Soldiers, Actors and Reenactors
How “Band of Brothers” Relates to Historical Reenacting
By Jonah Begone
Recently, I watched the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers; my son’s friend bought the seven DVD set which, in addition to the ten part series, contains the usual extras and features that one has come to expect with deluxe DVD sets. This is an extraordinary production and every bit as good as everyone insists it is. In fact, I think it’s the best war film I have ever seen! The writing, plot, casting, pace and character development all serve to advance the story – this series gets the basics right. The cinematography, special effects, incidental music and DTS audio mix are all superlative. What puts this production over the top, however, is the commentary by the real veterans depicted in the story. I simply cannot imagine a more compelling way to tell the story of World War II paratroopers in Europe. I know reenactors are fond of Saving Private Ryan – this show does that one better because it’s more authentic. The actors were cast mainly on their resemblance to the actual solders; the amazing thing is, you can frequently guess which actors in the movie go with which veterans in the commentary clips!
What was especially of interest to me – and historical reenactors - is the featurette called Ron Livingston’s Video Diaries. Home Box Office (HBO) sent forty of the actors with speaking roles to a ten day “boot camp” to get a taste of the military culture, specifically the World War II U.S. Army paratrooper culture. Ron Livingston, one of the actors portraying a major speaking role, was directed by HBO to take videos of the experience. Training was led by USMC retired Captain Dale Dye and others with real military experience. (Apparently, they weren’t fans of the idea of taking video recording to the boot camp.) The actors were directed to refer to each other not by their own names, but by the names of the characters they would portray. The officers were treated as officers in the boot camp and given leadership roles, and the enlisted personnel were treated as such and were expected to obey the officers. Modern slang was avoided. If this sounds to reenactors to be like what we call “first person impressions,” that’s exactly what it was.
To pull off the convincing first person impressions seen in the film, the cast had two critical advantages that we Civil War reenactors do not have: 1.) They are skilled actors who make careers out of getting the nuances of character and personality right, and 2.) They were often able to meet the men they were portraying, and able to ask them questions like, “What were your emotions when making the jump into Normandy on D-Day?” When one finishes viewing Band of Brothers, one gets the distinct impression that he has actually met Major Dick Winters, Sgt. Carwood Lipton, Sgt. “Wild Bill” Guarnere and the others in Easy Company. Or, that if some day one actually did meet the real thing, that there wouldn’t be any real surprises.
By the way, lest any of you insist that acting and reenacting are synonymous, I will point out the truly horribly acted portions of commemorative videotapes and DVDs of battle reenactments, where General Meade’s Council of War at Gettysburg (for instance) is acted out woodenly, with unconvincing timing, stilted delivery of dialog and inappropriate body English.
How authentic was Band of Brothers? I really have no idea as I know little about World War II equipment and uniforms, and my knowledge about 1940’s manners and speech patterns come from period films – a rather unreliable source. I read somewhere on the Internet that Major Dick Winters took issue with the amount of times the f-word was used in the production, which is a surprise to me. Given all that Easy Company went through I’d expect a fairly steady torrent of foul language. (Do we swear too much or too little at reenactments?) But whatever the level of authenticity, like Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, Band of Brothers rings true as being an accurate depiction of men in combat, and does honor to them.
The images that one gets in battle in Band of Brothers isn’t 100% pictorial honesty, but this is by design. The producers decided that they wanted a look that suggested period photography, and at times a sort of magnified reality. (The stunning soundscape that multichannel DTS provides is especially evocative.) Colors are often desaturated and images are rough and somewhat grainy. At times the editing is chaotic and hard to follow, suggesting the jumbled thinking of an infantryman under fire. But this sort of filmmaking artistry only adds to the production. Winslow Homer, for instance, is nowhere near as authentic a chronicler of the Civil War that a daguerreotype is – but one often gets a sense of the overall experience from his deft brush strokes that one does not get from razor sharp focus. That’s what real art can lend to historical depiction.
I found one thing jarring about the whole “boot camp for actors” effort. In some portions of the featurette it is implied that the actors are now soldiers - even elite paratroopers! I wonder if some of the actors thought that of themselves. (Since they met the real veterans, I seriously doubt it.) We reenactors occasionally have this same conceit; that the act of pretending to be soldiers over the course of a tiring weekend tactical event or a season’s worth of reenactments makes us soldiers. I recall reading an especially mawkish write-up of a weekend tactical event, which strongly suggested that the reenactors taking part constituted a real army. Please.
It raises the question, when is a man converted from a civilian to a soldier? Can it happen over a weekend reenactment event? After a ten day boot camp? I know that the cheerful representatives of the U.S. Marine Corps – my Drill Instructors - referred to me as a “recruit” until the end of the thirteen week boot camp I attended in late 1974, upon which time they called me a Marine. “They ought to know,” I figured, and accepted the title.
But I had the sense that I was fooling myself, that I wasn’t really a Marine until I had some more time in the service and done more things. Four years later, as a sergeant, I then suspected that I wasn’t really a Marine until I had seen combat. After all, I had no Red Badge of Courage (to use a Civil war phrase) and was unproven. But even then, how much combat is required?
Band of Brothers makes it clear that not all combat veterans are alike in esteem. In the film, one paratrooper returned from the hospital after making the landing at D-Day and a failed assault in the Market Garden operation. That’s right, he successfully made it through jump school and dived out of a plane at D-Day, and gave and received fire. But because he was in the hospital during Bastogne and didn’t insist upon returning quickly as others had, his acceptance back into the Brotherhood was grudging and not immediate.
Whew – tough crowd!
But this is authentic… there is a pronounced pack mentality that men get based on who’s present at the here-and-now events and who was not. For instance, despite the fact that I have played 78 matches of rugby in eleven active seasons, I know that I’ll have to start again at the beginning to earn respect on the practice pitch were I to return to the game. In a like manner, I have always noticed that when visiting a Civil War reenactment dressed in my modern street clothes there has always been an unspoken barrier between myself and my pards, who are sweating profusely in wool. If you’re in, you’re in and you know it. If you’re out, you’re out and you can feel that, too.
One thing’s for sure: any thinking man, viewing or doing research about what real soldiers actually went through, is hesitant to accept honorific titles for himself. It is a revealing fact that Major Dick Winters himself, a bonafide American hero if ever there was one, stated to his grandchild when asked about his World War II experiences, that while he wasn’t a hero, he did serve in a company of heroes. Whether this is utter self-honesty or becoming modesty, I do not know. But it made a stunning conclusion to the miniseries.
Whatever the actors taking part in the boot camp thought of themselves, or were called or even implied to be, I noticed that they had commendably acquired some of the attributes that men get after time spent together performing common physical activities. In other words, I caught glimpses of the physical chumminess I’d often see during a reenactment with longtime pards, or between scrummies in a rugby club. I recall that once during a reenactment event, the simple act of sitting on a hay bale was made more authentic by the fact that my friend and I had our backs against each other to provide more seating comfort. James Michener once wrote that, "The sense of belonging is one of the great gifts men get in battle." That’s what made the Band of Brothers a band of brothers, and through their short boot camp the actors seemed to have acquired some of it. Enough to portray it convincingly, at least. Certainly, real camaraderie between men is found more readily in combat, in reenacting or on the rugby pitch than it ever is in Corporate America, where the “teamwork” is usually stilted and unreal.
It could be that skilled actors can make decent soldiers simply by exercising their skills. In Act Three, Scene One of Henry V, King Henry of England gives what is really acting direction to his troops before the walls of Harfleur:
In peace there's
nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height.
Of course, one could argue that the man who wrote this, William Shakespeare, was an actor, not a soldier. What does he know? Still, as The Bard said elsewhere, Assume a virtue, if you have it not. That kind of thing helped get me through boot camp.
One actor/reenactor/Marine stood out in Band of Brothers: Dale Dye – a Marine doubling as an actor. He portrayed Colonel Sink in the film. He seems as authentic a warrior in Band of Brothers as R. Lee Ermey seemed a Drill Instructor in Full Metal Jacket, for the same reason: they actually did that stuff in real life. For your reading pleasure I have included below an article about him I found from the usmilitary.about.com website. The author is unstated; I presume it comes from a publicist at HBO. It’s full of allusions about reenacting, despite the fact that the author doesn’t realize it.
The italics are mine, just to make sure you get the point. Did the actors really “earn their wings?” You decide.
Two-week Boot Camp Run By Captain Dale Dye, USMC (RET.)
Actors Into Soldiers For "Band Of Brothers"
Long before the first day on the set of "Band Of Brothers," executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and co-executive producer Tony To agreed that telling the story of Easy Company with historical accuracy and authenticity was of utmost importance. To that end, Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (ret.) joined the crew as the military advisor, responsible for turning actors into soldiers and helping directors "get it right" from a military point of view.
After a full career in the U. S. Marines, including extensive combat experience in Vietnam and Beirut, Capt. Dye went to Hollywood. A lifelong military film buff, Captain Dye recognized what passes for combat on film is often what he calls "complete nonsense – a dishonor!" He set out on a mission to change this state of affairs by offering his services to any director who would listen, eventually landing a job with Oliver Stone on the production of "Platoon" – the start of a second career.
Having worked with Spielberg on "Saving Private Ryan," Capt. Dye was a natural choice for "Band of Brothers." Describing his role as the "military guru" on set, Captain Dye said his "important responsibility is to train these actors to be true successors, to do honor to the real men of Easy Company – to whom we owe a great deal in our world today – by portraying them correctly, with great honor and panache." In addition to his advisory role, Captain Dye appeared onscreen as Colonel Sink, commanding officer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of 101st Airborne Division.
The actors endured a grueling two-week boot camp where they learned the basics, from how to wear a uniform and stand at attention, to sophisticated field tactics and parachute jump training. The average day was 16 hours long, beginning at 5:00 a.m., rain or shine, with strenuous calisthenics and a three-to-five-mile run, followed by hours of tactical training, including weapons handling and jump preparation. The men ate twice a day if they hadn’t upset Captain Dye. There were night operations, foxhole digs and guard duty; they crawled through mud, slept on cold, wet ground, and had no showers. The highlight and culmination of boot camp was a trip to the Royal Air Force Base at Brize Norton, the training site for British paratroopers, where each actor jumped from the 40-foot jump tower and earned his wings.
The emphasis during boot camp was on living strictly in the 1940s. No modern language or modern slang was permitted, and the men were known by their character names. Real names, and real life, ceased to exist. This mindset carried over into production, where cast and crew alike referred to the men by character. By the end of the first week of training, the actors were "so isolated, so dependent upon each other, that just to survive they ceased to be themselves and became their characters."
Captain Dye believes it essential to be hard on the actors in boot camp, because "no actor who hasn’t walked a mile or two in a soldier’s boots can adequately emotionally and psychologically portray a soldier. It’s important to have some truth, for these men to be able to say, 'I remember what exhaustion is, because I was exhausted. I remember what it’s like to take a bead on a person and pull the trigger, because I did that. I understand what it’s like to slide in the mud and be absolutely filthy and stink like a goat, because I’ve been there.' That was the life those men lived in World War II, and if our actors live it, they can only tell the truth."
An important part of the day was "stand down", usually after the evening meal, where the actors had a no-holds-barred opportunity to ask anything. Questions like "What’s it feel like to have a morphine injection?," "What does shrapnel look like?" and "What’s it like when a buddy right next to you gets killed?" were instrumental to the actors’ understanding of combat life. When Capt. Dye asked the actors what they thought about the last question, they expressed the expected anguish, sadness and numbness. Captain Dye’s response: "There’s only one right answer: You feel elation, you feel joy because it wasn’t you. And that momentary elation is what causes survivor’s guilt – you’re happy your buddy caught the bullet, not you, even if he was your best buddy. It’s that kind of insight that truly helps the men move into the combat aspect of this thing, and that’s what shows up on the screen."
By the end of boot camp, the actors had gone through an extraordinary metamorphosis. Dye says, they “understood about tenacity, hardship, discipline and pushing themselves to do more than they ever thought they could do. They took pride in themselves, and began to realize what ordinary men are capable of. They lost their fear of weapons and uniforms. They understood what it’s like to live together in a brotherhood, and they truly became brothers."
Captain Dye’s responsibilities did not end with the actors. With a mandate from the producers to make it authentic, not pretty, Captain Dye kept a careful eye on everything from uniform details to the size of an explosion that happens with a particular grenade or shell, reinforcing the fact that "World War II combat was very low-tech compared to what we know today. Back to basics, with eyeball-to-eyeball killing, not with radios and fully automatic weapons and guided missiles like today."
Helping to make "Band Of Brothers" was a very rewarding experience for Captain Dye. "It’s rare to have an opportunity to do something which is impactful, which will have a legacy, and "Band Of Brothers" is such a project," he notes. "Through it, audiences come to appreciate the extraordinary sacrifice that the American soldier in World War II made, which makes this world what it is today. The peace and freedom that most of the world enjoys is a direct result of the service and sacrifices made by the men of Easy Company and others like them, and I believe in my heart that we can make the audience understand that. And if we can do that, we’ve lit a torch for another generation, and that’s an important legacy."
* * *
During the featurette, much was made of the exhaustion and wearisome aspects of the ten-day boot camp, and I’m pretty sure I heard comments from the actors about being happy it was over when it was finally over. But I know better – there’s something under that. I distinctly recall that in the last week of my own thirteen-week USMC boot camp experience I was actually apprehensive about finishing it up. People stare at me when I admit this. But boot camp provided order, purpose, a schedule, and a goal – as tough as it was. And I had made friends and done things I had never done before or since. Most of all was looking forward to the pride at acquiring the title, Marine. What was ahead? I wasn’t sure, and human nature being what it is, I found that somewhat disturbing.
I do not know which, if any, of the actors actually made it though a real U.S. Armed Service boot camp, but my guess is that some of them actually miss the experience of their ten-day boot camp with Dale Dye, at least somewhat. I’m guessing that it was unique in their lives, and that they’re looking back on the whole experience somewhat fondly – perhaps even to the point of doing it again some day.
Am I right or wrong? Hey, if you’re one of the Band of Brothers Boot Camp actors who stumbled across this article, write me and let me know.
As for you reenactors, if a boot camp experience is required to turn actors into convincing soldiers (and I agree with Dale Dye that it is), perhaps a boot camp experience is needed to turn civilians into convincing soldier reenactors.