Less than a week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, noted UNO historian Stephen Ambrose told a packed house in the Orpheum Theater that the new HBO mini-series Band of Brothers is "the best movie ever made about World War II." The crowd was there to see a special preview of the mini-series, which Ambrose co-produced with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
Ambrose authored the book on which the HBO series is based, so he can be forgiven for his exuberance about the project. After watching half the installments, I have to say that Band of Brothers deserves every word of Ambrose's praise -- but for reasons that no one could foresee on Sept. 5.
Band of Brothers takes its title from Shakespeare's King Henry V. Knowing Ambrose, that title may or may not have been his first choice. In retrospect, it works on several levels. As intended by Ambrose, it accurately and poignantly describes the bonds forged among Easy Company's "citizen soldiers" during their rigorous training and hellish combat experiences in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Shakespeare immortalized such bonds in King Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech, in which the youthful king sought to inspire his outnumbered, weary and dispirited soldiers before they engaged the French at Agincourt:
"From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered --
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother ..."
The officers and men of Easy Company understood those bonds. Some of the men who had been injured during the D-Day invasion actually went AWOL from their hospital beds to rejoin their brothers-in-arms on the battle lines.
In one episode, Capt. Richard Winters -- a hero among heroes -- is warned that the men of Easy Company will be surrounded at Bastogne. "We're paratroopers," Winters responds. "We're supposed to be surrounded."
The feats of Easy Company seem larger than life now, but the men who lived it say they were just ordinary guys doing their jobs. As much as anything else, Ambrose writes in his book, they didn't want to look bad in front of guys with whom they had trained. They also preferred to be outnumbered alongside guys they knew and trusted rather than stuck in a foxhole with some fresh recruit they didn't know. These men truly were a band of brothers.
On another level, Ambrose's title and the story of the men of Easy Company evoke Lawrence Olivier's cinematic production of Henry V during World War II. At that time, England was being pounded by German air raids. Its people were demoralized. The outcome of the war was in doubt. Olivier's inspired portrayal of Henry stirred the hearts of his countrymen and steeled their resolve.
America needs to steel its resolve today. The war against terrorism is on, and no one knows how long it will last, where it will take us, or how much it will cost in human lives. Our enemies vow to continue attacking us in ways we cannot foresee, hoping to demoralize us and to make us doubt ourselves.
The soldiers of Easy Company knew fear. But they never lost their resolve. They never doubted their mission. Their story inspires us today as Olivier's Henry inspired our great allies in Britain nearly six decades ago.
Ambrose was right. Band of Brothers is the greatest WWII movie ever made -- not because of its expensive production values, nor because of its realistic depiction of battle, but rather because it shows us how selflessness, resolve and courage can overcome anything. Now more than ever, America needs to hear that message.