There have been surprisingly few movies on D-Day, as indicated by the fact that three out of the five videos looked at below are from television miniseries. Here are the five best from a scarce lot:
5. Ike: The War Years (1978)
Robert Duvall as Eisenhower gives his usual riveting performance. The late Lee Remick gives a good performance as Captain Kay Summersby, the British driver/secretary assigned to Eisenhower. Unfortunately the miniseries centers around the relationship of Eisenhower and Summersby, a relationship which is subject to historical dispute.
4. Ike: Countdown to D-Day (1995)
Tom Selleck gives a very good portrayal of Eisenhower in the days leading up to D-Day. The video does a first rate job of portraying the problems that Eisenhower confronted: getting prima donnas like Montgomery and Patton to work as a part of a team, concerns about the weather, the deception campaign to convince the Nazis that Calais would be the invasion site, etc. The video also shines a light on the weight of responsibility which Eisenhower bore, especially when we see him write out a note just before the invasion taking full responsibility on his shoulders if it failed.
3. Band of Brothers (2001)
The epic miniseries covering the exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, captures well the chaos of the parachute and glider operations behind German lines that were so critical a part of the Allied victory on D-Day.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
No movie does a better job of conveying the chaos and murderous fire that the initial assault troops at Omaha Beach were exposed to than Saving Private Ryan. The rest of the film is so, so in my estimation, but the opening sequence on Omaha Beach is the closest to the grisly reality of combat of any film depiction.
1. The Longest Day (1962)
Although getting a bit long in the tooth, and filled with too much Hollywood corn, “You mean, he’s bought it?”, this “cast of thousands production” swan song of old Hollywood still gives the best depiction of the event. Many of the details are wrong, don’t get me started on the Omaha Beach sequences, but it does take a very complicated military operation and make it comprehensible to a general audience. Standouts in the film:
Richard Todd playing Major John Howard who took the two bridges between Bénouville and Ranville. Todd had taken part in the actual seizure of the two bridges as a Captain, another actor playing him in the film.
A surly John Wayne as Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort, demonstrating both the confusion of the Airborne landings and the stubborn determination of the 101st and 82nd to take their objectives. Wayne was too old for the role at 55, Vandervoort being all of 27 at the time, but he was utterly convincing.
Henry Fonda as Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who despite being crippled with arthritis from old World War I injuries, and a bad heart, insisted on personally leading troops of the 4th division on Utah Beach under fire, no doubt with the beaming spirit of his Rough Rider father by his side. He earned a Medal of Honor that day:
For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, in France. After 2 verbal requests to accompany the leading assault elements in the Normandy invasion had been denied, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt’s written request for this mission was approved and he landed with the first wave of the forces assaulting the enemy-held beaches. He repeatedly led groups from the beach, over the seawall and established them inland. His valor, courage, and presence in the very front of the attack and his complete unconcern at being under heavy fire inspired the troops to heights of enthusiasm and self-sacrifice. Although the enemy had the beach under constant direct fire, Brig. Gen. Roosevelt moved from one locality to another, rallying men around him, directed and personally led them against the enemy. Under his seasoned, precise, calm, and unfaltering leadership, assault troops reduced beach strong points and rapidly moved inland with minimum casualties. He thus contributed substantially to the successful establishment of the beachhead in France.
He would die of a massive heart attack on July 12, 1944.
Free French commandoes assaulting Ouistreham are astonished to see a group of nuns walking calmly through German fire to their position. The Mother Superior explains that the nuns are all nurses and they have come to tend their wounded which is what they then proceed to do. (Alas, it never happened.)
Robert Mitchum as Major General Norman Cota, assistant divisional commander of the 29th Infantry who did so much to rally troops on Omaha Beach.
A colorized version of the film has been produced, but I prefer the black and white version which hearkens back to the World War II films and newsreels. Anyone who hasn’t seen this film needs to remedy that omission as soon as possible.