Caught a Band Of Brothers rerun on Sky a few nights back.
The show’s already celebrating its 14th birthday, but its appeal is still high to warrant a slot on Sky Atlantic. The channel that’s predominantly occupied by HBO shows, it seemed appropriate to rerun one of the jewels in that station’s very prestigious crown, back in 2001, before America’s global opinion of the world was unequivocally altered.
I’ve often heard the opinion that there are a finite number of stories in the world, and that the trick to innovative or radical storytelling is to tell the same thing, or the same story in a radically different way.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) did that. With Spielberg and Hanks at the helm the movie rocketed to the top of the genre, no mean feat when you see its competition, winning a sackload of Oscars in the process. But not Best Actor (Roberto Benigini, seriously?) nor Best Picture (Shakespeare in Love, SERIOUSLY????), and you have to wonder if sore pride and ruffled feathers weren’t slight motivation for the actor and director to reunite once more, to make a miniseries with almost 10 times the budget of one of the greatest war movies ever.
No pressure then.
What makes the show so popular for many was the focus of less on action and more on relationships. Many of my girl-friends cite Saving Private Ryan as their favorite “war movie”, solely for this reason. You learn things about the characters as the movie progresses, even after the shell-shocking opening invasion. These quiet moments give an almost terrible catharsis to the audience that despite war being a distinctly alien environment, with all the explosion and bullet scenes, the people in them are the same as all the rest of us outside the environment.
This could be why the transformers movies feel so devoid of anything akin to a moral centre. Big robots fighting, so why should we care?
Band Of Brothers directly the focus to the main characters with the same distinction. Whether it’s in training, freezing in a foxhole, or liberating a concentration camp, we see how they think and feel first-hand, and it gives a rich impression of emotion and pathos without being saccharin or lost amidst the gunfire.
It was the first character based World War Two show, akin to Firefly or BSG doing the same for the science-fiction genre; moving the emphasis from the situation to the individual resulting in a cultural shift for storytelling.
Hollywood has mined World War Two since it ended. But despite all this, almost fifty percent of the Hollywood industry has seen its roles in the period curtailed.
Well 52%, if current global demographics are to be mirrored onto the Californian film industry.
Because, if you’re a woman in Hollywood, get ready for some rigid options when it comes to the Second World War. Which, for a time period with so many characters, stories, events, circumstances, and plights, you would think there would be some severely meaty roles for women out there.
Heh! Not exactly.
Because like the undefined, rarely spoken rule that states every literary character is white unless graphically stated otherwise, every woman in a WW2 movie will be a mother, first and foremost. Home is where the heart is according to Hollywood, no GI Janes in this conflict.
Is this the patriarchy at work?
Or is Hollywood too squeamish these days to see its leading ladies dodging bullets and lying in a pool of blood mortally wounded?
Or maybe they’re faced with the fact that there are almost zero accounts of women fighting on the front line from either theatre. Or at least zero accounts of women from a country that isn’t stereotyped by Hollywood.
Which brings us to the Russians.
I’ve can’t remember when I first read about the Night Witches. It was one of those stories that I remember reading about retrospectively in a comic strip, years ago. Back then they were called The Sisters of Mercy, but they were essentially the same regiment. Female pilots, assigned rickety WW1 biplanes, squaring off against the German Luftwaffe over the skies of the eastern front, the tip of the spear for Russian women, part of a country that saw their situation as honest as possible:
To win or to die.
It was a war of extermination on the eastern front, and when the odds are that huge you need everyone you can get in order to tip the balance.
Which is why Marina Raskova, a loose Russian counterpart to Amelia Earhart, already decorated as a Hero Of the Soviet Union, marched into Joe Stalin’s office in June 1941, tugged on his coattail and asked what the situation was with 100,000,000 women who were eager to defend their motherland?
And so the 586th, 587th and 588th were born. Regiments constructed to consist solely of women, both as pilots in the air and on the ground. Only the 588th remained 100% female throughout the war, for reasons accepted but still acknowledged.
A range of books have followed as a result, the majority following the collapse of the USSR, but it seems Hollywood is reluctant to follow.
Women only endured frontline horror on the Eastern front, and even then their roles in the few Hollywood movies to deal with the subject (Stalingrad, Enemy at the Gates) either intentionally undercook their roles or alter them for the sake of the tropes, a romantic element feeling forced in the second example, that the narrative is pandering too.
Case in point with Rachel Weisz in the latter movie, whose character Tania is altered to the point of farce. The only other woman of note in that movie being Lyudmila, a heavy handed nod to Lyudmila Pavlichenko, one of the greatest snipers in history, who was brought to the USA at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, promoting women’s rights during the conflict and planting seeds as to what was possible following its end.
It was interesting that she herself was treated by the press in the same way many actresses are treated now. Questions aimed at the length of her skirt, a lack of a preferred female figure (that her uniform made her look fat) and her poor dedication to cosmetology, despite the fact there was a war on, all seem incredible considering this lady had the training to use a rifle accurately, at distances of over a mile or more. That any hack would have the balls to dare be disrespectful is incredible.
Did I mention she had over 500 confirmed kills at that point? And that the USSR employed women as snipers for many decades afterwards? I guess communism did have some good points then.
The historical accounts I’ve read on the 588th tell a story that’s almost identical to that of Easy Company. Military personnel the world over worry about the same things during conflict; their friends, their families back at home, having enough to eat, the decisions of their superiors and whether they’ll get back for Christmas.
Flying held further stress and worry for everyone due to the individual nature of the combat. You sleep in the same barrack as your best friend for two years, and one day she doesn’t return from her mission. No chance for a hug, or to say goodbye, nothing. Just letters to her boyfriend strewn on her bunk, and her possessions, all ready to be boxed and shipped home to her family, if they were still alive, which was not always the case due the nature of the conflict.
Many of the Aces of the three regiments did not survive the war. Raskova died in ’43, many of the others were swallowed by the grinder that became the battle of Kursk, which claimed over a million Russian lives.
And then the war ends and history is altered and the witches are forgotten. Intentionally.
And here we are.
I don’t know what the patriarchy is so afraid of?
It’s not women in combat. I think it’s women full stop. You’re on top for so long, it becomes the norm and anything seen as different from that norm is declared an insidious threat and stifled without question.
But to me the Witches are just as good as the exploits of Easy Company. The stories are there, they happened, what’s to stop them being made?
“Sometimes, on a dark night, I will stand outside my home and peer into the sky, the wind tugging at my hair. I stare into the blackness and close my eyes, and I imagine myself once more a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia – how did you do it?’”
– Nadia Anastasia Popova,
588th Night Bomber Regiment / 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment
17 December 1921 – 8 July 2013