Masters of the Air: The Brothers of the Bloody 100th
"Here tonight, you'll be seeing the true experiences of bonafide human beings. Do not think of them as old men or women. Do not think of them as people who lived the greater part of their lives years ago. Think of them as 19, 20, 21-year-old boys. Think of them as human beings that are dealing with the same desires, wants, needs as you yourself face every single day, when it comes down to how does one stay alive, how does one eat? How does one feel good about how they wake up in the morning? How does one face down the fears that we all face in the course of a regular day? And then add to it a worldwide conflagration in which two empires are trying to enslave the rest of the world because of the color of your skin and the fact that your blood is red. Think of them like that."
Hanks' speech at the January 10th premiere of Masters of the Air premiere captures the ethos of a series of projects that began on HBO and continues now on Apple TV+, as Hanks and executive producer Steven Spielberg — along with hundreds of other actors, writers, directors, craftspeople, and crew — once again aim to chronicle World War II from a new angle.
Band of Brothers, premiering in 2001, focused its narrative on Easy Company, a paratrooper battalion that fought on the Western front. 2010's The Pacific dramatized the experiences of the 1st Marine Division, serving in the Pacific Theater. And Masters of the Air takes to the sky, centering on the men of the 100th Bomb Group, which ran perilous bombing missions over France and Germany during the war's most intense years — missions so dangerous that the group became known as "the Bloody Hundredth."
For those involved, the weight of the history being depicted — and the real lives being dramatized on screen — overshadowed every other concern. "I just really wanted to use the pressure to be a part of this amazing story. Because it's an honor,” Rafferty Law, who portrays Sergeant Ken Lemmons, tells Consequence.
The scale of the project is immense, as is the cast, which features known talents like Callum Turner, Austin Butler, and Barry Keoghan alongside rising stars like Nate Mann, Anthony Boyle, Rafferty Law, Ncuti Gatwa, and more. With casting taking place well prior to the start of production in 2023, some of the cast members were brought on board before their nascent stardom took off, which executive producer Gary Goetzman credits to luck, because "there's no way to predict who becomes a star or not."
However, Goetzman adds, "It was a really interesting process of trying to match these guys up [with their eventual roles], and then lo and behold, all these guys are working on movies, starring in movies — they're all huge. I can't walk down the street with them anymore without getting my coffee spilt."
"For me, it was a no-brainer signing on," say Barry Keoghan of joining the cast as Lieutenant Curtis Biddick. "Especially when you've got Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks heading it. I wanted to be part of that new generation of actors as well — it's nice to be part of that. It feels like a moment."
The legacy of this moment traces back over two decades. Before filming Masters, Anthony Boyle (Lieutenant Harry Crosby) revisited Band of Brothers, and what struck him was "the banality of it all — the banality of horror. Like, losing a friend, and then going, 'I need to eat. I'm hungry. I haven't eaten in a day.' I think so often when we think of people in war, it feels like, 'Oh, it was so long ago.' It can feel far away. And watching things like Band of Brothers, they've done a really good job of making it feel very real. I hope we did that with our show too."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the actors Consequence spoke with were familiar with Band of Brothers prior to their casting — most, in fact, say they "grew up" watching the show (a testament to both the show's legacy and the age of the cast, many of whom were very young when it originally premiered).
"I loved it," Boyle says. "I mean, I don't know any young man that didn't watch it. Particularly actors."
Says Nate Mann, "My family had the box set on DVD, and I think it was the first series that I watched to completion. I was about 10 years old."
He continues, "Even as a kid, what made that show so special was the sense of its authenticity. Like, right down to the nuts and bolts of the lives of those infantrymen as they went on their missions — and the real rawness that that ends up being connected to. Even as a kid, that was quite startling and very different from anything I'd seen on TV. And then to have that extrapolated into this long series that felt really like a long movie — it felt special and different."
Goetzman was one of the executive producers of both Band of Brothers and Masters of the Air, and when he hears that his new cast members were watching the first show at a young age, he playfully covers his ears for a moment. "Nobody ever told me that," he says. "But knowing that the guys were in awe of the earlier show — it's gotta be good." After all, he continues, it means that "they come with their A game. They come as serious players."
Knowing they were following in the footsteps of Easy Company gave the Masters cast an appreciation for what they would be asked to do. But watching the past shows was only the beginning of their preparation for playing young men at war.
Before the cameras started rolling, most of the Masters of the Air cast went to bootcamp so that the cast could, in Law's words, "get that feeling of camaraderie before filming."
The vibe, Law says, was excitement from the beginning, as the cast gathered in the countryside outside of London in 2021, after lockdowns had shifted to looser post-vaccination restrictions. "Having not worked for a while, meeting a bunch of other young actors my age who were so excited to be able to tell this story — it was really special," he says.
It wasn’t just an exercise in team bonding, though: The cast was getting a crash course in military discipline and the technical requirements of their roles. The camp was led by Captain Dale Dye, always spoken of with reverence — because, in Mann's words, he's "a legend in the field of military advisory.” Dye previously served as miltary advisor on not just Band of Brothers and The Pacific, but movies like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Forrest Gump, and Saving Private Ryan. (As Keoghan puts it, he's a man that "you don't want to step out in front of.")
Mann was surprised that a big initial element was simply getting everyone in uniform and marching together. "At first it felt like, 'Oh, that's interesting.' Like, we weren't marching on the plane, right?" he says. "But [Dye] said that this was so important because it gave us this sense of what it really meant to be in a unit — to be in a crew and to work together, which was a way for us as actors to connect to the lives of these men."
In the early days of bootcamp, Boyle says, there was "so much anticipation — everyone's sizing each other up and Dale Dye is only addressing you by your character's name, and you've got all the regalia on... You do really lean into it and really believe what's happening."
There was one instance during week two of the camp, Boyle remembers, where things began to feel very authentic. "There was a bit where we had to pull back [and fire] these guns and they were quite heavy, like these turrets. You'd have to get in, dig your heels into the ground, pull back this thing, and let the bullets rip. And there was one kid, he must've been about 16 or something, but he couldn't do it, and Dale Dye's, 'All right, back in the queue.'
"This kid was dead crestfallen, and I was like, 'This is my moment. I'm gonna save this kid.' So I went up to Dale Dye and said, 'Sir, you gotta give him a second chance, sir. He's one of our men!' And Dale Dye let him go back up to the thing, and he's [Boyle makes gun-clicking noises] shooting the thing as we're all fucking cheering him on — American flags waving in the background, people crying..."
In that conversation, as throughout camp, Dye only addressed Boyle as "Crosby." "As we got further on into the bootcamp and more familiar, he would call me 'Croz,' which I took as a good sign," recalls Boyle. "I thought, 'Oh, sure, I can breathe a little bit, now that Dale Dye's given me a nickname."
Bootcamp was meant to bring the cast together, but the actors were also separated into groups reflecting their different roles; as the ground crew, Law and his compatriots received special training focused on what their characters would be required to do on camera. "We learned how to take apart one of the bombs that gets put into the planes: It was you and one other person, and one unscrews the shell on one side and the other one does the other, and then you have to wire it together," Law says. "And we had to get timed — we had a two-minute maximum."
For that exercise, Law was paired with his friend Samuel Jordan (who plays Sgt. John J. 'Winks' Herrmann in the series), "and we got the fastest time — and we were happy to do that because we were the mechanics, so we should have had the fastest time." Law thinks he could still pull off a similar time today, were he to try again. "I think I'd need a few tries to get quick again, to get to the pace that I was at in 2021. But there's things that I learned on this job that will stay with me forever, a hundred percent."
But it's not about having the fastest time, in the end. It’s about knowing what it felt like to do it.
Beyond bootcamp, preparing to play characters based on real people meant that each actor dove hard into researching their roles. According to Goetzman, "the saddest problem" they faced was that enough time has passed since World War II that the vast majority of the real-life people involved in these events are no longer alive. "On Band of Brothers, we had a lot of guys. Here, we've lost almost everybody," Goetzman says.
If Boyle had been able to ask Crosby a question about his experiences, he says that "I'd have asked about the first time going up in a B17 — the fear of going up in a tin can into the sky and having bullets shot at you, shrapnel going through, seeing your friends' heads explode. I'd ask him about those moments. Because all the other moments of being human — falling in love, or missing someone or whatever -- I've felt all of these things. But combat is something that I don't think any of us, until we've actually been there, have really experienced."
Meanwhile, the very Irish Keoghan's research led him to understand Lt. Biddick as someone who “brought humor, like the Irish do as well — they tend to bring a lot of humor in and around dark places like death, to ease it on. I felt he had a bit of that; he tried to soften some situations with his attitude and his humor, and that came from a place of trying to protect his squad, even when in doubt with himself."
The core text being adapted is Donald L. Miller's Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, which Mann notes "goes to great lengths to talk about how these men were able to do what they did, despite the trauma, despite the cost, despite the harrowing nature of the day-to-day."
In addition to what Mann learned from reading Masters of the Air, he also was lucky because the man he was portraying, Major Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal, "did a series of interviews, I think in the '90s, where he spoke about his time [at war] and how that shaped his life. It was pretty amazing, like a digital journal."
Tackling the part meant Mann really had to ask himself "what would it take for me to to embed myself into a mission like this, where you're fighting against an enemy, and you're also fighting to protect values that are really important to you. And people, in Rosie's case, are really important to him."
For Law, the extremely young Sgt. Lemmons was his first time playing a real historical figure, and he began by reading the book The Forgotten Man, the Mechanic: The Kenneth A. Lemmons Story, which helped him understand what it meant to be a member of the ground crew — "how hard it was trying to sleep, knowing that these planes were on these missions that you fixed and made up. The guilt was always on your shoulders if they didn't come back."
In addition, Law was able to find some of Lemmons' surviving family on Facebook, and spoke to both his son and daughter about their father. "They started sending me these amazing photographs and stories and videos of Ken and his wife and the family on the farm back in Arkansas. That was a really, really special moment in my life, for them to be like, 'You're playing our father and we are proud that his story gets to be told through this series.'"
Law says that "more than anything, just the way they speak about his selflessness was what I really wanted to show. Just the energy that he gave other people — his daughter, especially, telling me that 'You just felt safe around him.' Even though he was 19 and one of the youngest around, he was really respected. So I wanted to bring that in."
Once production was in full swing, the community spirit built over the course of bootcamp fed directly into the depiction of what life was really like at Thorpe Abbotts Air Force base in Diss, England, including sequences dramatizing the parties and celebrations the men would have. "The life of the base was full of camaraderie, and trying to capture that was in some ways easy because a lot of these actors knew each other, and we all got really close," Mann says. "The kind of relationships and friendships we formed in all our post-'Cut!' shenanigans was actually pretty important."
And while the subject matter was intense, there was room for lightness on set; as Keoghan puts it, "You got a group of lads together, it's like the playground at school, isn't it? It's that mentality of everyone's just having a laugh here and there."
In that spirit, during their off time, the cast found various ways to keep themselves entertained, in ways that wouldn't break the reality of the series for them. "I don't remember phones being on set that much,” Keoghan says. “But we started to play card games and stuff that was relevant to that time period. There was boxing, there was baseball — just these simple games that took you back to learning how to be communicative with one another, like they were back in those days."
Beyond the fun and games, though, Keoghan adds that "we always came back to [the fact that] these are true events that we're telling here, and these are real-life men that we're portraying, and you've got to have a level of respect. It's a serious matter. There was goofing around, but we knew our time and place, basically."
While the series is focused on American servicemen, a large percentage of the Masters of the Air cast hails from the UK and Ireland, including Boyle, Keoghan, and Law. So, while filming, the actors tried to stick to an American accent — though according to Boyle, "sometimes you'd slip away and go [Irish accent], 'This is all a bit mad, innit?' And then you'd go [American accent], 'Sir, yes sir!'"
It all built up to a truly immersive experience, giving each actor a firmer connection to their roles and the overall narrative. Sure, the goals of the Bloody Hundredth and the team telling their story decades later were very different: The soldiers wanted to win World War II, and the filmmakers wanted to create a great TV show. But as Law observes, “At the end of the day, what I love about acting is being part of a team, being part of a crew — everyone's different attributes and different talents being put together. And it's similar in a military organization — you have a lot of different people coming together and using their specific skills.”
As Law says, Ken Lemmons is 19 years old when the series begins: "To look around and really realize how young these guys were and the reality of what they had to do and what they had to go through on a daily basis was... I mean, that kind of feeling is hard to recreate.”
In fact, the series puts a heavy emphasis on the respective ages of the men being portrayed, because as Tom Hanks put it at the premiere, "If you were 24 years old and you served in the 100th Bomb Group, you know what they called you? Pops or professor."
"World War II was full of soldiers who were 17 or 18 years old," Mann says, "And it really is extraordinary. I mean there were men who weren't even in their twenties, who haven't even been able to experience so much of life yet, risking their lives against the odds. And that's pretty startling to watch. But I really think that people are capable of such astounding things, even when they're young."
This stood out, Boyle says, even when working with the supporting cast. "We were the older ones, you know, and we were 26. They were shipping these kids in, they were like first year [Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts students]. They were 19, in an Army uniform."
Just like in real life.
Masters of the Air premieres Friday, January 26th on Apple TV+.
Photos courtesy of Apple TV+
Illustration by Steven Fiche
Editing by Wren Graves and Ben Kaye