Band of Sisters
Why So Many Women Are Drawn to an Iconic World War II Series
On a frosty December evening in 2019, I was celebrating my 50th birthday in the traditional custom — dining alone at a pizzeria in rural Belgium. I was in the town of Bastogne, joining tens of thousands of others from across Europe and North America to honor the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge. A couple was seated next to me, and after spotting the battlefield maps splashed across my table, introduced themselves. They were visiting from the Netherlands, and when the conversation turned to Band of Brothers, it was like one of my newfound friends had been jolted with electricity. Surprisingly, it was the young woman.
Band of Brothers, of course, is the acclaimed World War II series that began airing on HBO in late 2001. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and based on historian Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name, the series is about the “Screaming Eagles” of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. They were among the most skilled and toughened soldiers in the Army, and the series follows the paratroopers from the hardships of training, through heart-pulsing jumps into Normandy and the Netherlands, to the very end of the war. Each episode transports us back to those years, immersing us in the surroundings, whether it’s the withering humidity of the foothills of Georgia, or the arctic cold of a snow-filled Belgian forest.
The series is brutally honest about the horrors of war, starkly portraying the fear and resolve that absorb the men as they clash repeatedly with the Germans throughout the final year of the war. Blessedly filmed in widescreen format — not yet standardized twenty years ago — it is a visual masterpiece, with battle scenes as gripping and authentic as the legendary Omaha Beach sequence Spielberg assembled in Saving Private Ryan. For first-time viewers, it can be a struggle to sort out the young actors, all dressed in matching olive drab and steel helmets, but once their personas and individuality emerge, our attachment begins. Over the course of ten episodes, we begin to understand how the bonds of brotherhood among these men were forged, and by the end, when the eventual fate of the men is revealed, we’re riveted when we hear from the actual Easy Company soldiers, well into their 70s and 80s by 2001. One after another, each man offers a few short words, choked in emotion, of what the others in the company meant to him. Raw, unscripted, and some of the finest moments of television you’ll ever see.
It’s no secret the Emmy Award-winning series has, over time, developed a wide international following, and that 2019 evening in a Bastogne pizzeria was not the first or last time I had noticed the series with its virtually all-male cast had more than its share of female admirers. Most recently, I was part of a Zoom audience, listening in on a conversation among former castmates on the show, and as I clicked on the gallery view and scrolled through the sea of attentive faces, I could not help but notice that the plurality was women. And younger women too, many of whom must have been adolescents when the show first aired two decades ago.
Matthew Leitch, an English actor who played Sergeant Floyd Talbert in the series, was the host of that conversion. In the nearly two decades since Band of Brothers first aired, he has been awed by the passionate devotion of fans of the series, many of whom are indeed women. He also sees female viewers outnumbering their male counterparts when it comes to engaging with the series and cast members today, particularly on social media. “But,” Leitch cautions, “those female fans aren’t groupies. If you chat with them, or see their posts, you’ll see how interested they are in World War II history.” His castmate, Shane Taylor, who portrayed the company’s medic, Eugene Roe, agrees. “I’ve probably met as many, if not, more women into World War II and its history than men over the years. I still have an amazing book which was put together by a group of women from around the world, and it was all in honor of my role as Doc Roe.”
Absorbing all this, a single thought raced through my mind. What in the name of the Hallmark Channel is happening here? Why are there so many more female admirers of the show than I thought possible? A series known for bluntly depicting the intensity and mayhem of modern warfare, gruesome battlefield wounds and killings, and the grim desperation of soldiers on the brink of physical and mental collapse.
I thought I knew the answer at first. Why wouldn’t women gravitate toward a series with a large cast of handsome young men in uniform? After all, men hadn’t tuned into Charlie’s Angels once because we all thought Jaclyn Smith was a crack detective. Alas, perhaps the answer was a bit deeper than this. Perhaps women were drawn to the series for reasons other than glimpsing a young Michael Fassbender, or David Schwimmer in a role that was decidedly not Ross Geller.
Other possible answers began to form when I was struck with an epiphany. A single stroke of brilliance, as if some higher power had cast a light in the darkness ahead, illuminating a path forward. Yes — before I made any judgments about women viewers, I would actually speak to women viewers. It was a radical idea, but I thought it was worth exploring. And here is what I learned.
Compelling stories pull us all in.
And Band of Brothers has plenty. “What draws me to any series,” explains Lauren Whiteley, an elementary schoolteacher from Union City, Indiana, “is the storyline. Getting hooked in by the story is the biggest part for me. And if you can make me connect with these people on a human level? I’m in.”
As are many others. And each episode has its own unique hook. Easy Company’s D-Day experience is a prime example, with the untested men parachuting miles behind enemy lines hours before the invasion, and scattered all over the Normandy countryside by errant drops. They wander in the darkness, scrambling to find one another and complete their assigned missions, uncertain whether the whispering voices only feet away are their squad mates…or Germans.
The harrowing siege of Bastogne is equally captivating, when the badly outnumbered paratroopers were surrounded for several days, shivering uncontrollably in their foxholes amid falling snow and bone chilling temperatures in the dense forests of the Ardennes. Lacking winter clothing and short on food and ammunition, the soldiers struggle to persevere as their numbers are whittled away by relentless German attacks and earsplitting, earth-shaking artillery barrages we can almost feel in our living rooms. That episode is particularly memorable for the quiet, introspective interplay between the medic — Taylor’s Doc Roe — and a civilian nurse in town.
“The Bastogne episode stands out to me,” says Elizabeth Harvey, a mental health counselor in New Mexico. “I’m thinking about when Renée the nurse offers Doc Roe some chocolate with her bloodstained hands after they’ve tried and failed to save a wounded soldier. He says something about how her healing touch is a gift from God. She reacts by saying she never wants to work on a wounded soldier again. There’s a question of how much suffering and death a human can take in while trying to help.”
Whiteley, whose great-grandfather and grandfathers served in the war, also cites the Bastogne episode as “a prime example of what appeals to both genders. You get the respite of kindness and compassion found in the midst of literally one of the single most brutal battles of the entire European theater.”
As for anyone who assumes that war dramas only appeal to one gender, Julia Dye says that would be a mistake. Dye, whose company, Warriors, Inc., provided military advisers to the series and prepared actors like Leitch and Taylor for their roles through an intensive, grueling boot camp, dismisses any notion that war stories are unappealing to women. “War provides a circumstance that is full of great love, great hate, drama, personal growth, everything that makes a great story.” That, Dye promises, is why those stories will always be told.
Taylor, whose grandfather spent most of the war as a German prisoner of war, sums it up this way: “The vulnerabilities, the courage, the bravery. It comes back to ordinary people, doing extraordinary things. And that can make compelling viewing.”
Indeed, those elements and the frequent touches of humanity connect with viewers emotionally, no matter their gender. From a brief scene where a small Dutch child hiding from the Germans receives his first taste of chocolate from an American GI, to perhaps the most wrenching episode of the series, when a late-war patrol discovers a concentration camp in Germany and the company bears witness to the worst horrors of the Nazi regime, the series brims with moments and sequences that will both fill and break the heart of any man or woman.
Women have grandfathers, too. And fathers, and uncles, and brothers.
Sixteen million Americans served in the war, along with millions of British, French, Germans, Russians, Canadians, and others. There are surely quite a few children and grandchildren among them. And for those with family members who served in the war, Band of Brothers is akin to opening up an old photo album. Gariann Wrenchey, a U.S. Government employee in Germany, considers the series a window to the past. Her great-uncle, Robert Van Klinken, as played by actor Ezra Godden, makes a brief appearance in the series when Easy Company is in Holland. “Our family is Dutch,” notes Wrenchey, “so the fact that he helped liberate the homeland of his parents is particularly poignant.”
Whiteley, thinking of the generations in her family that served in wartime, says the series provides “a better sense of who my family who served were, and why they held such deep loyalty to those they served with, and what they felt after returning from war without some of their comrades.” That sentiment is echoed by Dye, whose father piloted B-24 bombers against the Germans. “It’s a glimpse into what they experienced. Why those experiences were so important to them, and why it still matters to them so many years later.”
Harvey, whose grandfather flew P-51 fighter planes in the war, likens the series to “a rarely-talked-about piece of family history,” alluding to a common thread among combat veterans — a reluctance to share — and thus, relive — their wartime experiences, even with spouses and children. The series finds another way for those experiences to be shared, placing viewers in the foxholes with the soldiers, plunging us into everything that was seen, heard, and felt.
Compelling characters and quality acting will win over any audience.
Band of Brothers is the product of gifted directing and scriptwriting, blended with exceptional performances among the mix of young American and British actors. And though the talent both behind and in front of the cameras is obvious, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the heart of the series is its authenticity. The backbone and pluck we see among the Easy Company soldiers are no Hollywood embellishment; it was the true core of who those men were, with every episode rooted in historical events and first-person accounts.
Asked why such characters might appeal to women, Leitch, whose grandfathers both served in the war, suggests the answer can be found in the “selfless heroism” of the soldiers, and “the extreme vulnerability of the situations they found themselves in and the absolute lack of wanting anything in return, with no agenda, other than to carry out a task they were assigned to do as best as they could.” Says Taylor, “I think it comes back to the human condition. A great battle sequence can be thrilling, but it’s the personal stories that mean the most.”
Indeed, one of the great triumphs of Band of Brothers is its humanization of the men, and the ability of actors like Leitch and Taylor to convey the swirl of emotions and anxieties coursing through each. We’re drawn to the charismatic platoon leader, beloved by his men and full of jocularity and compassion; too much, perhaps, of the latter, as he suffers a breakdown after seeing those same men torn apart by German artillery. We feel the bitterness and exasperation of another soldier as he hollers and curses at passing columns of German prisoners for all they have wrought. And then there is the work of Damian Lewis as the earnest company commander, winning over his men with a mix of competence, confidence, and empathy. He is unflinching in carrying out his duties, even as he nurses a conscience tortured by the memory of a German soldier he gunned down — a boy in a man’s uniform.
Each of the women had high praise for the filmmaking. “The cinematography and acting are incredible,” says Harvey, “and what makes it such an intense, realistic viewing experience. How real it felt took me by surprise.” Wrenchey agrees. “It’s more than just a ‘war’ movie. It’s pure pathos.”
Consider a scene near the end of the “Crossroads” episode, directed by Hanks. The paratroopers have been sent to Bastogne in the middle of the night to make a stand against German forces that have already overwhelmed the American units nearby. As those dazed, retreating soldiers pass them by on a desolate road, the men of Easy Company begin their march toward the sound of the artillery and where the enemy awaits. Rushed to the front lines in freezing temperatures, they are lightly armed and underdressed. And one by one, as they trudge ahead in the darkness, the camera captures their faces, full of grim determination. Not to be heroes, just simply to take their place on the line just as they were trained to, no matter the odds. Warned his men will soon be outnumbered and cut off, their commander shrugs it off. “We’re paratroopers,” he says, matter-of-factly. “We’re supposed to be surrounded.”
To be fair, the series is not without flaws. As mentioned, for those first-time viewers unfamiliar with the Ambrose book, the vast number of characters — wait, was that Tom Hardy? — can be dizzying. And the series may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially anyone counting on prominent female characters. Notably, you won’t see a hint of the subplots bolted onto so many other war dramas, designed to appeal to wider audiences, but often leading to contrivances that others find distracting or downright maddening. Pearl Harbor is a prime culprit, described by the late film critic, Roger Ebert, as a movie about a Japanese surprise attack on an American love triangle.
Whatever quibbles may be out there, most agree that no production has ever so effectively captured the World War II experience, and the essence of the unique, unshakable bonds that are formed by those on the razor’s edge, desperate to survive each day. The series explores the core elements of humanity and sociological behavior under the most trying conditions, and we see — no, we feel the effect of war on the human spirit. Yet we also witness the resiliency, and marvel at the extraordinary service and sacrifice of those who quite literally saved the world from the darkest forces in human history. It’s easy to discern why, after 20 years, the series is so timeless, and treasured by men and women alike.
Andy Kutler is a writer and author from Arlington, Virginia. His most recent book, The Batter’s Box, about a World War II soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, was awarded a 2019 Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America.