This article by Mac Caltrider was originally published by Coffee or Die.
It has been more than 20 years since HBO released its groundbreaking miniseries Band of Brothers — an adaptation of Stephen Ambrose’s bestselling book about a company of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne and their harrowing fight from the hedgerows of Normandy on D-Day to the end of the war in Europe.
The show was heralded by critics and audiences for its historically rigorous and deeply moving portrayal of the Americans who fought to defeat the Axis in World War II — the so-called Greatest Generation. Premiering on Sept. 9, 2001, Band of Brothers landed in people’s living rooms on the eve of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and resonated with the wave of patriotism that swept America following those events.
Imbued with the same gritty realism that showrunners Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks employed in Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers remains one of the gold standards of cinematic depictions of modern combat. With the recent passing of Bradford Freeman, the last surviving member of Easy Company, now is a good time to revisit the unit’s incredible story. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about Band of Brothers.
1) The real Captain Sobel once attempted suicide
Captain Herbert Sobel, as played by actor David Schwimmer, is one of the most unlikable characters in the war film genre, only slightly less despised by audiences than Pvt. Upham and Ephialtes. In Band of Brothers, Sobel helps whip the men of Easy Company into shape before shipping them off to war. Replaced because of his ineptitude just before D-Day, Sobel resurfaces later in the miniseries only to reaffirm that he was never cut out to be the company commander. Because he appears in just three episodes, Sobel’s full story is left mostly untold in the miniseries.
The real Sobel not only fought in WWII but also continued serving in the Korean War and even received a Bronze Star. In 1970, Sobel intentionally shot himself in the head. He survived the suicide attempt but was left permanently blind in both eyes. He then spent the last 17 years of his life in a Veteran Affairs retirement home before dying in 1987 of neglect and malnutrition.
2) Buck Compton’s miraculous grenade throw was not a mistake
During the depiction of the assault on Brecourt Manor — an action which resulted in eight Bronze Stars, three Silver Stars, and one Distinguished Service Cross and is still taught at West Point as an example of a textbook small-unit assault on a fixed position — there is a moment that appears to be a special effects mistake.
1st Lt. Buck Compton is shown throwing a grenade with no arc that explodes upon contact with the back of a fleeing German soldier. While hand grenades do not explode on contact, the scene accurately depicts what actually happened. Compton was an all-American pitcher before joining the Army, and he threw the grenade in a straight line instead of lobbing it. In real life, however, the grenade exploded just as it struck the enemy soldier’s head, not his back.
3) The roles of certain characters were minimized because their real-life stories seemed too incredible to be true
In episode two, “Day of Days,” a group of German POWs is gunned down by an American officer. Just before this happens, Donald Malarkey, a member of Easy Company, meets one of the German prisoners, who it turns out is an American who had returned to Germany, where his family was originally from, to fight for his “Fatherland.” The chance meeting almost seems too unlikely to be true, but the real interaction was even more astounding. In real life, Malarkey and the POW actually worked across the street from one another for years before WWII broke out.
Just like the German American POW, the civilian nurse from Bastogne was also real. And like the POW, her story was toned down for fear that audiences would not believe it. The character, Anna, is based on Reneé Lemaire — a nurse and native of Bastogne. When the aid station she was working in was bombed on Christmas Eve 1944, she successfully rescued six wounded soldiers and died attempting to rescue a seventh.
4) Tom Hanks turned down one actor for having ‘dead eyes’
An actor who unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Maj. Dick Winter’s aide turned his story of rejection into a successful podcast. Connor Ratliff was apparently passed over for the role because Tom Hanks thought he had “dead eyes.” The insult stuck with Ratliff, and the now-successful actor eventually started a funny podcast called Dead Eyes in which he investigates why he failed to get the part. He even managed to get Hanks to tell his side of the story in one of the episodes (episode 31).
“Let me first take full responsibility for doing this to you,” Hanks said. “This is without a doubt the act of the director, and that was me.”
The “nicest guy in Hollywood” spent the majority of their conversation apologizing and swearing he has no memory of the encounter.
5) Jimmy Fallon’s cameo almost didn’t happen because he didn’t know how to drive stick
The series is full of now-famous actors who were just getting started at the time of filming — Tom Hardy, Simon Pegg, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender, to name a few. Another unlikely cameo you may have missed is Jimmy Fallon, who plays the small role of Lt. George Rice. In episode five, Fallon arrives in a Willy Jeep and holds a brief conversation with Maj. Winters. What most people don’t know about Fallon’s cameo is that his jeep had to be pushed by extras because he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. The engine noises were added in post-production.
Feature Image composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
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