You dress a lot of half-licked, young men in identical kit, shade their faces with helmets, throw them into fast-moving action sequences- and you're going to have a hell of a job making it clear which of your many, carefully-crafted character arcs has just come to an end in that smoking shell crater.
This isn't anything new. Too many interchangeable characters, too much death. Homer had the same problem when he was writing the Iliad.
One solution is to engage instantly regognizable stars. John Wayne for example. That's a shape you could never mistake- not even at a distance against the sky. But instantly recognisable stars bring their own problems. Chiefly fame. This is meant to be a grittily realistic portrayal of fighting men in extremis- so what the hell is he doing here? We know Tom Hanks isn't going to cop a bullet on the D-Day beaches because- well- simply because he's Tom Hanks. As soon as you've put a star in there you've waved goodbye to realism
There are very few great war films- by which I mean films about the business of fighting battles. The great war films tend to have very little actual war in them. A remarkable number- La Grande Illusion, the Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai- are set in prisoner of war camps- where conflict can be individualised as eye-ball to eyeball confrontation and the drama doesn't have to negotiate its way round explosions and sudden death.
There's only one movie about frontline soldiering that would get into my top 100 of all time- and that's All Quiet on the Western Front. It succeeds because it concentrates unremittingly on the experiences of a single, unheroic grunt. An enemy grunt at that- so flag-waving doesn't come into it.
And so to Band of Brothers. Band of Brothers is the nearest thing to All Quiet we've come up with in the intervening eighty years, though it needs to be said straight out, that it isn't as good- except in parts. For one thing it never wholly surmounts the problem of uniform. There's a large cast and- in spite of them all having names and gobfulls of bantering dialogue- most remain anonymous. They die or get maimed and we don't feel the loss as personal. The All Quiet Solution- the focusing on a single representative soldier- was perhaps impossible when the brief was so ambitious- to show the experience of all ranks across a range of different actions- because no-one gets to be at the forefront of everything- not in real life anyway- and the whole point was to be as realistic as possible. So instead each episode plucks out a joker or two and gives them an hour in the spotlight before slipping them back into the pack. This is variously effective. Sometimes it works, sometimes the pov character isn't engaging enough. Particularly strong is the episode where our view of the attritional battle of Bastogne is mediated through the eyes of a ridiculously young, front-line doctor .
The other template is Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. You could argue that Band of Brothers is the film Saving Private Ryan ought to have been. Everyone loves (or admires) the first 20 minutes of that movie- after which Hollywood takes over and opinions vary. Band of Brothers keeps Hollywood at bay- no stars, no sentiment, no flag-waving heroism. The battle sequences use the techniques Spielberg pioneered- juddery hand held camera, surround-sound, horrors glimpsed from the corner of the eye, the unintrusive use of CGI. They're visceral, disorienting, loud.
The first episode- dealing with basic training- is so dull I nearly gave up. It features a pointless cameo from David Schwimmer- trailing unhelpful clouds of comedic glory- as a martinet captain who panics under pressure. I was hoping he'd get fragged. He didn't. After that things improve. The Bastogne episode is a stand-out. It conveys not only the horror of war- but also- which is much tougher to do- the discomfort and the boredom and the fear. The episode dealing with the relief of a concentration camp (which is Belsen in all but name) is a remarkably sensitive stab at filming the unfilmable.
The series was made in Britain- and there are a lot of British actors in the cast- most notably Damian Lewis- channeling Jimmy Stewart- in the Tom Hanks role of humane senior officer. If there's a single star- and there isn't really- it's him. Also notable are Marc Warren (another Brit) as the coward who comes good in the end, Shane Taylor as the Bastogne doctor, and Matthew Settle as the ruthless, fearless, borderline psycho Lieutenant Speirs. There's something about the set of Settle's jaw and the narrowness of his eyes that reminds me of the young Clint Eastwood.
The ultimate purpose of all art about war- all responsible art about war- is to convey the reality of it so overwhelmingly to those who have never been at the giving or receiving end of military action that we'll finally drop the dolce et decorum guff and put an end to it for ever. And so all art about war is bound to fail. It can never be frightening enough, sad enough, disgusting enough, personal enough...
But that's no reason not to go on trying...