TV UK, 5 October
If wartime audiences often preferred to be distracted with musical comedies, perhaps the appetite now is for a reminder of a proper war, with a real enemy and real heroes.
There is so much military stuff on TV just now that anybody would think there’s a war on. The heavily armoured flagship is Band of Brothers, a 10-part miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, which begins on Friday 5 October at 8.30pm on BBC2.
Band of Brothers tells the true story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, US Army, who dropped in behind enemy lines to prepare the ground for the D-Day landing in 1944. The series opens with real veterans talking about their feelings at the beginning of the war, which came for them with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. ‘We were attacked!’ one of them says, still incredulous after all these years. The series began in the USA on 9 September.
Band of Brothers is based on a book by Stephen E Ambrose, a historian who has made a career of writing popular history books based on the accounts of World War II veterans. Ambrose’s work is a celebration of what has been called the Greatest Generation (1). The men who fought and won the Big One cast a heroic shadow over the comfortable babyboomers who followed them, and who are now asking themselves if they are up to a fight.
If wartime audiences often preferred to be distracted with musical comedies, perhaps the appetite now is for a reminder of a proper war, with a real enemy and real heroes. This is what Band of Brothers sets out to deliver. If real war were a real option I’d call it a recruiting video, but in the event it’s more like one of those videos of bible stories that the Mormons send out. (What do you mean you haven’t seen one? I find them very comforting.)
The whole cameraderie thing is done well in parts. The men sit in a row on the airstrip, weighed down by heavy gear, waiting for their lieutenant to haul them up one at a time and bundle them into the plane. And I defy anybody to watch the great swarm of planes gently bobbing and weaving across the channel, and not want to be that man sitting at the hatch of one of the planes, his leg swinging coolly in the breeze. Oh boy!
In the first episode, one of the men learns that his brother has been killed in Italy. That less fashionable theatre of war was the subject of the last week’s episode of Battlefields (BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm), which told The True Story of Monte Cassino. Allied soldiers in Italy were called ‘D-Day Dodgers’: a British MP even complained that they were living la dolce vita while their comrades took the flak in Normandy.
The reality (as TV is fond of telling us) was very different. Like Band of Brothers, Battlefields uses interviews with veterans to give us an insight into events. But these veterans are not avatars for a heroic generation. Instead, we are introduced to a motley selection of soldiers of various nations. Delightfully, the Cassino episode featured a German paratrooper with what seemed to be a Newcastle accent.
The interviews are combined with commentary from Professor Richard Holmes, who visits the locations and discusses the political background and strategic nuances of each battle. There is little room for myth-making, and above all we are spared dialogue, which is a mighty relief after Band of Brothers.
Future War has been rushed into the schedules and begins on Sunday 7 October at 8pm, again on BBC2. According to the trailers, this addresses the difficulties of fighting a war without an enemy, but the focus is more technical than political. The US army has various screwball tactics in place for fighting terrorists, but the whole programme seems oddly detached from reality.
What this war lacks is narrative. Aaron Sorkin has already written a special episode of The West Wing dealing with the situation, which went out in the USA last Wednesday (3 October) and will no doubt be with us soon. And if I was George W Bush, I’d get Buffy’s screenwriter Joss Whedon on the case pretty pronto.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
(1) See Selling Private Ryan, Nicholas Confessore, The American Prospect vol. 12 no 17, 24 September 2001
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