Brothers in Arms
by Tom Howard, Time Out, September 19, 2001
Spielberg’s $120 million WWII drama ‘Band Of Brothers’ comes to BBC2 next month. The series may be awash with American heroism, but its trump card is rising British star Damian Lewis.
The famous British inferiority complex- normally aired after sporting occasions – has never been as misplaced as our reaction to ‘Band Of Brothers’. American films such as ‘U-571′ tried to rewrite history, but this $120 million ten-part HBO-produced series is rigorously accurate. It’s the story of Easy Company, a crack American unit who parachute into Normandy in 1944, and then, at least according to the Daily Mail and others, proceed to win WWII single-handedly.
American lack of recognition of the British war effort has become a major bugbear for us Brits. But the man who landed the starring role in the series, Damian Lewis, believes that such commentators are missing the point. ‘To write about this before they’ve seen any of it is just unintelligent, ‘ he says of theDaily Mail. ‘The bottom line is that it’s a true story, so I don’t think it matters that you don’t see many Brits. It isn’t war on a grand scale, this goes right down to a company of 150, and focuses on 30 men. It’s actually incidental that they are Americans – of course other countries had similar groups of men.’ Lewis is in a smart hotel in Manchester, where he is taking a break from filminga forthcoming ITV drama, ‘The Forsyte Saga’, to join the promotional trail for ‘Band Of Brothers’. The tall, striking 29-year-old set himself up for a potentially highly lucrative career when he beat 300 British and countless American actors to the role of Captain Dick Winters, a still-living hero who provides much of the narrative continuity in this massive production. It took several casting meetings with exec-producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to finally land the role, and the gruelling six-month shoot then took place on a 10,000acre site in Hatfield last year, which doubled for several European wartime locations.
‘It was kind of a life experience, ‘ Lewis says of the shoot. ‘There’s a particular camaraderie and bonding that you gain through just being absolutely exhausted with a bunch of other men. We had two film sets working simultaneously, so I was jumping back and forth from Holland to Germany to France. The sheer scale of it was extraordinary, but it was absolutely exhausting – when it finished I just collapsed for three weeks.’
Articulate, funny and, unusually for a young actor, quite outspoken, Lewis’s rise has been meteoric. Trained at drama school but previously seen only in the BBC’s ‘Warriors’ and the first run of its modest thirtysomething drama ‘Hearts And Bones’, he is well aware that he and a large number of other British actors (see sidebar) were not cast in ‘Band Of Brothers’ for their ability alone: ‘Romantically I’d like to think it’s because Spielberg likes English actors, but bluntly: tax breaks, ‘ he says.
(HBO saved around $10m because it used a mainly British cast and crew. ) ‘Spielberg’s also a very shrewd businessman and he’s notoriously prudent with his salaries – it literally took seconds to negotiate my fee!’
In the end, the real stars of ‘Band Of Brothers’ are its famous executive producers (Hanks also directs one episode). Their involvement guaranteed the funding that in turn ensured some spectacular, historically authentic action scenes. The second episode sees the 101st Airborne Division (aka Easy Company) dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy – it’s an unforgettably terrifying sequence, digital enhancement only adding to the spectacle as their plane attempts to dodge streaks of enemy fire. It’s followed up by a gritty, documentary style battle sequence as the men capture an enemy machine-gun position.
But while the series looks set to clean up Stateside, its fate in Britain does not look so rosy, thanks in part to negative WWII-related publicity. And will a British audience stay with the relentless Stars and Stripes schmaltz, even if most of it did actually happen? The BBC doesn’t seem to think so. The series certainly hasn’t been helped over here by relegation to BBC2, despite the Beeb shelling out between GBP 5m and GBP 10m (depending on whose estimate you believe) for the rights. ‘I’m not sure what the BBC is up to here, because logically if you invest an unprecedented amount for something, you’d think it’d push it as hard as possible to get the biggest return for it, ‘ says Lewis. ‘So to put it on a Friday night on BBC2 does seem like a slight loss of faith. From the Beeb’s point of view, it is a war drama that features exclusively Americans. However brilliant the TV is, it may be alienating to viewers.’
Nevertheless, ‘Band Of Brothers’ looks set to transform Lewis from jobbing British TV actor to Hollywood star. The well oiled manner in which he poses for photographs after our interview suggests he is already accustomed to American publicity demands – he has appeared on the cover of American Maxim and in Vanity Fair- but the actor can see other potential pitfalls ahead for the drama. ‘I’m not sure whether they have succeeded in marrying their search for authenticity and all that amazing action with the more conventional drama and relationships between characters, ‘ he explains. ‘I hope this doesn’t happen, but I think there’s a danger that viewers will sit back after ten hours and say: “Wow that was incredible, but I didn’t feel too involved in it.”‘ British war veterans could be forgiven for feeling the same way.
‘Band Of Brothers’ is due to start in October on BBC2.
BARMY ARMY MEET SOME OTHER MEMBERS OF THE BRIT CONTINGENT.
1. Dexter Fletcher (Sgt John Martin) ‘He’s a very fashionable actor, but he’s still my hero from “PressGang”, ‘ says Lewis.
2. Marc Warren (Albert Blithe) Lewis: ‘Marc “Men Only”, “Oliver Twist”, “The Vice” is featured very heavily in episode three, and is brilliant.’
3. Simon Pegg (Sgt William Evans) The comic talent behind the incomparable ‘Spaced’ gets his Hollywood break in a small role.
4. Stephen Graham (Ranney) ‘Corrie’ fans may remember Graham as Lee Sankey. He also appeared as Tommy in ‘Snatch’.
5. Tom Hanks (British parachutist) Yes, he’s a Yank, but in a bizarre twist he plays one of the only British characters, and a minor one it is too.