Tuesday, May 31, 2005

# Posted 12:45 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BOOK VS. MOVIE -- BAND OF BROTHERS RECONSIDERED: When I first wrote about Band of Brothers (BoB for short), I did my best to navigate the perils of writing about the cinematic version of a book I hadn't read. Because I liked the film so much, I took the print version out of my friendly neighborhood library and started reading it over lunch today.

Although there are lots of good reasons not to write about a book until you've finished reading, I was so surprised by the first chapter of BoB that I feel I have to write about it, if only to make sure I don't forget my first impressions.

The conventional wisdom about BoB the film is that it is an extremely loyal adaptation of BoB the book. Thus, you won't be surprised to hear that while reading that first chapter, I kept coming across paragraphs and sentences that seemed to correspond perfectly with the images I'd seen on film.

However, from a more analytical perspective, I felt that I was reading about a very different Easy Company than the one brought to life by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Hanks & Spielberg want Easy Company to serve as a metaphor for the millions of Americans who served in uniform during World War II. The courage, fortitude and good humor of their Easy Company is supposed to stand in for the courage, fortitude and good humor of an entire generation -- of The Greatest Generation.

As I noted in an earlier post that was critical of BoB the film, I have had it up to here with the mindless nostalgia that pervades almost every discussion of The Greatest Generation (or TGG for short, because even typing out that silly name gets on my nerves).

Initially, the overall strengh of BoB the film prevented me from caring all that much about its nostalgic presentation of TGG. However, Ambrose's book makes it clear from the very beginning that Easy Company was in no way representative of the generation that fought the war.

It is true that Easy Company was comprised of "citizen soldiers" (p. 13) who were rich and poor, urban and rural, Catholic and Protestant. At the same time, Easy Company and the whole of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment consisted of the toughest soldiers in the entire United States Army.

These soldiers were put through an exceptionally brutal training regimen. The small percentage of those that made it through training earned the right to wear their wings. According to Ambrose, only 1800 of the 5300 enlisted men who volunteered for the 506th made it through training. Of 500 officers who volunteered, only 148 made it through.

Since more than a month has passed since I saw the first episode of BoB the film, I cannot say categorically that Hanks & Spielberg ignore this issue entirely. I do remember a few stray comments about the airborne being a very tough branch of the service. But there you get no sense from the film that 2/3 of the men couldn't even make it through training.

Another fascinating piece of information that I don't recall being in the film has to do with the Non-Commissioned Officers (or NCOs, mostly sergeants) in Easy Company. Because the 506th was an "experimental outfit" (p. 16) that hadn't existed before the war, it had to draw all of its NCOs from more established units. Gradually, those NCOs all quit "as the training grew more intense".

From comic books or documentaries, almost every pop culture portrayal of the NCO is that of the grizzled old sergeant who is ten times tougher than all of the kids half his age. Although the sergeants in BoB the film don't seem particularly old, Hanks & Spielberg do provide them with the same halo of greatness that has become a Hollywood cliche. But if you read Ambrose, you realize that the NCOs in Easy Company were not run-of-the-mill members of TGG or even run-of-the-mill NCOs. Rather, they were the best of the best, the chosen few among the chosen few who had survived airborne training.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the execellence of the 506th inspired a certain condescension toward the undifferentiated mass of soldiers that made up most of the American armed forces. Ambrose writes that the men of Easy Company
"knew they were going into combat, and they did not want to go in with poorly trained, poorly conditioned, poorly motivated draftees on either side of them." (p. 14)
That makes perfect sense to me. But if you just watched BoB the film, you'd never know that there were any poorly trained, conditioned or motivated soldiers in the US Army. In fact, you'd probably just assume that the Army was full of soldiers who could suffer through the most brutal weather and the bloodiest confrontations with the Wehrmacht and still have the same unflinching desire to march forward and serve their country. (And don't disagree with me by bringing up Episode Three and Pvt. Blithe. He may be afraid, but he becomes a hero by the end, too.)

In closing, let me say that I mean no disrespect for those who served, whether in the most humble unit or with the select few of the 506th. But as I scholar, I must stand opposed, as I said before, to
Unthinking nostalgia that makes it very hard to think about the present in a realistic manner. In the same way that our glorification of the Founding Fathers makes us lament the intense partisanship of today, our glorification of The Greatest Generation does the same. Yet like the Founding Fathers, The Greatest Generation often found itself riven by partisan and ideological conflicts.

I don't know if the early 21st century will some day be considered a landmark period of triumph in American history, but I am fairly confident that even bitter deliberations are vital to the success of our democracy today, no less than they were in 1776 or 1945.
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