D-Day at the movies: rousing, gruesome, solemn and sometimes tragicomic

D-Day at the movies: rousing, gruesome, solemn and sometimes tragicomic

The beaches of Normandy are swarmed with Allied troops after the successful D-Day landing 75 years ago.
A scene from the Steven Spielberg epic drama "Saving Private Ryan."

By Nancy Montgomery

Stars and Stripes

This is the day that changed the world. They depended on each other — and the world depended on them. In the last great invasion of the last great war, the greatest danger for eight men was saving ... one. The real glory of war is surviving. Swinging’s their game and London will never be the same!

So said the taglines for some of the best known movies and series that focused, at least in part, on D-Day. “The Longest Day,” “Band of Brothers,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Big Red One” — the first four — mostly strove to portray the Allied invasion to defeat the Nazis as brutal and heartbreaking, but also heroic and necessary. It was, as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his rallying speech that day, “this great and noble undertaking.”

Were they realistic? Sam Fuller, a World War II infantryman who directed “The Big Red One” — a 1980 recounting based on his experiences of an infantry squad fighting its way across North Africa and Sicily, from Normandy to Czechoslovakia — said that would be impossible.

To convey real combat to movie audiences, “you’d have to shoot at them every so often from either side of the screen,” he said in his memoir, “A Third Face.” “The casualties in the theater would be bad for business.”

It hardly matters, film historians say.

Movie poster for the longest day.

“I think war movies affect Americans at a visceral level,” said Dave Hogan, director of the Histories Division at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. “At some level people know it’s not real but it still affects them emotionally.”

In fact, war movies “have done more to stamp the wars’ images in the American psyche than the reality of those wars themselves,” argue Glenn Jeansonne and David Luhrssen, authors of “War on the Silver Screen: Shaping America’s Perception of History.”

Some critics argue that war movies always

glorify war, even as they show some of its horrors.

“The Longest Day” and hundreds of other Hollywood films have created the image of combat as exciting, as a place to prove masculinity, as a place to challenge death in a socially acceptable manner,” said Laurence Suid in his book, “Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film.”

“In a real sense Hollywood war films have helped justify war and the use of violence to achieve national goals.”

Many “pro-war” movies set in World War II were released in the 1960s, film scholar Jeanine Basinger noted. “By 1960, after more than a decade of peace and prosperity, America started to celebrate the war in a series of epic recreations of the major battles: ‘The Longest Day’ (1962), ‘Battle of the Bulge’ (1965), ‘The Bridge at Remagen’ (1969), and ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ (1970).

“These are the movies that transform the war into legend, as they all have, despite attempts at accuracy — a kind of ‘Hurrah! Let’s Go!’ quality,” she wrote.

Movie poster for D-Day film.

Movies are a highly collaborative effort, reflecting artistic and financial decisions by studios, directors, producers and screenwriters, among others.

In war movies, another powerful patron — the military — is usually involved. The services are needed to provide necessary hardware, equipment, and sometimes even troops. That comes with a price.

“The first thing you have to do is send in a request for assistance, telling them what you want pretty specifically — ships, tanks, planes, bases, forts, submarines, troops — and when you want this material available. Then you have to send five copies of the script to the Pentagon and they give it to the affected service branches,” David Robb, author of “Operation Hollywood,” told Mother Jones in an interview.

“If they like it, they’ll help you; if they don’t, they won’t. Almost always, they’ll make you make changes to the military depictions. And you have to make the changes that they ask for, or negotiate some kind of compromise, or you don’t get the stuff.”

The Defense Department says it requires only that military operations be accurately depicted and that the film be historically accurate. It also wants films that will aid in recruitment and retention of personnel, although it says it keeps no statistics on whether films do so.

Robb disagreed. “They’re much less interested in reality and accuracy than they are in positive images,” he said.

One example he gave was the Clint Eastwood movie “Heartbreak Ridge.”

“He finished the film, showed it to them, and they went through the roof. There was a scene in the script where he shoots an injured and defenseless Cuban soldier. They said, ‘You have to take that out. It’s a war crime. We don’t want that.’ They hate having war crimes in movies.

“(Eastwood) said he thought it was only a suggestion, that he didn’t know he had to. So they withdrew their approval.”

The poster for the 1980 World War II movie 'The Big Red One.'

Almost no Vietnam-era films were assisted by the military. “Many films have never been made because they couldn’t get assistance,” Robb said.

Movies depicting D-Day, like other movies, also reflect the values of the times in which they’re made. “Saving Private Ryan” for instance, is really (director) Steven Spielberg’s tribute to the “Greatest Generation,” Hogan said. “That’s what the movie was really about,” he said. “It’s this idealistic thing.”

It was released in 1998, decades after Vietnam and before the U.S. was attacked on 9/11 and embarked on two lengthy wars. With its 27 minutes of harrowing fighting on Omaha Beach, it was praised for its brutal authenticity.

“Band of Brothers,” broadcast on HBO in 2001 just two days before 9/11 and produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks, was more of the same. It tells the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which jumped into Normandy ahead of the invasion.

“The Longest Day” was released when former World War II ally, the Soviet Union, was the enemy, and the former enemy, Germany, had become an ally. It boasted three directors, an international cast, subtitled German and French dialogue, and starred John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda and scores more Hollywood stars who all played real people involved in the invasion.

“The movie treats the Germans (only officers appear) as bristling and smart, the Brits as noble, curt, and resourceful, and the French as gallant,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker.

A poster for the 1956 D-Day movie, 'D-Day the Sixth of June.'

“What was the point of this super forgiving and anodyne multilateral approach? In 1962, the Cold War was at its height and our current allies needed to be acknowledged, praised, and redeemed; the Nazi outrages and the failures of French courage were forgotten ... in order to rebuff Communism,” Denby wrote.

“Anyway, America the superpower could afford to be magnanimous: the immense production was itself an example of American strength, a confirmation of American planning and execution on D Day. Who else could pay for such a movie?”

But two years later, an outlier lampooned U.S. naval officers ensconced in London before the Normandy invasion as greedy, lustful, political and flat-out crazy.

War is never glorious, according to “The Americanization of Emily,” and the battle goes not to the strong but to the lucky. Those “who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields ... perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.”

The main character, a lieutenant commander played by James Garner, starts the movie as an admiral’s aide proficient in getting gourmet food, liquor and young women for the brass in weary, war-torn England. A proud “coward,” he ends up shot in the leg on Omaha Beach by a fellow officer after he attempts to swim back to the boat, and is then lauded as the first man shot on Omaha Beach — and a hero.


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By NANCY MONTGOMERY | Stars and Stripes | Published: May 26, 2019