“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Six “Bastogne” Commentary

 

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Six “Bastogne” Commentary

This sixth episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” featured the experiences of Easy Company during the Battle of the Bulge and their participation in the Allies’ efforts to hold the ground near Bastogne, Belgium; while low on ammunition and supplies. The episode focused on Easy Company medic, Eugene “Doc” Roe, as he tended his fellow soldiers where he can, while also scrounging for medical supplies. 

”Bastogne” turned out to be the first of two episodes centered on Easy Company’s experiences in Belgium. Shown from Eugene Roe’s point-of-view; the audience saw Easy Company deal with many difficulties and traumas during this campaign. Aside from ammunition and supplies, Roe and the company had to deal with freezing temperatures, low morale, the encircling German Army and worst of all, an ineffectual company commander by the name of Norman Dike. The episode featured a good deal of combat sequences. But since they were shown through “Doc” Roe’s eyes, the audience’s views of these sequences were at best minimal.

One sequence had First Platoon on a reconnaissance patrol in order to probe for the German line. The patrol led to several wounded troopers and the death of a replacement trooper named Private Julian. Supporting characters like Lieutenant Harry Welsh and Wayne “Skinny” Sisk suffered serious leg wounds from occasional German artillery shelling. And Walter “Smokey” Gordon was wounded and paralyzed during a German tank assault. During this time, Roe struck up a fictionalized friendship and potential romance with a Belgian nurse named Renée LeMaire. Their relationship ended in tragedy, when Renée was killed during the German bombing of Bastogne on Christmas Eve. Replacement trooper Edward “Babe” Heffron also figured heavily in ”Bastogne”. Although the episode was mainly told from Roe’s point-of-view, it allowed one sequence told from Babe’s point-of-view. In it, Babe and another medic named Ralph Spina had a humorous encounter with German troops in a foxhole, while searching for medical supplies for Easy Company.

There are three episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I consider to be personal favorites of mine. And one of them is”Bastogne”. In my reviews of episodes like “Day of Days” and “Replacements”, I had complained of the lack of epic scope in episodes that featured important and historic battles. In ”Bastogne”, director David Leland and screenwriter Bruce C. McKenna gave the episode that epic scope needed for an episode about the famous siege of Bastogne. And the fact that they told the episode through the eyes of medic Eugene Roe made their efforts all the more amazing. Was this particular episode filmed inside a soundstage? It is possible. If it was, I am impressed. I wish I knew the name of the production designer for this particular episode, because he or she did a magnificent job in re-creating the Ardennes Forest during the winter. I also found the photography very impressive, especially in the scene that featured the Army Air Corps’ attempt to re-supply the division by air and the German bombing of Bastogne near the end of the episode. Once again,”BAND OF BROTHERS” allowed viewers to get a peek into the personal interactions between the troopers of Easy Company. Most of these interactions occurred during Christmas Eve . . . right before Harry Welsh was wounded by German artillery. However, I also enjoyed the two major interactions between Roe and Heffron – especially one scene in which both Roe and Spina tried to comfort Heffron, who was distraught over Private Julian’s death.

”Bastogne” featured some excellent performances from certain members of the cast. Neal McDonough gave a subtle and convincing performance as platoon leader Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton , whose emotional stability seemed to be in danger of spiraling out of control after getting shot in Holland. Another memorable performance came from actress Lucie Jeanne, who portrayed Renée Lemaire, the Belgian nurse in Bastogne that Roe befriended. Robin Laing got a chance to shine as Edward “Babe” Heffron, the replacement trooper that hailed from Bill Guarnere’s Philadelphia neighborhood. He was especially effectively poignant in a scene in which Heffron grieved over Private Julian’s death. But the star of this particular episode was Irish-born actor Shane Taylor. Recalling my complaint about the questionable American accents of some of the British cast members, I can happily say that Taylor was not one of them. He did an excellent job in recapturing the Louisiana-born Roe’s native accent. More importantly, he gave a subtle, yet superb performance as the quiet and efficient medic, struggling to perform his duty and prevent himself from getting affected by the suffering around him. In the end, Taylor not only gave one of the miniseries’ best performances, but also managed to carry a very important episode on his shoulders.

”Bastogne” is not completely perfect. Despite the strong chemistry between Taylor and Jeanne, there were moments when I found the nuance of their relationship – especially the silent exchange of glances – a bit heavy-handed. And I am somewhat confused about the fate of the wounded men that Roe escorted to one of the hospitals in Bastogne. Earlier in the episode, he had escorted Sisk and Gordon to the hospital where Renée worked. He was about to deliver Welsh to the same hospital, when he witnessed its destruction from German bombers. The episode made it clear that Bastogne had remained encircled by German forces, until the arrival of elements from General George C. Patton’s Third Army on December 26, 1944. So . . . what happened to Sisk and Gordon? They did not meet Renée’s fate. Both men survived the war. How did they get out of that hospital and Bastogne before the December 24 bombing?

Perfect or not, ”Bastogne” is one of my personal favorite episodes in ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. And thanks to director David Leland, screenwriter Bruce C. McKenna and actor Shane Taylor, the episode conveyed an epic point-of-view of the siege of Bastogne that made it one of the best (at least in my opinion) episodes in the entire miniseries.

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

This third episode, ”Carentan” picked up one day after where ”Day of Days” left off – Easy Company in Northern France for the Normandy invasion. ”Carentan” mainly centered around the experiences of Private Albert Blithe, portrayed by actor Marc Warren during Easy Company’s attempt take the town of Carentan. 

Easy Company’s nighttime jump into Normandy seemed to have left Private Blithe in semi-shock. He barely acknowledged the comments of his fellow paratroopers. During the company’s assault upon Carentan, he suffered from temporary blindness. Conversations with officers like Easy’s Harry Welch and Dog Company’s Ronald Spiers failed to help Blithe ease his anxiety regarding the horrors of combat. Winters is finally able to spur Blithe into action, during a German counterattack, a day or two later. But Blithe’s triumph is short-lived when he is wounded by an enemy sniper after volunteering to lead a scout patrol. Also during this episode, the legend of Ronald Spiers continues when Donald Malarkey and his friends – Warren “Skip” Muck, Alex Pankala and Alton More – discuss Spiers’ alleged connection to the deaths of a group of German prisoners-of-war and a sergeant in Dog Company. Winters endured a mild wound and Sergeant Carwood Lipton endures a more serious one during the battle for Carentan.

”Carentan” became the second episode in ”BAND OF BROTHERS” with a running time longer than one hour.”Currahee” was the first. But I must admit that I enjoyed ”Carentan” a lot more. The longer running time and broadening effects from the horrors of war gave the series’ portrayal of the Normandy campaign more of an epic feel than ”Day of Days’. It featured two harrowing combat sequences – Easy Company’s attack upon Carentan and the Germans’ counterattack that nearly left the company in a vulnerable state. And it is the first episode that featured an aspect of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I truly enjoy – namely casual conversation between the men of Easy between combat situations. Conversations such as the one about Spiers between Marlarkey, More, Muck and Penkala turned out to be bright spots that prevented the miniseries from sinking into the cliché of a typical World War II combat drama.

The main storyline for ”Carentan” happened to be about Albert Blithe’s anxieties in dealing with combat for the first time. Writer E. Max Frye did a solid job regarding the Blithe character and his troubles with hysterical blindness. But I do have a few problems with his work. One, his take on the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat” did not strike me as original. Watching Blithe’s travails on the screen left me with a feeling that I have seen numerous war dramas with similar storylines. And two, Frye got a good deal of his information wrong about Blithe. The end of the episode revealed that Blithe never recovered from his wound in the neck and died four years later in 1948. As it turned out, Blithe did recover from the wound . . . eventually. He remained in the Army, served in the 82nd Airborne during the Korean War and died in 1967. Either Fyre made this mistake intentionally . . . or had made a major blooper. There was another mistake regarding Blithe, but I will reveal it later.

One last complaint I had was the episode’s last fifteen or twenty minutes, which featured Easy Company’s return to England. Aside from the ham-fisted scene in which Malarkey found himself picking up the laundry of some of those who had been killed or wounded in Normandy, most of those scenes should have been featured in the beginning of the following episode. And they should have deleted the scene in which Lipton announced that they would be returning to France. One, he had not been announced as Easy Company’s new First Sergeant and two, they never did return to France.

The performances in ”Carentan” were solid, but a few did stand out for me. Matthew Settle continued his excellent introduction of Lieutenant Ronald Spiers in a very memorable and slightly tense scene in which he tries to give Blithe some advice on how to mentally deal with combat. Another first-rate performance came from Rick Warden, who portrayed one of Easy Company’s platoon leader and close friend of Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon – Harry Welch. I rather enjoyed Warden’s charming take on the easy-going and sardonic Welch. And finally, there was Marc Warren, whose portrayal of Blithe pretty much carried this episode. He did a very good job of conveying Blithe’s journey from a shell-shocked trooper to the more confident warrior, whose experience with Easy Company ended with a wound in the neck. My only complaint with Warren’s performance is that he portrayed Blithe with a generic Southern accent. And the real Blithe was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Why Spielberg, Hanks and director Mikael Salomon had him used a Southern accent for the character is beyond me.

”Carentan” is not my favorite episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. I found the on the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat” storyline for the Albert Blithe character to be slightly unoriginal. The character also spoke with the wrong regional accent and the information about his post-Easy Company years was historically inaccurate. And I could have done without the scenes with Easy Company back in England near the end of the episode. On the other hand, I do consider ”Carentan” to be one of the miniseries’ better episodes. Easy Company’s experiences in taking Carentan and enduring a German counterattack gave the episode more of an epic feel than the events featured in the last episode,”Day of Days”. And despite portraying Blithe with the wrong accent, Marc Warren did give an exceptionally good performance.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Two “Day of Days” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Two “Day of Days” Commentary

The last episode, ”Currahee” ended with Easy Company leaving England by air on June 5, 1944 to participate in the Allies’ invasion of Normandy. This second episode,”Day of Days” re-counts Lieutenant Richard Winters and some members of Easy Company’s experiences during the drop into France on June 5 and during their assault of the German guns at Brécourt Manor on D-Day.
Although the episode occasionally shifted to different viewpoints, the episode mainly focused upon Bill Guarnere, Donald Malarkey and especially Richard Winters. Winters became Easy Company’s new commander following the death of Lieutenant Thomas Meehan during the flight to Northern France. Before learning of Meehan’s death, Winters had to contend with the chaos and confusion that followed the airborne units’ drop into nighttime Normandy. Winters also had to deal with a hostile Guarnere, who was still angry over his older brother’s death. As for Malarkey, his first 24 hours in France proved to be interesting. He met a German prisoner-of-war who was born and raised nearly a hundred miles from him in Oregon. And he may have witnessed (or heard) the massacre of German prisoners-of-war by one Lieutenant Ronald Spiers of Dog Company. Or not. The following morning on D-Day, Winters assumed command of Easy Company and led a famous assault (which included Guarnere, Malarkey and Spiers with a few members of Dog Company) on the German artillery battery at Brécourt Manor, which was delaying the Allies’ assault upon Utah Beach.

This was a pretty good episode that featured two exciting combat sequences. The longest, of course, featured the assault upon Brécourt Manor. And I must admit that I found it very exciting. The way director Richard Loncraine shot the sequence almost made it feel as if I had been watching it in real time with very little editing. Ironically, the one action sequence that really impressed me was Easy Company’s jump into France the previous night. The sequence, which started the episode, began with the viewpoints of various characters – even Easy Company’s doomed commander, Thomas Meehan. But when the sequence focused upon Winters’ time to jump, the camera followed him from his departure from the plane to his landing on French soil. The photography and special effects used for Winters’ jump was very effective. But I found myself really impressed by those opening moments featuring the German flak that the planes conveying Easy Company to their drop zones. It struck me as exciting and terrifying and it effectively conveyed the dangerous and claustrophobic situation that Easy Company and the planes’ pilots found themselves.

The acting in ”Day of Days” proved to be solid. But I must admit that I cannot recall any exceptional performances. Damian Lewis continued his excellent performance as Easy Company’s premiere commander, Richard D. Winters. He handled both the dramatic and action sequences with ease. Frank John Hughes was just as effective handling William “Wild Bill” Guarnere’s emotional state during those first 24 hours of the D-Day Campaign, which varied from anger and aggression to grudging acceptance of Winters as a leader and a return to his sense of humor. And Scott Grimes was marvelous as Easy Company trooper, Donald Malarkey. Although I must admit that I found his determination to find a Luger for his younger brother a bit silly in one scene. Matthew Settle made his first appearance as Ronald Spiers, the junior officer from Dog Company, who will become Easy Company’s last commander by the end of the series. Although his appearance was minor, he gave a memorable performance as the young officer, whose aggressiveness will prove to be the talk of the 506th regiment. Actors such as Neal McDonough, Donnie Walhberg and Andrew Scott also gave solid support.

I have a few quibbles about ”Day of Days”. One, I thought the episode was a bit too short. I realize that the following episode, ”Carentan”, will also focus on the Normandy invasion. But I think that this episode could have stretched at least another 10 to 15 minutes by focusing a little more on Guarnere and Malarkey’s experiences before they and Carwood Lipton encountered Winters on the night after they dropped into France. And I must admit that I found some of the dialogue rather cheesy. I also feel that screenwriter Loncraine could have left out Winters’ narration in the episode’s last five minutes. I found it unnecessary and a little clichéd. In conclusion, ”Day of Days” turned out to be a pretty solid episode. I would never consider it as one of my favorite episodes of the miniseries. But it did feature two top-notch action sequences and good performances, especially by Damian Lewis.