostly by officers) in the 502 and 377th PFA Bn as evidenced by period photos. Perhaps white nametapes were used in the miniseries because the names show up more clearly to the audience on a white background?

Noisemaker crickets for signalling purposes: the few times these were shown and/or heard in the show were a disaster for two reasons. I could tell in a split second that the one held in the plane was fake, because of the white metal snapping plate (the real ones are blued spring steel) and the oval dimple in the brass surface, which was too wide and shaped wrong. That specimen, along with the one later used IN Normandy by Winters, also emitted a weak 'Tick-Tick' sound, instead of the loud, distinct, high pitched 'CLICK-CLACK' of an orignal. Since people think what they are viewing on this series is Gospel, it would have been more than nice to have REAL examples of a Cricket, as well as a Sink message that was at least the correct size for these close-up shots, BECAUSE they are close-up shots, done only once or twice in the whole series.

If you were showing one closeup of a ten dolar bill in the series, would you show a Federal Reserve Note, or a Silver Certificate? Decent fake crickets are available in France for about 5 bucks, and they look and sound a helluva lot more like real ones than the specimens used in the series. Considering again about the budget of this project, I'm mesmerized. There is a British toy company marketing crickets which look very much like the one shown on the plane in the series. Although that company alleges to have been the original wartime manufacturer and says their current product is an exact copy, they are way off. I've acquired close to a dozen real crickets from 101st vets and some of the French copies are much closer to the originals than the above mentioned Brit made ones. But who would know the difference unless they have handled a bunch of certifiably real ones? I could have easily provided them with a REAL cricket, or at least steered them to a decent copy, but I wasn't asked to participate. They should have asked someone who really knows. The soundtrack could still be re-dubbed with the sound of a real cricket, which would partially mitigate this weakness.

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