Remembering June 6, 1944: The 10 Best D-Day Related Movies and Documentaries

Jun 6, 2006

The Bottom Line Considering how fateful D-Day was in shaping our current world, these 10 films help us remember the sacrifices made on "the longest day."

On June 6, 1944, nearly five years after Nazi Germany invaded Poland and kicked off the European phase of World War II, 5,000 Allied ships, supported by 10,000 planes and heralded by a fierce (but somewhat ineffective) bombardment, began landing the first waves of nearly 200,000 American, British, Canadian, and Free French forces on five invasion beaches on the Normandy coast. From midnight to 2359 Hours on what German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel famously labeled "the longest day," at least 3,000 Allied paratroopers, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Coast Guard personnel lost their lives and several thousand more wounded, but Adolf Hitler's forces lost many troops and vehicles on D-Day. More importantly, Hitler's vaunted Atlantic Wall had been cracked on Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword Beaches, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower's Allied Expeditionary Force had established a fifty mile-wide beachhead in northern France. It would take 11 months of hard campaigning and many battles to finally overrun the Nazis' Third Reich, but the battle of Normandy basically doomed Hitler and his regime to utter and total defeat.

The battle of Normandy and particularly the D-Day landings have, naturally, been the subject of many films since the 1940s. Some, of course, have been documentaries cobbled together from newsreel and official military cinematographers such as Lt. Commander John Ford and Lt. Col. Darryl Zanuck; other movies have been either adaptations of non-fiction books by Cornelius Ryan and other popular historians or fictitious yet realistic recreations of the landings and their aftermath by Samuel Fuller and Steven Spielberg.

As the 62nd anniversary of the greatest amphibious operation ever mounted approaches, here's a list of the 10 Best Movies about "the longest day" in history. I've divided them into two categories, Hollywood Films About D-Day and Documentaries About D-Day.

Hollywood Films About D-Day:

1. The Longest Day (1962): Darryl F. Zanuck's ambitious and expensive recreation of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, is one of the best -- if somewhat flawed -- war films ever made. Boasting an all-star cast of 41 "A-List" (for 1962, that is) actors from four countries and filmed in various locations around France (Corsica doubling for most of the five invasion beaches on northern France) and made with the assistance of NATO's armed forces, The Longest Day was, for over 30 years, the most expensive movie ever shot in black and white. It's the only major movie to attempt to convey the scope and drama of the D-Day landings from a multinational viewpoint.

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998): If 1993's Schindler's List was director Steven Spielberg's soul-searching and ultimately redemptive examination of why we fought the war (the movie graphically shows the Third Reich's true nature as an evil regime), then 1998's Saving Private Ryan is the emotional bookend that depicts the sacrifices made by citizen-soldiers who put their lives on hold -- and often lost them -- to save the world from becoming a charnel house ruled by Adolf Hitler and his Axis partners. It is a powerful if viscerally graphic film that has, in retrospect, reawakened our nation's interest in World War II and made us realize, however belatedly, how much we owe to the men and women of the rapidly dwindling "Greatest Generation." Based loosely on the real story of the Niland brothers, Saving Private Ryan tells the tale of an eight-man squad of U.S. Army Rangers detailed to retrieve Pvt. James Ryan from Normandy after the death of his three brothers. Featuring the most intense and realistic cinematic depiction of the D-Day invasion, Spielberg's film is certainly far more violent and bloody than its closest cinematic cousin, Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day.

3. The Big Red One (1980): Although Sam Fuller’s semi-autobiographical film covers more of World War II than just the Normandy invasion, The Big Red One does have a D-Day invasion sequence that, made with a smaller budget and showing only a tiny sliver of Omaha Beach, still captures the emotional and physical horrors faced by the young G.I.’s of the 1st Infantry Division as they hit the beaches under heavy German fire. Starring Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, and Bobby Di Cicco, this film wasn’t a big hit, but it is perhaps one of the most honest war movies ever made.

4. D-Day: The Sixth of June (1956): Robert Taylor, Dana Wynter, and D-Day veteran Richard Todd star in this somewhat melodramatic romance set mostly in pre-D-Day Britain during the build-up to the Normandy invasion. Taylor plays a married U.S. Army colonel who’s in love with Valerie Russell (Wynter), who’s also involved with Lt. Col. John Wynter (Todd). The film is essentially an extended flashback as the two officers head to the Normandy beaches and exchange tales about the woman they are unwittingly both in love with.

5. The Americanization of Emily (1964): One of the strangest films loosely tied to the Normandy invasion, this dark comedy, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, is a combination of bittersweet romance and a satire about war, inter-service rivalry, and public relations in general. Starring James Garner, Julie Andrews, and Melvyn Douglas, its D-Day connection comes from an admiral’s nutty idea, hatched to upstage the Army, of having the first American fatal casualty on Omaha Beach be a Navy man.

6. Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004): Tom Selleck stars as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in this original made-for-cable movie that dramatizes the Allied Supreme Commander’s tension-filled life during the preparations for D-Day. Co-starring Gerald McRaney as Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., this modestly budgeted film is more of a character study of a man under intense pressure as the fate of the free world rides on his every command decision.

Documentaries About D-Day

7. D-Day: The Total Story (1994) Directed by Robert Lihani and produced by prolific documentary-makers Craig Haffner and Donna Lusitana, this six-hour long presentation covers every possible aspect of the Normandy landings, from the Germans’ attempts to build an impregnable Atlantic Wall that was to stretch from Norway to the Franco-Spanish border, the Allies’ meticulous planning and buildup, the various personalities (Eisenhower, Rommel, Montgomery) involved, and the complicated series of events that took place starting with the night-time airborne assault and climaxing with the battle for the beaches. Hosted by Gerald McRaney, D-Day: The Total Story follows the typical documentary format, combining wartime footage with contemporary interviews with historians and veterans of all sides.

8. Morning: Episode 17, The World at War (1974): Airing nearly 30 years after D-Day, this episode of the British TV docu-series covers the major aspects of not only the initial landings on the five invasion beaches but also the ensuing campaign that culminated in the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944.

9. D-Day: Vol. 15, Victory at Sea (1952): The series' 15th episode, D-Day, covers the by-now familiar story of the Allied landings on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944; it is short (less than 30 minutes long) and skips over then-classified material on Operation Fortitude, but it’s still worth watching as a quick introduction to the topic. Although the narration seems a bit over-the-top now, Richard Rodgers’ score is still moving and powerful.

10. George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin (1995): Released to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, this is a compilation of Hollywood director George Stevens’ full color footage of the Allied campaign in Western Europe, starting on D-Day itself. Worth watching, especially since color footage from WWII is rare.

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