Thursday, 2 April 2009

Band of Brothers, an American monologue

I have had little interest in watching this piece of work from the famed American directors and actors. They worked hard on this, perhaps in consideration of some anniversaries of Normandy landing or the end of war in Europe. Lest we forget, the Americans fighting in France and Germany deserve our remembrance and respect, as long as these not exceeding the limits of the sky. Through movies and television series, the Americans have indoctrinated the popular, and simple, rules of seeing the war of their way. Hence the depictions of American soldiers in Band of Brothers. That is fine, but just don’t get so cocky and selective that people receive information but not true information.
(Colonel von Heydte, 6th Parachute Regiment, Carentan)
I only tentatively watched two episodes of “Carentan” and “Replacements”. For other episodes I had a glimpse of the beginning of each episode and pressed fast forward. The main point I would like to make is that it is not real. People tend to say it is very real, better than many war movies. That impression is only partly true. As a renowned tradition of Hollywood and movie making in the US, many scenes are very real, in detail, down to buttons and handkerchiefs, to make people believe the actors are telling a real life story and you are the witness. With great help from FX, special effects, and computer simulations, war movies have become livelier, a gun shot sounds like a shot, you can hear the clicking of trigger and dropping of shells, and soldiers’ legs were cut off by shrapnel. The movie industry there has done a fantastic job to make these all up and make people believe the truthfulness of the scenes, and of the stories. Unfortunately, these efforts to make it real cover mostly details, some pieces, or realistic acting by people in the play. Some of the troubles are that what was on show is not real, say in the wrong age, wrong place. That can be pointed out and corrected easily and does little harm. The bigger trouble is that people believe it as a true and correct story, but in reality many come out not reflecting the true situation or story. This is the hard part, as people come to be influenced by the true state of all details and of the parts with truth. No one would tell them that behind the assumed real story are many faults and false information, which the directors and writers did not want to mention and clarify. The whole process is to produce certain impressions on the audience; if that is done, the movie makers feel no obligation to caution you that maybe they used partially correct interpretations, not the whole truth.

Band of Brothers follows Saving Private Ryan in many ways, and we now know the movie is typical of half truth, half fiction. The landing is real enough, as one element causing endless praises. What happens next falls back into the conventional ways of portraying WWII since the 1950s. And it is likely the whole story never occurred in real life. A detachment sent by General Patton, much larger than Captain Miller’s squad, to snatch his relative behind enemy line got what it did not want to face, losses of more men and equipment, coming back with nothing. The movie depicts a mission more like a patrol, storming through many areas controlled by the Germans and lost little. Even if Typhoons destroyed “Tigers” with their bombs, the surviving soldiers of this tiny squad still would not be able to suddenly rush back to their safety, unless the entire area was taken by the Allies in a major operation. Script writers tend to put separate scenes together to make a straight line story, but that does not often happen in real life, you have to get in and out in some ways feasible and can’t just disappear.
Back to Band, in the two episodes I watched, rather fleetingly, there are many places where you are given wrong impressions. In the real Carentan battle, the 101st was a much larger force than the Germans who counterattacked, and they were adequately supported by powerful artillery batteries. In fact, artillery barrages hammered German defence well before the troopers moved forward, including in the famous charge along the causeway. The German counterattack came from about two battalions of panzer grenadiers, hurriedly rushed in, and the surviving elements of the 6th Paratroop Regiment. The Americans had two regiments out of Carentan in defensive positions, again with their excellent fire support from artillery batteries and big naval guns in the bay. The Germans had no tanks, only a few tank destroyers, and mortars. In the end, they kept advancing and almost reached the town. In fire fights, two sides were equal, but the 2nd Armoured rushed in with 60 tanks, as a result of a rumour that the Germans sent in 120 tanks to take back Carentan. The 101st fought the battle with a force big enough in size, rather than an image of underdog projected in the series.
The episode does not want to tell you this, as it also does not want to tell you that through all battles in Normandy, the Allies had their numerical superiority in hand, often to an unbelievable margin. In the scenes, it looks funny that German soldiers did not advance behind or by the “tanks”, but stood in the open in a loose line to fire at the troopers, like having target practice. With such a tardy pace, how could they advance to the railway junction and the town, and some troopers even fled? It is also not real a scene when Shermans appeared, as the Germans had tank destroyers, specifically made for destroying tanks, especially vulnerable tanks like Shermans; they could pound through the armour of Shermans easily at that close distance. It was for the sheer number of tanks there that the Germans retreated. In this episode, only three or four Shermans came out the woods, actually from a wrong direction, and those American soldiers stood on tanks to fire, in the open, with no protection, are more like truckies than tankers. This is just for showing how brave they are, nothing else; in a real battle, they would be dead very soon.
The encounter in a Dutch town in the episode of “Replacements” is even more unreal. First, that is not a Tiger in the scene, at the most a Panther, from its sloped shape, or even an IV. There is no way that a direct hit on the front of a Sherman, at that close distance, would only produce some fire, rather than a big hole or a blown away turret. Tiger 88mm guns could knock out a Sherman at a distance up to 1800 metres. Also about these guns, when the Americans fled in their trucks, not far from the exit of the town, they had not got out of the range of effective Tiger shots yet. If a Tiger chased to the edge of the town and fired into the column, the whole column would be destroyed. German Tiger crews often lined up and fired into Russian T-34s one by one from a distance over 1000 metres. It is ridiculous to think once these troopers got into a truck they are safe. This is more like a battle scene set up by the director, to enter, fight, and retreat safely, not real at all.

The usual features of WWII movies remain, such as the Germans always missed their shots, no matter how intense their machine guns fired into a crowd of soldiers. On the other hand, an American machine gunner fired into German soldiers crossing a creek at a far distance and got them all. A trooper shot casually to the head of a German sniper upstairs, behind balcony bars, and killed him with that single shot. In a close wrestling fight, an American trooper won. Large numbers of German soldiers ran into open fields for no particular reason or purpose until they were all gunned down. It is always a sudden shot to some troopers and the whole team reacted to fire back and silenced the German soldier or soldiers. In fact, this routine repeats itself many times in these two episodes, and there are no real battle scenes except these skirmishes. Throughout the entire series, there are no decent fighting at defensive positions or taking positions, merely sneaky snatch missions or encounters. This looks more like special forces in action, in so many Hollywood movies of anti terrorism, than real battles of WWII.
The most disappointing part is what the director tried to tell you something and what not to tell. The scene that an officer suddenly announced canceling trip back to England and going to France is very untrue. After the battle of Carentan, the 101st had been a reserve and saw little combat, relieving this or that formation and then moving to the next. They did move back to England by the end of June and stayed there resting and rebuilding for nearly three months. The disappointment of those soldiers when hearing not going back to England looks real, but the following return trip is not mentioned, until the scenes of some new guys appeared to come to duty. The director is obviously trying hard to give an impression of hard fighting all the way, no break, and of being called up so close to Operation Market Garden. This makes audience miss that fact of the Germans in Normandy continuing their fighting while these Americans got their lengthy break. If the director made that point clear, then the impression would be a more persistent and tougher German force than this American formation. That simply cannot be implied in this series, despite it is a truth.

Like many war movies, this series has tried to show the human side of war, of soldiers, with a lot of talks, confusions, emotions, desperation, and fear. It is just that these take too long to end, leaving less room for real battles. Perhaps the writers are more familiar with peace time life or love, that they could hardly resist inserting some humane conversations about feelings, traumatised to the degree to need a shrink.

Some improvements in this series are worth mentioning. It acknowledges that American soldiers did kill surrendered German soldiers on the spot, and some units did run away from their positions being scared. These had not been possible in previous American movies or series, since that would infuriate their home audience and break those taboos. But old habits die hard, especially in this series specifically made for portraying and saluting those war time soldiers.


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