Based on the nonfiction book by Alex Kershaw, THE LIBERATOR (2020, Netflix) is a four-part WW2 miniseries chronicling infantry commander Felix Sparks and members of the 157th Infantry Battalion of the 45th Infantry Division, which fought for 500 days during the Italian campaign. The series is compelling, realistic enough that old tropes feel lived in and comfortable instead of saccharine, and emotionally powerful.
The series was originally conceived as a live-action, 11-part series for the History Channel. The daunting cost, however, consigned the project to the file drawer. The showrunner, Jeb Stuart, however, loved it enough that he and his team found a way to produce it as a four-part series and animate it. The result is an extraordinarily powerful drama about war that lacks the excitement and action of say BAND OF BROTHERS but has equal if not more emotional impact.
Interestingly, the story of the 157th is also a diversity story. To get bodies at the front, the services began to integrate. The 157th–the “Thunderbirds”–was an integrated unit made up of white cowboys, Mexican-Americans, and Native soldiers from across the American West. They fought long and hard in some of the most horrific battles of the war and as a result became one of the most decorated American combat units. In the series, the diversity element is handled very well, letting it speak for itself, and rather than present Sparks (played by Bradley James, nailing the role) as a “White savior,” he is merely an officer who believes if the men he’s given command of are simply treated fairly, they would become excellent soldiers, and he was right.
The animation works well and doesn’t detract at all from the show, though I’m not sure it enhances it other than enabling costuming, equipment, and special effects that wouldn’t been allowed by the budget. You can see the lack of budget in the number of people onscreen–at one point, several units are fighting and then surrender en masse, but we never see more than a handful of people on screen. I didn’t mind, mostly because the acting was terrific and the script was fantastic. One phrase that jumped into my mind while watching it was “the banality of war.” The series has a very lived-in feel, making it seem real even with the animation, and most of what we see is the men simply trying to survive. The real drama isn’t from the combat but instead the men we come to care about, particularly Sparks himself, and the way familiar war tropes surface while others are challenged. As for the Germans, they’re presented as real people as well instead of comic-book villains, though sometimes the SS–who were absolute fanatics–are humanized a bit too much for credulity.
In short, I loved it and highly recommend it.