Few World War II dates are as celebrated as June 6, 1944. Yet it took filmmakers decades to realize the dramatic potential of the Allied forces’ D-Day invasion.
The major studios produced several films about the war in the Pacific while it was taking place (“Wake Island,” “Bataan,” “Air Force”), but the major events in the European theater were mostly left alone until the post-war era.
The Battle of the Bulge turned up in 1949’s “Battleground,” while the first sympathetic film about one of Hitler’s military commanders, “The Desert Fox,” starring James Mason as Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, didn’t arrive until 1951.
The most famous re-enactments of D-Day didn’t appear until years later: Darryl F. Zanuck’s wide-ranging 1962 epic, “The Longest Day,” and Steven Spielberg’s far more graphic 1998 treatment of the Omaha Beach landing, “Saving Private Ryan.” The latter was partly based on the late Stephen Ambrose’s book, “Band of Brothers,” as was Spielberg’s popular 2001 mini-series of the same name.
Early D-Day films
D-Day newsreels and documentaries did turn up in the 1940s, and real footage of the D-Day landings appeared in “The Desert Fox.” The first Hollywood director to deal with the subject was George Stevens, whose work on the Signal Corps Special Motion Picture Unit brought him to Normandy as well as Dachau. But the documentary footage he recorded was mostly shelved and forgotten until after his death in 1975.
The color scenes he shot of Omaha Beach and the concentration camps later turned up in “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey” (1985) and “D-Day to Berlin” (1994). His experiences so affected him that he turned from the comedies he had made in the 1930s and 1940s to a series of more sombre post-war dramas, including “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), in which the Frank family poignantly longs for the Allied invasion before being arrested by the Nazis and sent to the camps.
Released in 1956, Hollywood’s first full-scale drama about the invasion, “D-Day: The Sixth of June,” hedged its bets, falling back on a conventional love story about a Brit (Richard Todd) and an American (Robert Taylor) who fall for the same Red Cross worker (Dana Wynter).
“The Americanization of Emily,” released late in 1964, took a darkly comic approach. Paddy Chayefsky’s sharply satirical script defly explored the dilemma of a pacifist naval officer (James Garner) whose somewhat demented boss (Melvyn Douglas) is looking for a hero to be the first man to die on Omaha Beach.
“Up From the Beach,” Twentieth Century Fox’s largely forgotten 1965 followup to “The Longest Day,” cast a couple actors from that film (Red Buttons, Irina Demick) in a story about American soldiers who land in a French village the day after the invasion. Unavailable on video, it’s the most obscure of D-Day movies.
The late writer-director, Sam Fuller, drew on his own experiences with the First U.S. infantry division to film “The Big Red One” (1980), which dealt in part with the Omaha Beach landings. In his 2002 autobiography, “A Third Face,” Fuller called his characters “symbols of survival. Their relentless advance was a strange death dance, absurd and incomprehensible, like war itself.”
He considered the movie “my most important achievement,” even in a two-hour version that dropped several favorite scenes. He claimed that the four-hour-plus original is “somewhere in the vaults at Warner Brothers,” and hoped that an unabridged version would eventually surface on video or as a television mini-series. (Richard Schickel has announced in Film Comment magazine that he has restored nearly 50 minutes, including a Normandy landing sequence that he regards as "the best representation of D-Day prior to 'Saving Private Ryan.'")
Capturing the horror of battle
For the present, however, the two indispensable D-Day movies remain “The Longest Day,” which used three directors (Bernhard Wicki, Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin) to cover the story from several points of view, and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” which revolutionized the genre with its innovative attempts to capture the horror of battle. Both earned Academy Award nominations for best picture of the year, and both won the Oscar for best cinematography.
While Ambrose was a fan of Zanuck’s film, which he saw more than 20 times, he regarded it as a “kindergarten” movie compared to Spielberg’s treatment, which he called “graduate school.” To him, the only thing missing from “Saving Private Ryan” was “the smell of battle.”
Yet the two movies are so different that comparisons are essentially useless. They now seem complementary achievements, especially when seen back-to-back as a six-hour double bill. (For a true marathon, add “Band of Brothers,” or at least the early episode that deals with parachuting into France on D-Day morning.)
“Saving Private Ryan” is, for all its spectacle, a personal story that focuses on the subjective experience of battle. Spielberg uses slow motion, distorted sounds and desaturated color to suggest the disorientation of soldiers engulfed by a new and frightening experience. The men shake, vomit, react to good and terrible luck, while wondering who’s in command. Slaughter is everywhere; chaos is complete.
Using a much broader canvas, “The Longest Day” goes behind the scenes to suggest how Allied officials made their decisions and how the Germans tried to keep ahead of them. (Rather daringly for a big American movie from the early 1960s, it doesn’t fool with phony accents but makes use of English-subtitled French and German dialogue.)
Although it attempts to tell the stories of individual soldiers, the movie is at its best when it’s presenting a sweeping view of the action, from the point of view of a helpless parachuter (Red Buttons) who witnesses the murders of his fellow soldiers, or from the frequent aerial shots that convey who’s winning or losing.
Some artificial touches grate and date “The Longest Day.” The movie’s nagging theme song is picked out on the piano by a soldier, and later played on another soldier’s harmonica. The all-star cast seems excessive, though John Wayne, Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum neatly fit their roles, and it’s easier now to accept pop singers Paul Anka, Fabian and Tommy Sands as grunts. If you can pick them out at all, you’re dating yourself.
Other touches make this 1962 film seem strikingly up-to-date. “Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on,” says an American official. The comment is echoed later, in German, by a German commander.