Damian Lewis’ first role as an American was in the role of Dick Winters in Spielberg/Hanks’ Band of Brothers. (Fun fact: the title Band of Brothers is taken from Shakespeare, from Henry V’s speech to his troops: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother”)
Now, I’m a woman, and, contrary to gender stereotype, I admit I do not hate the war film genre, when it’s done right. At its worst the action film genre (of which war stories are a part) can be one explosion after another and lots of incoherent shouting, and, at its best, the genre can embody metaphors for something more personal and human. Further, it seems that war is its own metaphor, isn’t it? Thus, there have been some excellent war films showing incomparably heightened intensity and the rawness of human conflict: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Blackhawk Down come to mind.
That said, if not for Damian Lewis, I probably wouldn’t have sought out Band of Brothers, mostly due to an aversion to Spielberg’s sometimes heavy-handed and formulaic film-making, his black and white way of seeing a gray world. Alas, luckily for these producers, WWII was a reliably black and white conflict: good vs. evil as clear as day. So, as I watched, I found it a pleasant surprise that DL wasn’t the only draw and the series, overall, was highly engaging and shot beautifully.
Band of Brothers was war shown as a group of men working against a clear enemy. A group of men huddled in mud, crawling and hunkering, all cast over a backdrop of stark clear sepia light. We got perfectly choreographed action sequences based on real events, sequences that transformed you right to the moment. The emotional notes striking the deepest chords came from the in-person interviews with the real surviving members of Easy Company at the beginning of every episode.
Damian Lewis researched extensively for this role as he seems to do for all his roles. He reads and plans and spends time with the other members of the team. In an interview about BoB, DL says, “…I don’t want to imply, I’d’ve thought for a moment that I was one of the guys who jumped on June 6, 1944; I know my place, I was one of the actors, proud to represent these guys. But we, oddly, became these guys…it was very profound and extraordinarily bonding.”
Damian Lewis also met the man he was portraying and read his extensive journals in preparation for the role. The entire production was determined to stay as close to reality as possible, to provide their fictionalized account with the believability of a documentary. To that end, DL learned the personality of the man he was portraying and submerged himself into the character as fully as possible. Contrary to Damian’s own outgoing and gregarious personality, Dick Winters was a man of few words, and through thoughtful research, DL understood: “Dick was not given to breezy anecdotes about the war and his war experience….he was able to rationalize and be logical under extreme duress, and that is really the way he remembers his war. He remembers it technically, militarily, strategically.”
The episode of BoB that nailed it for me came mid-series. That episode, titled “Bastogne”, was shot in a remarkable way, somehow making the action look like a painting, like an orchestrated dance moving across the screen, a dance of bullets popping, bitter cold, snow and blood, so much life and spirit lost. That and some others were episodes where we see little or no Damian Lewis. In fact, Richard Winters is listed as the main character in just 6 of the 10 episodes. It was an ensemble cast, and Dick Winters, as the company’s CO, wasn’t always at the center of the story. But he was always present in the minds of the soldiers he led. He was the backbone and the brain informing the choices they all made. The spirit of DL’s Dick Winters is there in every episode. And when he is present, like this scene from “Brecourt Manor”, the boys were drawn like magnets around him, and we are too.
In another scene in “Brecourt Manor”, Dick Winters has come up behind enemy lines and snuck into their holding place. He rifles through papers, finds some that look important and caches them away in his jacket. The tension of the scene is mirrored perfectly in the tension in Damian Lewis’ body as he’s moving with such precision, such focus, through the task at hand. You see, in Band of Brothers, how physical an actor DL is. It’s not just his face, or his voice, it’s his entire body at work in the moment. So, there is that focus, but Damian Lewis, through well-crafted scenes like this, somehow lets you into that place between courage and fear. Something in his eyes communicates that human space between dogged determination and the “holy shit, what the hell am I doing here” of warfare. It’s that place where you want drama to take you. And a dramatic actor to take you. And Damian Lewis does it in spades.
In the episode “Crossroads”, we see Damian Lewis look at the men of Easy Company and examine deeply the odds against them. And what does he decide to do? Lead the charge solo against the enemy, of course. The rest of the platoon waits until the gas that Winters has released opens enough to provide the cover they need to eventually follow him to battle. One sergeant wrote later to Dick Winters: “I would follow you into hell. With you I knew everything was absolutely under control.” We see this sentiment with our own eyes in this scene.
This episode is also where we see Dick Winters’ most memorable kill. We see Damian Lewis standing over a figure crouched low in tall grass in a field. The figure looks up and you see he is just a boy, just as the soldiers in Easy Company are all just boys (though not as young as this one) and you see that he’s a German: a German boy scared out of his mind with a bewildered expression that morphs into a small confused smile. Damian looks the kid in the eyes in shock, he flinches and starts to think, looks again and knows neither his brain nor his heart has anything to do with what he has to do, and then proceeds to do it: shoot that boy till he’s dead. That act comes back, as, of course, it has to, for every human being who has ever been in that position. The position of being a killer, trained, willing and able to kill or be killed. And Damian Lewis lets you see the cost of it all in his eyes.
Yes, what Easy Company did was the stuff of legends, they were heroes in all respects, from the moment they parachuted behind enemy lines, the weapons which had been tethered to their boots ripped away and nowhere to be found, to the moment they gazed in horror at the first concentration camp they came across, then in wonder at the German Bavarian Alps on their approach to Hitler’s abandoned Eagle’s Nest. They were honorable men fighting an honorable fight led by the most honorable and best leader possible, one who loved them and respected them and wanted to do the mission that had to be done and get his men out alive, a leader who was always willing to get into the thick, who would take a bullet if it meant saving one of his men. They were all honorable men, mostly taking out only those who wished them harm, leaving the locals alone, leaving the bystanders be. Such a clean victory WWII seemed to be, in hindsight. Now that no victory is ever that clean again.
In Nicholas Brody and in Dick Winters we see Damian Lewis in the soldier’s stance: firm determined jaw, erect posture. You’d think that the strong unflinching cut of his profile would lead to an impenetrable hardness in Damian Lewis when he plays the soldier. But it doesn’t. Maybe it’s the clear blue of the eyes or the general non-threatening narrowness of his body and precipitous lankiness, probably all combined, which lend him that vulnerability and perfect dramatic relatability.
Band of Brothers was DL’s first role as a soldier. Clearly, he wore it well, because, in the ITV film Colditz, Damian Lewis was cast again as a soldier.. His turn as a loud-mouthed, scrappy, brute of an Irish lad couldn’t be any more different than Brody or Winters. Like Brody was in Homeland, in Colditz, DL’s character, Nicholas McGrade, is a recently free POW, and, like Band of Brothers, Colditz takes place in WWII. McGrade was duplicitous like Brody, but not in any honor-bound way. Damian Lewis has an uncanny ability to lend sympathy to even the most unsympathetic character (more on that later when we talk about Soames Forsyte). So, in Colditz he shows you how much McGrade loves the woman who isn’t his to love. Just hearing DL say those precious three little words repeatedly, and mean them, the words we never got to hear Brody say to Carrie is worth the price of the video rental and more.
Despite having so much of a similar back story, none of these characters in DL’s repertoire have the slightest bit in common. See what we mean by DL’s versatility as an actor? He can play men with essentially the same jobs, even in the same time periods (or the same names :)), and each character is drawn as distinctively as it would be if different actors were playing the role. Through the uniquely intelligent and thoughtful approach he takes to his craft, Damian Lewis is an actor who seems to be able to defy typecasting.
Oh, I was supposed to say something about his accent? Well, what is there to say? The guy can do it. He is a Brit born and bred and destined to call London his home forever but can somehow play a Yank like he was born that way. This clip of an interview, in the first few minutes, shows a brilliant little highlight of his talent. In this clip, please also note the kick-ass quintessential Brit way of delivering irony. Who needs The Odd Couple or any other male companionship conceit? Why not give us a show with Damian Lewis, Dominic West and Hugh Laurie all sitting around a well-appointed flat wearing sweater vests and talking about playing American so flawlessly? I’d tune in for that!
NEXT POST: From taciturn Dick Winters to goofball savant Charlie Crews, DL as an American continued