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For the “Ordinary Man”: A Reflection on the Post-9/11 Perception of HBO’s Band of Brothers

Abby Whitlock | National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Few television series manage to withstand the test of time, whether in terms of popularity or relevance. Reasons for this vary, from trends in production techniques to far-reaching and all-consuming changes in political and economic climates. But often audiences, whether widespread or niche, persist. How does the reception of popular, big-budget productions change in the face of world events? 


HBO’s Band of Brothers is considered to be one of the most beloved and acclaimed miniseries of all time. The initial airing of the series’ ten episodes reached sixty-eight million people, averaging six million viewers per episode. Now, just a few weeks after its twenty-second anniversary, the show is available on Netflix for the first time. Based on historian Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 non-fiction book examining E (“Easy”) Company, 2nd Battalion 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne of the U.S. Army from their training in the American South to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Austria. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the ten-part series premiered on September 9, 2001.


Renowned now for its storytelling, acting, and attention to historical detail and the memory of Easy Company, Band of Brothers is a cultural phenomenon, that has grown in significance and popularity in the years since its release.  When asked about the success of Band of Brothers in 2021, actor Ron Livingston, who portrayed Captain Lewis Nixon, said “If it can stay relevant, and if it can stand the test of time, then it only grows”. So, why Band of Brothers? Why does a twenty-two-year-old show about the Second World War, which ended nearly eighty years ago, remain so solidly in America’s collective memory and identity? What did the era it premiered in have to do with it? The answer can be found in an event that happened after the show’s production and premiere that significantly altered the series’ perception and place: the attacks on September 11, 2001.


I will admit my bias: Band of Brothers is my favourite show of all time. From the storytelling to the cast and the incorporation of the veterans’ stories in their own terms, it has always fascinated me. My love and admiration for these elements have not waned, but now I find myself wondering why the show is so successful and why it became so tied into American identity. Why was it so popular with the general public, who was not familiar with the significance of the Airborne or Easy Company or Ambrose’s book? Much has been written about the relationship between Second World War films and heightened patriotism and support for the military at this time, but what deserves more exploration is the renewed interest in the human condition during the conflict after 9/11.


A picture of two characters from the show 'Band of Brothers' squatting and having a personal conversation.
Major Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) and Captain Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) in one of the series’ many scenes exploring the complicated relationship between violence, leadership, and human connection in Episode 5: “Crossroads”.

With HBO’s significant financial backing – a budget of $125 million, the highest for a miniseries at that time – and the success of Ambrose’s source material, Band of Brothers was anticipated to not only be a financial success, but also an acclaimed war production and memorial to the veterans of Easy Company. However, the attacks that occurred less than thirty-six hours after the show’s premiere cast a large shadow that muted America’s reaction to and perception of the show, with HBO effectively ceasing its marketing strategy following 9/11. Although the series went on to win the 2001 Golden Globe for Best Miniseries and several Emmy Primetime Awards (including Outstanding Miniseries), viewership for the series dwindled from 10 million at its premiere to 5.1 million at the last episode’s airing on November 4th. However, by the mid-2000s, Band of Brothers was a staple on American channels such as TNT and Spike TV (both of which marketed heavily towards a male audience) and aired in marathon-form several times a year around the D-Day anniversary, Fourth of July, and American Veterans Day. This resurgence in popularity years after its release and specific airtimes indicates two things: first, the programme could help market a particular message at particular times of the year and second, that a dedicated viewership would not only sustain a marathon, but possibly tune in to multiple airings a year.


HBO describes the series as “a show that honors an America which saved the world with selflessness, courage and everyday heroism”. Unless you know that the series is about Easy Company, or, on a broader scale, the Second World War, this is a vague description, highlighting characteristics rather than characters or specific plot points. The limited promotional materials from this time focus on two key things: the ordinary man and a sense of unity. One of the core taglines seen for the show was “There was a time when the world asked ordinary men to do extra ordinary things”, often accompanied by a group shot of the series’ core characters. As Tom Hanks stated, one of the original draws of Easy Company’s story was the depiction of the normal, everyday American dealing with morality and trauma in the face of conflict; there was a wide cast of characters from various backgrounds, experiences, and contributions to the Company that was skilfully brought to life on screen by a talented cast of primarily unknowns (save for David Schwimmer of Friends fame and perhaps Ron Livingston of Office Space).

A promotional image produced to advertise the show 'Band of Brothers'.
A promo for the series, coupled with an advertisement for Jeep. Chrysler was a sponsor for the series and spent $5 million to $15 million on its advertising campaign, using footage from Band of Brothers. (HBO)

Although the Second World War produced a different set of circumstances than American society following the attacks, Americans saw themselves in the characters represented there. Although the series depicts these men as paratroopers, “the best of the best” who volunteered for their job, they are still ordinary Americans. From the UCLA star athlete to the small-town farmer, those from bustling metropolitan areas to specks on the American map, those that graduated from college to those that never finished high school, they represented a slice of American identity at that time. The attacks on September 11 – the first attacks on American soil since Pearl Harbor – and the subsequent War on Terror and invasion of Afghanistan served as a major shock to American society, with Americans wondering what their place was and how to cope with the social, economic, and political reverberations that would continue far into the future. In this state of flux, where the fate of the world seemed to be in the hands of a select few holding political power and faced with an uncertain future, Band of Brothers presented audiences with an earlier generation embodying and maintaining American resilience. Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 served as a pivotal moment for a number of Americans, who wondered how they could serve in some capacity. In this period void of much hope and autonomy, the series and characters showed that the “ordinary” American does have something to contribute, regardless of background, whether that be through enlisting in the military to something as simple as providing support to your friends and family. Everyone could “do their bit” and they were, in fact, encouraged to do so in whatever way they could.


A promotional image advertising the show 'Band of Brothers', depicting a two soldiers carrying their comrade.
Another poster advertising the September 9, 2001 premiere. (HBO).

The focus on the “ordinary man” in the promotional materials and storyline was complemented by a focus on camaraderie and cooperation, another factor that Americans looked for in the years following 9/11. The series’ title, from the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V and spoken by Carwood Lipton in the finale, underscores the focus on unity and indicates a sense of belonging through shared mindsets, action, and, most importantly, support. Tom Hanks credited the series’ increasing popularity as “[coming] down to the desire for us all to belong to something bigger than ourselves. And to earn membership into whatever that society is”. This shared mindset and sense of “membership” translated into the idea that whatever might happen or whatever might come, if you show support for others in pursuit of that “something bigger”, you will be supported and cared for. No matter how isolating things may seem, someone will always have your back.


This was incorporated into other promotional materials for the show, including perhaps the most iconic imagery to come from Band of Brothers: the group shot. The group shot situated the individual within the collective, indistinguishable to the observer save for equipment or differing uniform attire that separated them from their comrades. The anonymized version situating them on the ridge presented the observer to use their imagination to determine who was who, or to perhaps picture themselves (or an idea of themselves) in that role. Whether the full-colour or more anonymized version, these images became extremely popular, being adopted and adapted into advertisements, decorations, and interpretive materials, including veterans’ rights and pro-military campaigns by the mid-2000s and car advertisements (such as the Chrysler advertisement above).



A promotional image for the show 'Band of Brothers'.
Two iconic shots of a selection of cast members. Variations of these became widely adopted in the following two decades, ranging from merchandise to interpretations for patriotic imagery. (Top: HBO. Bottom: National World War II Museum)

Such an exploration of the intersection between human behaviour, the complexity of national identity and participation, and cultural exploration reflect the struggles of many cultures to work through their past. The attachment to and adoption of Band of Brothers to cope with the horrors of the 9/11 attacks and the violent uncertainty that followed is one example of this. By following the “ordinary man” as he navigates war, the viewer is presented with the flux of emotions, the complicated realities of that experience, both “good” and “bad”, and the fact that actions are not without consequences. As actor Damian Lewis, who portrayed Major Richard Winters, stated prior to the series’ release, “This isn’t about how America won the war, it really isn’t. This is about following a group of young men and their experience”. The Band of Brothers’ companion piece The Pacific (2010) takes this initial exploration a step further: with a smaller cast of characters, the series focuses more on the violence of the Pacific Theatre, combating the “Good War” perception of the Second World War by highlighting extreme violence, cruelty, and racism on the parts of both the Americans and Japanese. The Pacific reflects the atmosphere of the late 2000s, where, like the release of Band of Brothers, Americans pondered how the nation got to this point. The Global War on Terror saw the controversial use of surveillance, drone warfare, and torture, resulting in high civilian casualties and the displacement of nearly thirty-eight million people. By 2010, Operation Iraqi Freedom reached an end after nearly a decade, resulting in the formal withdrawal of coalition forces and the escalation of anti-government insurgency. Here, the initial jingoism seen as a response to 9/11 was mollified by the realities of counterinsurgency Americans saw nearly daily in the news. Ultimately, the show and viewing experience represent a way to approach one’s past and future, where both may not seem as “clean-cut” or “black-and-white” as previously expected or hoped.


In 2023, it can be difficult to recognise that Band of Brothers was not a product of 9/11, rather it was a product whose interpretation and perception was immediately influenced by the attacks and the disruption that followed. The series provided an attractively produced and written exploration of human behaviour in times of strife that served as a form of coping mechanism for Americans following the attacks on September 11. Unlike other Second World War movies like Saving Private Ryan, whose distance from the attacks allowed it to maintain a certain level of autonomy, Band of Brothers’ release date ultimately dictated its reception for nearly two decades. While the pain, sense of loss and eerie closeness of 9/11 has certainly not disappeared, two decades of distance from the event has allowed us to not only revisit the event itself, but to also revisit the media sitting between two eras. As we now face the reality that all of the original Easy Company men have passed and that only around 100,000 Second World War veterans are alive today, the youngest being around 95, the original intent of the miniseries to document and memorialise these men and their experiences has a renewed importance. Perhaps reflections in the next twenty years will explore the show’s significance in a world without voices from the witnesses themselves.

 

Further Reading:


  • Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

  • Terkel, Studs. The Good War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

  • Basinger, Jeanine. The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (Middleton, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

  • Doherty, Thomas. Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).


Abby Whitlock is an early career researcher and historian focusing on the social and cultural history of the World Wars, tracing their legacies from wartime through the present day in literature, film, and music. Her work is cross-disciplinary with History, English, Psychology, and Sociology. She has presented a variety of lectures and presentations on First and Second World War aviation, airborne operations, and combat medicine.

 

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