The 75th anniversary of D-Day also offers an opportunity to take stock of its interpretation through the film lens.
In Media, War and Conflict, scholars Daniel Binns and Paul Ryder note that filmmakers have consistently returned to Operation Overlord as a subject. Countless Hollywood icons including Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill and Tom Hanks have stormed — at least artistically — the beaches and cliffs of Normandy.
British legend James Mason (My Fair Lady, A Star is Born, Lolita) played Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the German general defending said beaches in The Desert Fox, which also covers D-Day. The landing and the ensuing Battle of Normandy have also served as backdrops for movies from various genres, including romance (The Americanization of Emily starring Julie Andrews), B-movie tributes (Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino) and modern horror (Overlord). Television series (Band of Brothers) and video games (including the popular Call of Duty franchise) have also offered visual renderings of the event.
If D-Day inspired a range of cinematic offerings, two movies remain firmly lodged in popular imagination: The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), with both perhaps representing opposite poles in both movie making techniques and subject choices.
Binns and Ryder describe The Longest Day as “typical” of early pictures about the war that studios produced up until the mid-1970s. The Longest Day, they write, offers a “grand narrative” that privileges “national ideals, collective glory and military prowess.”
Almost two hours worth of film spool past audiences before the first landing boats hit the beaches. Until then, the film immerses viewers into everything except actual combat: grand strategy, military logistics, intelligence gathering and meteorology are just some of the subjects that whirl past viewers as the film jumps across multiple locations in the United Kingdom, occupied France and Nazi Germany, with many of those scenes featuring military headquarters crammed with anxious officers from both sides studying maps. While the movie presents the perspectives of ordinary soldiers during and after this setup phase, even they speak of “the nation, of the enemy, of home, and of glory,” Binns and Ryder write.
The actual attack happens late in the movie, with landing boats racing toward the beaches with an “upbeat musical score” guiding them. This section also prefers wide-angles that grant the audience “a prime and privileged position from which to observe the battle” and by implication, the making of the movie itself. The studio even promoted this ‘meta’ view by describing the producer of the movie, Darryl Zanuck, as “the general” in making the point that the making of the movie was not unlike a military operation itself.
In fact, producers actively employed and consulted D-Day participants from all sides in the making of the movie and this blending of art and real life took a somewhat bizarre turn when British actor Richard Todd, who fought on D-Day as a paratrooper, played his superior officer, while another actor played Todd.
If “the big picture remains paramount” in The Longest Day with its sweeping panoramas and “ponderously long” takes as Binns and Ryder write, Saving Private Ryan makes “generous use of close-ups” to bring the “audiences closer to the action, making them feel, see and hear the passing of every bullet, and the sickening thuds of exploding ordnance,” especially but not exclusively during the opening 20 minutes during which director Steven Spielberg recreates the American experience on Omaha Beach.
This sequence plunges audiences into a sickening, deafening maelstrom of bullets and bodies, who if still whole, scramble and stagger up the sands, drenched in water and in the blood of their comrades, led by nothing more than the search for survival in the face of slaughter. “This opening sequence is a nightmare,” wrote historian Jeanine Basinger in 1998. “Today’s audience are shocked into silence while watching. No one talks, and no munches popcorn or rattles candy wrappers.”
With this sequence, Spielberg sidestepped the “conventions” of Hollywood war movies, Hendrik Hertzberg, wrote in the New Yorker. As Spielberg told Hertzberg, the idea was to create the appearance as if the sequence had been shot under the condition it depicts, as if the camera operators were trying not to get killed. What emerged was perhaps the “most harrowing depiction of battle ever put on the screen,” Hertzberg writes.
“I’m asking the audience — and it’s a lot to ask of an audience — to have a physical experience, so that they can somewhat have the experience of what those guys went through,” Spielberg told Hertzberg.
Critics have hailed the movie as a masterpiece, while veterans have indeed praised Saving Private Ryan for its realism. But the movie has also received criticism, and not just for various technical inaccuracies. Some critics have lamented the schmaltzy scenes that bookend the movie, while others have bemoaned its ahistorical perspective through its personalized focus on the experiences of eight American soldiers charged with saving one.
“Maybe saving Private Ryan is the one decent thing we did in this war,” says one of them in downplaying the stakes of the Second World War and the eventual benefits of the Allied victory.
Historians for their part struggle with both movies, and British historian Antony Beevor has been especially critical of Saving Private Ryan. Writing in The Guardian, Beevor has dismissed it as a movie in the tradition of the Dirty Dozen in denouncing its narrow perspective.
“Spielberg said at the time that he sees the Second World War as the ‘defining moment’ in history,” wrote Beevor. “One also suspects that he wanted this film to be seen as the defining movie of the war. If so, it is a uniquely American definition of history, with no reference to the British let alone the Soviet role.”