Easy Company's Hard Times

Susan King is a Times staff writer

It's hard not to be struck by the silence when watching Tom Hanks' war, as played out in the 10-part HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," which begins Sept. 9.

Although millions were spent in filming the series, which aims to capture the three-year odyssey of the U.S. paratroopers of Easy Company up to and through D-day and on to the ultimate defeat of the Germans in World War II, the result is a study in how powerful restraint can be. Shot from the point of view of a fighting man, "Band of Brothers" puts one in the trenches, in the chaos and often in the silence of war.

"Band of Brothers" may not be so, but it feels real in the watching. It sounds real. There are scenes, long ones, in which all that is heard is the crunch of boots on grass at a run, at a walk, at a crawl. Even scenes of intense combat--explosions wounding the night sky--have moments that capture the quiet fear, the labored breathing, the sheer terror, the absolute helplessness of the men of Easy Company. Even the cinematic style is muted, colors stripped of the kind of intensity that could have left some of the raw battlefield footage awash in Technicolor red.

Hanks cut his teeth on WWII stories and the horrific realities of D-day in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination. (Spielberg, with Hanks, serves as an executive producer of the miniseries.) In researching the movie role, a process he likens to diving below "the iceberg mentality" to find out what's underneath, a story in Studs Terkel's book "The Good War" stayed with him.

"There was one interview in it with a guy who ended up in the third wave of D-day, and for 100 days he did nothing but fight ... for 100 days," Hanks recalls. "He was on the front line. He said, 'That means I didn't take a shower, I didn't get more than 20 minutes' sleep at a time for 100 days.' I thought this was extraordinary."

So it is not surprising that as Hanks began to contemplate the idea of telling another WWII tale, he chose to examine the lives of men over time, attempting to capture the relentlessness of battle and the struggle to merely survive from one day to the next that any war demands of those who fight.

The miniseries focuses on the legendary 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Better known as Easy Company, the paratroopers and riflemen began training together in 1942 in Georgia, parachuted into France in the early morning hours of D-day, fought in the bloody Battle of the Bulge and ultimately captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden. The casualty rate, with replacements continually being shipped in as others fell in battle, was extraordinarily high.

Based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose's book of the same name, the miniseries was also constructed from hours of interviews with WWII survivors, soldiers' journals and letters. In the end, "Band of Brothers" becomes both the story of individuals and of groups, and how the crucible of war shapes them.

Each episode opens with short slices of memories from real Easy Company veterans, poignant in their simplicity, stark in their understatement, reflective of the men who fought--from farms, from cities, from poverty, from privilege. "I was scared," says one. "He was a real soldier," says another.

"I wanted to somehow have a framework that was going to be based on human recollection that would provide an almost mysterious, elusive sense of things, but at the same time be specific," says Hanks of his decision to use the real veterans rather than a narrator or clips from old newsreels. "Each episode has a theme and that theme is stated in the recollections of these old men somehow."

"Band of Brothers" was shot at the former Hatfield Aerodrome in Hertfordshire, England, where some of the village scenes were shot for "Saving Private Ryan." One of the central challenges in making the miniseries--a complex technical and technological task (see story, Page 68)--was finding the balance between reality and entertainment. While grounded in fact, it is not a documentary that Hanks, who co-wrote the first episode and directed the fifth, wanted to produce.

"I always had faith that what we were capturing in our mock world was going to complement what [the veterans] were saying, rather than trivialize it," Hanks says.

Although it is a large ensemble cast, Richard Winters, played by British actor Damian Lewis, emerges as the central character just as Winters, during the war, emerged as a central figure in Easy Company, rising through the ranks to become a major.

Not having such a character, Hanks believes, was a weakness in his first miniseries for HBO, "From the Earth to the Moon." The Emmy-winning project also grew out of an interest sparked by a role in another of his films, in that case the 1995 "Apollo 13." And so in "Band of Brothers," Winters becomes the spine of the story, with his presence or absence in some way defining much of the action.

Nevertheless, Hanks did not want the miniseries riding too much on any one character, and there are episodes where the focus turns and Winters drifts into the background. "We wanted to have the idea of drop off and pick up [of characters]," says Hanks. "We didn't always want to be with the same group of guys, like an episode of 'Combat.' "

Although there were 10 episodes--and roughly that many hours--to work with, there was much streamlining of the Ambrose book to be done. Hanks and a group of writers--Erik Jendresen, John Orloff, E. Max Frye, Graham Yost, Bruce C. McKenna and Erik Bork--split the task while managing to create a relatively seamless story.

"The idea was always that every episode would dovetail into the next and every episode is going to have these guys in motion to another place," Hanks says. "There was no small amount of time with the writers, who actually bonded themselves together very much."

There was a great deal of give as well, as writers sometimes had to give up a moment or a scene they wanted to write because, as Hanks put it, "you have to recognize this beautiful stuff the writers come up with, [then say] guys, you do not get to write this moment because it was too soon in the series."

While Ambrose, who is co-executive producer of the series, did not write any of the episodes, he did read each script. "I was amazed at how good these scriptwriters were and how they picked up on things. There is a scene in the Battle of the Bulge where [the company] is being shelled, which is just the best I have ever seen. It's what happened and what these guys endured. I have had so many veterans tell me there is no feeling of helplessness that can ever come close to being shelled and all you can do is lie there."

Whatever the emotional resonance of the miniseries for viewers, making it was profound for the actors. Hanks found it so in filming "Saving Private Ryan." "Even though it's fake and even though there's no danger in losing your life whatsoever ... it is tactile. It is loud and it is cold and it is wet and it's miserable and you're exhausted," he says. "Even though you know you are getting lunch and going to go home at the end of the day, it lands in your consciousness in a way that goes a huge step toward 'This is what it must have been like."'

Ron Livingston, who played Easy Company's Lt. Lewis Nixon, still speaks emotionally of the concentration camp scenes. "They built a scale model of the camp," he recalls. "The whole thing was out in the middle of the field outside of London. I just remember driving to it the first day

Then there were the extras dressed as survivors. At one point, a thin elderly man was being carried toward Lewis. "I thought it was a dummy because he was literally just bones," Lewis says. "As he comes toward me, he blinked and his mouth twitched.... It was one of the most extraordinary moments." As Lewis learned, the elderly man was actually a specially constructed animatronic doll that was chillingly real.

Before filming, the actors underwent two weeks of boot camp led by retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye, who took Hanks and company through the paces for "Saving Private Ryan." At the end of the training, the actors were told not to break rank during production, and so, says actor Frank John Hughes, who plays Easy Company's Bill Guarnere, they did not.

"We never broke character, we stayed as a unit for 10 months [of filming]," Hughes says. "There are people I have as best friends that I am still not certain of their last names because I still only call them by their character names. We ate our lunches in the dirt and ate them out of our helmets. It was like pulling a tour of duty."

The day after he got the part, Hughes met Hanks, who told him his life would change in ways he couldn't imagine. "I didn't know how true that was," Hughes says.

In researching the role, Hughes began talking to Guarnere, who has lived in the same house in South Philadelphia for the past 55 years. It was a conversation that would go on, almost daily, for two years. "You become part of these men's lives," Hughes says. "Bill Guarnere is like a father to me and a grandfather to my son. You become friends with their children. His children call me Bill. Bill calls me Bill. It's blurred all the lines."

Like Hughes, Lewis spent time with Dick Winters, who now lives on a farm in Hershey, Pa. In Winters, Lewis found someone who "relished the challenge of war and actually took the war on and kind of beat it in many ways with his incredible heroism. He was lucid in moments of extreme pressure. It made him a natural leader."

Livingston came to believe that war is a circumstance in which the qualities in human beings are rarified. And he hopes that "Band of Brothers" does as good a job of telling that story as Ambrose did in his book.

"Stephen Ambrose really latched onto it," Livingston says. "The underlying story of a 19-year-old guy who volunteers out of a sense of adventure, a love for country, but once he gets there those things aren't enough to keep you there and to make you do the extraordinary things you are called on to do.

"Ultimately it was these guys' absolute love and regard for each other that motivated them, that got them through, and when they got hurt, they would sneak back to the front lines after they'd been hurt, because you can't bear the thought that your three best friends are going to die."

It was important to historian Ambrose that the adaptation of "Band of Brothers" not glamorize the war as Hollywood films typically have. That the project would be guided by Hanks, and to a lesser degree by Spielberg, whose sensibilities Ambrose had witnessed in "Saving Private Ryan," provided some solace.

"Most World War II movies Hollywood has produced over the decades showed that whenever an American gets shot, it is either in the heart or the forehead," Ambrose says. "He's immediately dead and his commanding officer can write home to the grieving parents and say, 'He never knew what hit him.' It doesn't happen like that.

"What happens is they get shot in the gut or in the arm or in the leg or get a leg blown off. But they very much know what's happening and they cry out. Spielberg in 'Saving Private Ryan' and now Hanks in 'Band of Brothers' ... they make you look at it and [say,] 'That is the way it was."'

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The miniseries "Band of Brothers" begins airing Sept. 9 at 9 p.m. on HBO with Episodes 1 and 2. The remaining eight episodes will air on consecutive Sunday nights at 9. The network has rated the first night TV-MA-VL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17 with special advisories for violence and coarse language).

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