Sunday, May 01, 2005

# Posted 1:42 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REFIGHTING WORLD WAR II: The time for watching cinematic epics is while you're still in grad school. Once you have a job and a family and all of that other good stuff...fuggedaboudit. So, with that in mind, I recently embarked on a ten-hour journey through that Spielberg/Hanks production, Band of Brothers.

If you look up Band of Brothers in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb), you may notice that the series received a 9.6 (out of 10) average rating from the 14,768 site visitors who registered their opinions about it. I think you'd have to call that a pretty strong consensus, even allowing for the self-selection of IMDb site vistors. And I agree: Band of Brothers (BoB for short) is a very impressive acheivement.

I think one of the great challenges that BoB's directors had to confront was how to tell a story in ten hours, rather than the usual two hours for your average film. Ten hours is both an opportunity and a burden. It is very rare for a director to be given so broad a canvas on which to present his vision. But it is also very hard to keep a viewer's interest for that long.

One of the most important decisions to make is about the basic structure of the narrative. Most films in this genre (think Saving Private Ryan) tell a single story with a limited cast of characters and a straightforward set of plot developments. But that might not be enough to sustain a ten-hour epic. On the other hand, in the absence of a controlling narrative, how can the audience make sense of a film?

Wisely, BoB seems to recognize that history itself provides the film with its basic narrative structure. The uncertain march from Normandy to the heart of the Third Reich provides a well-understood framework that holds the series together. Thus, individual episodes within the series are able to break away from the constraints of traditional storytelling.

Whereas most war and action films are wedded to events, BoB places an emphasis on character. The series recognizes that war provides enough drama and tension in and of itself, so there is no need to create the suspense associated with an improbable rescue mission, a la Saving Private Ryan. The results are tremendous.

Perhaps the finest moment in a very fine series is the sixth installment, entitled Bastogne. Told entirely from the perspective of Easy Company medic Eugene "Doc" Roe, the episode describes the efforts of tired, under-armed and under-supplied soldiers to hold on to a few square miles of Belgian forest land.

Truth be told, the figure of the heroic medic is something of a cliche in films about the Second World War. The combat medic is healer who enables other to inflict violence. The medic never leads the charge, but is consigned to the even more dangerous mission of attending to soldiers lying injured and prone on the battlefield.

In contrast to many others, this cliche has a lot of substance. Combat medics were, and continue to be, unique sorts of heroes. When I was in high school, there was one chemistry teacher who had served as a combat medic in World War II. His accomplishments inspired a quiet reverence.

The great success of Band of Brothers is that it goes so far beyond this sort of cliche. In most films, the medic gets one heroic cameo. Here, we investigate the intellectual and emotional struggle of a man who must constantly engage in dangerous and paradoxical behavior. We Doc Roe struggling to locate a few more shots of morphine so that he can afford to ease the pain of the next man wounded without using up his emergency supply. We see Doc Roe struggling to accept his own helplessness in the face of pervasive carnage that is beyond his control. His is a portrait that goes far beyond the standard cliches.

Over the course of ten hours, BoB provides a series of compelling portraits, like that of Doc Roe, which add up to one of the most sophisticated accounts of war and its psychological impact ever produced by Hollywood.

Sometimes, it is hard to follow exactly what is happening and to remember all of the different characters who may have a bit part in one episode and then become a critical figure in the next. But in the end, that doesn't matter, because Band of Brothers is a not single narrative or an evidence-based argument. It is a collage of perspectives and emotions that is more important than any single detail.

UPDATE: Eminent jurist and military officer Phil Carter points out [via e-mail] that the structure of BoB follows very closely the structure of the book on which it is based. Thus, the filmmakers only deserve credit for preserving the sturcture of the book and not for envisioning the structure I praise so highly above.

Also, as you may have guessed, I have not read the book, but am now motivated to do so thanks to the series. Phil also points out (apropo of the post above this one) that the book mostly avoids the issues of racial and religious prejudice, so the demerits given to the filmmakers above belong partly to the author of the book, Stephen Ambrose.
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