There are many great films about World War II, but two that stand out in my mind is Spielberg’s masterpiece Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. I find these works to be good companion pieces, because whenever I watch one, I am reminded how great the other is as well. They cover roughly the same period of the war, and both are clearly passion projects for Spielberg and Hanks. Here are some of my favorite elements of both films (contains spoilers):
Compelling casts: Both have impressive casts featuring a lot of actors we’re not used to seeing in these kinds of projects, like David Swimmer as the pain in the ass Captain Sobel or Ted Danson who briefly appears as the other Private Ryan’s commanding officer. Everyone is stellar in both works, but there are some stand-outs for me.
Saving Private Ryan- Tom Hanks: I’m a big Hanks fan but I think this is my favorite performance of his. His portrayal of the Captain who was an English teacher back home but remains a mystery to his fellow soldiers is a subtle performance, which explains why he was snubbed at the 1999 Oscars, losing best actor to Roberto Benigni. I appreciate subtly, the Academy does not. He’s a man changed by war, and while he’s eager to return home, he’s worried about finding out how different he really has become.
Band of Brothers – Ron Livingston: Known best for his work in the workplace comedy Office Space, Livingston was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance of Captain Lewis Nixon. While clearly a good solider, by the end of the series he has had his fill of army life. He’s sarcastic, often drunk, and sees no glory in any of it anymore, but he continues to throw himself out of planes. His friendship with Major Dick Winters (Damian Lewis who won a Golden Globe for his performance) is an important element of the series. Winters is a model soldier and they often provide conflicting views on the war. When writing letters to families back home, informing them their loved one had been killed, Nixon is at a loss over what to write. Winters tells him to say they died heroes, but Nixon doesn’t know if he believes that anymore.
Comic Relief: One thing that gets overlooked when discussing World War II is that these soldiers were kids who were completely unprepared for what they were getting themselves into when they signed up. Companies of men were forced together for long stretches of time, creating a family type unit (or a band of brothers- get it). You get enough 18 year old boys together, there’s going to be some goofiness, even under thedirest circumstances.
Saving Private Ryan- the other Private Ryan. Captain Miller and crew find a Private James Ryan and inform him that his brothers are dead, only to find out it’s the wrong man. This other Ryan (played by future space captain Nathan Fillion) is a blubbering mess and desperate to know how all his brothers could have possibly been killed, seeing that they are all under the age of ten. Miller realizes the error and assures him he’s sure the little guys are fine, but is more than a little annoyed about all this.
Band of Brothers- Sgt George Luz : This guy steals every scene he’s in, as Easy Company’s resident expert impressionist. From tricking Captain Sobel during a training exercise, to having a smart answer for every stupid question, this radio man rarely lets on that he’s one false move away from instant death. He gets bonus points from because he’s played by Rick Gomez, who was also big Pete’s number one bully “Endless” Mike on Pete and Pete.
Heartbreaking scenes: You never forget these movies are about war. World War II was an extremely traumatic time for America. Everyone knew someone who was fighting and many knew a kid who lost their life. World War II also featured one of the most villainous characters in the history of mankind, Adolf Hitler, who was responsible for some of the most gruesome atrocities the world has ever known. Both films beautifully capture the horrors of war.
Saving Private Ryan- Giovanni Ribisi crying for his mother: When their medic is shot, the troops hurry to try to save him while he tries to guide them. Knowing the severity of his injury, he begins to call for his mother and wishes he could go home. You can’t help but think of how many boys died in the middle of a battlefield so far from home. This scene is enough to make you wonder “Is any cause worth this?”
Band of Brothers- the finding of the Concentration Camp: It’s easy to forget that America did not know about Hitler’s death camps until the tail end of the war. While they were aware the Nazis were trying to rid Germany of their Jewish community, it was not yet known how complete this obsession had become. When Easy Company stumbles upon a concentration camp, they are stunned at what they have found and have to piece together exactly what they’ve uncovered. Even Luz is speechless. Even more devastating, they learn they can’t even feed these starving people, because if they eat more than their withered bodies can handle, they will die.
While not everyone would find a World War II movie marathon to be the best way to spend a weekend, if you haven’t seen these films, I strongly urge you to rectify this immediately. They are both beautiful representations of one of the darkest times in world history, with surprising performances, brilliant scripts, and amazing special effects that completely capture the trama of war.