'Band' not a WWII cash-in

Tom Hanks says too much attention can't be paid to such a crucial time

The citizens of Le Havre, France, need no more reminders of the 1944 allied invasion of Normandy that helped end World War II. This 16th-century port, today home to about 200,000 people, had to be rebuilt from the ashes of near total annihilation after the war.

Farther inland, damage from the seven bombs that hit the 13th-century cathedral at Rouen, immortalized in Claude Monet's paintings, is still being repaired. (No tour there is complete without hearing a recitation of the terrors of rebuilding the central columns while the lantern tower teetered overhead.)

But for Americans, there is "Band of Brothers" (beginning Sunday on HBO), a 10-hour television miniseries based on historian Stephen Ambrose's book by the same name. It follows a United States Army unit, Easy Company, from D-Day to the end of World War II. Excruciating attention is paid to getting the costumes, military culture, and battle scenes just right in this $125 million series, which uses state-of-the-art video techniques to bring that historic time to life.

The miniseries, produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, was shot on the same London set as the powerful 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan," which starred Mr. Hanks and was directed by Mr. Spielberg. Inevitably, "Band" faces the charge of cashing in on "Private Ryan"-inspired World War II mania.

Hanks flatly dismisses the suggestion that too much attention is being devoted to World War II. "If you take honest stock of the key story of, collectively, our lifetime," he says, "you must return to the years between 1939 and 1945, in which you can honestly say the fate of the world hung in the balance. And that, had it not turned out the way it had, then, I think without question, the world would be a very, very palpably different place."

He acknowledges that something of a cottage industry has appeared, mining the stories of veterans while they are still alive.

He and Spielberg, he says, "are in some ways responsible for it," referring to "Saving Private Ryan." "But the great thing that has come about from it all has been a focus where focus deserves to be placed," Hanks says.

Historian Ambrose says he frequently is asked if too much is made of World War II.

"The implication is that it's going to fade away like every other fad," says the writer, who also consulted on "Private Ryan." "My response is, 'Have you ever been to the battlefield at Gettysburg? Do you know how many people go to Gettysburg today? And will go 10 years from now? Or a hundred years from now?

"The fascination with World War II is not going to fade," Ambrose says. "It was the greatest event of the 20th century. It determined that we were going to live in a democracy. And it will last."

Ambrose says he's often asked, 'Do you think today's kids could do D-Day over again?' "

His answer is "of course they could. They are the children of democracy, just as ... the members of Easy Company and all the members of the American Armed Forces in the Second World War were children of democracy. Democracy was under threat, and they knew this is [the] most valuable thing we have, and we're going to go out and fight for it."

Despite more than 500 speaking roles and some 10,000 extras, some of the most compelling moments in "Brothers" are the interviews with veterans that introduce the 10 episodes.

Clifford Carwood Lipton says the war changed him in unexpected ways.

"Before I went into the Army, I was a loner. What I accomplished, I accomplished myself, and I didn't think of looking to others to help me do what I felt needed to be done," says Mr. Lipton, whose days in Easy Company are detailed in the series.

"In the Army, I became associated with men like Dick Winters and Ronald Speirs and other officers. And I was impressed by their ability to motivate and organize men into a group and accomplish missions as an organization rather than each one acting independently," he says.

He tried to emulate those examples. "I taught myself to do the same thing. When I came out of the Army, I was a different person. I came out as someone who wanted to organize things and accomplish things through joint efforts with other people. And I continued the rest of my life operating that way."

The Easy Company veterans are still a tight-knit group, Ambrose says, and still apply the lessons of teamwork they learned. "They just did a great job because of what they learned in the Army. The team always beats the individual," he says.

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