On Sept. 9, 2021, HBO released a 12-part podcast event marking the 20th anniversary of the network’s groundbreaking miniseries Band of Brothers. The show followed the men of Easy Company from D-Day to the end of World War II in Europe and set a new standard for war dramas. The new podcast, hosted by Roger Bennett, features directors, producers, and cast members dissecting the 10-episode story based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s book of the same name.
Co-creator, producer, and director Tom Hanks joined the podcast’s prologue and revealed some previously unknown hurdles the filmmakers encountered while getting the show off the ground — most notably, harsh criticism from World War II legend Maj. Dick Winters and some of the other veterans of Easy Company.
Before the series moved into post-production, some of the initial footage was screened for Winters at his home in Pennsylvania. Hanks recounts during the podcast how the producers expected Winters to be delighted with what he saw. After all, the series was given an immense budget of $125 million (the highest budget for a TV show up to that point), and both Hanks and Steven Spielberg were determined to bring an unprecedented level of authenticity to the show.
However, according to Hanks, Winters was less than pleased. The World War II veteran confessed the show had gotten the historical details correct when it came to weapons, uniforms, and lingo, but he felt it was wrong in its portrayal of the famed paratroopers.
“The problem is you have us looking like we don’t know what we’re doing,” Hanks recalled Winters saying. “Tom, we knew what we were doing. We knew where we were. We knew what needed to get done. You have it looking like we haven’t even read the map correctly!”
Winters was speaking about the show’s depiction of the assault on Brécourt Manor, an action that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross and is still taught at the US Military Academy at West Point as an example of effective small-unit tactics. The original plan for the episode was to stress the uncertainty the paratroopers faced during the invasion of Normandy, but apparently the editors overdid it. Hanks explained during the podcast that the producers had no ego about the show and welcomed all feedback from the veterans themselves.
“Our job here is not to screw up the lives of the subject matter. Our job is not to discern for ourselves what you went through but to find out what happened and try and dramatize that and make it real on screen,” Hanks recalled saying to Winters.
Following the constructive feedback, producers altered their approach to reflect the paratroopers’ competence and professionalism. But Winters was not the only veteran concerned with how the men of Easy Company were portrayed.
The Band of Brothers producers set out to depict the violence of war realistically, which is why they chose to sign with HBO rather than another network. Ambrose only agreed to hand his work over to Hanks and Spielberg because of their previous collaboration on Saving Private Ryan and that film’s unapologetic depiction of graphic war violence. Beyond realistically portraying the physical toll combat takes on the human body, the show’s producers sought to depict the mental cost as well, most notably through the character of Lt. Buck Compton.
When Compton met with Neal McDonough — the actor who played him — he revealed an inaccuracy in the book. Ambrose wrote that Compton was simply wounded during the Battle of the Bulge and evacuated to a hospital. The truth was markedly different.
“I wasn’t wounded in the Bulge. I cracked up … Look, I had been shot in the ass during Market Garden, and I was in the hospital lying on my belly with a bleeding butt. I was surrounded by guys who’d had their legs blown off, their genitals blown off, their heads barely held together with tape and catgut. I felt like a fool. When I was brought back [to the front] I couldn’t take it, so I cracked up. I had a nervous breakdown,” Compton told McDonough.
According to Hanks, other Easy Company veterans had apparently taken issue with that information being shared and insisted Ambrose take it out of the book prior to being published. Hanks then had to get permission directly from Compton to include the true version of his struggle in the miniseries.
Band of Brothers premiered Sept. 9, 2001. The standout drama took on a whole new meaning when, two days later, the US was attacked by al Qaeda. The ensuing wave of patriotism carried the show to unexpected heights and earned six Emmys. On the 20th anniversary of both 9/11 and the show’s premiere, the 12-part podcast is a timely and revealing reflection on both American heroes and the iconic TV series.