With a few notable exceptions, it's widely accepted that we're
now living through a golden age of TV, to the point that even in a year where
we've had the likes of Narcos 3, Stranger Things (upcoming), another season of
Walking Dead, Glow and many more, some argue that the quality is flagging
Whatever the score, Band of Brothers was one of the first mega-budget television shows to grace our screens. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (who was directed by Spielberg and nominated for an Academy Award for Saving Private Ryan four years earlier), the show followed the World War Two 'career' of 'Easy' Company, a group of soldiers from the US 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, from their time preparing for combat at a UK training base to the horrors of the war and its immediate aftermath.
Credit: HBO / Band of Brothers
Easy company saw some of the most horrific fighting of the conflict, including fierce battles in Eindhoven (the Netherlands), Carentan (France) and the freezing cold of Bastogne (Belgium). On top of this, towards war's end, the battle-weary unit witnessed firsthand the tragedy of Kaufering concentration camp.
Looking back on the 2001 show, it's the exceptional realism (feted by survivors, many of whom were still alive when the programme aired and were interviewed about their experience) that stands out. But, revisiting it a little more closely, it's also undeniable that a stellar cast played a hefty role in its critical and commercial success.
With Homeland's Damian Lewis taking on the lead role (in as much as there was one) of Richard Winters, who led the company into battle during D-Day, served throughout the war (rising through the ranks) and later also served in the Korean War, the calibre of acting was supreme.
Damian Lewis. Credit: HBO / Band of Brothers
However, a number of now-mega stars also featured in the programme, albeit in smaller roles. Michael Fassbender portrayed Sgt. Burton "Pat" Christenson in seven episodes of the show, although his speaking parts were fairly minimal compared to his later success. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy also appeared in a later episode after the liberation of Holland, wherein he is caught in bed with a local woman, retaining his modesty with only a helmet in one of the shows (understandably rare) moments of hilarity.
Michael Fassbender. Credit: HBO / Band of Brothers
Tom Hardy. Credit HBO / Band of Brothers
Other actors to appear in the show include James McAvoy in the Replacements episode, portraying a soldier roughed up by unfriendly veterans who don't take too kindly to newcomers replacing their fallen friends. It might have been brief, but his appearance (he dies in the episode) is a memorable one, though perhaps not as memorable as that of David Schwimmer's part. Schwimmer (Ross from Friends) played Captain Sobel, who trained the soldiers before deployment but was ultimately not sent into battle with them. Schwimmer's performance was somewhat controversial, with Sobel portrayed as a villain, but in later interviews, surviving members of the company, praised Sobel for preparing them for the horrors of war and effectively keeping them alive.
Other UK actors to feature in the show include Dominic Cooper, albeit in a crowded scene (and non-speaking role), Simon Pegg as Sobel's assistant (with a decent American accent to boot), Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' Dexter Fletcher, who featured in several of the show's episodes as Staff Sergeant John "Johnny" Martin, and Green Street's Marc Warren, who stars in the episode Carentan, playing the character Blithe. When originally aired, the show's makers mistakenly said Blithe died during the war in a hospital (he went blind during the episode) but he actually survived, was sent home and later served in Korea.
Words: Ronan O'Shea