Great D-Day Films

6th June 1944 is the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings, and to mark the anniversary, here are 12 D-Day films to watch.

It is now 80 years since the allied forces launched Operation Overlord against the occupying German army in France, an event that came to mark the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
On 6 June 1944, more than 5,000 ships and landing craft made the journey across the Channel to Normandy carrying nearly 160,000 allied soldiers in the largest armada ever assembled. These massed soldiers were joined by around 23,000 allied airborne troops on D-Day, all with the mission to establish beachheads, capture the city of Caen and, ultimately, liberate France from Nazi rule.
It’s unsurprising that this momentous, bloody and crucial invasion has been the theme for a number of war films over the decades. The sheer scale of the operation lends itself to the cinematic form, with individual tales of heroism and determination being rich material for more intimate portraits of those involved in the allied landings.
Epic battle films, tense pre-invasion thrillers and bruising post-invasion dramas have all – alongside countless made-for-television documentaries and docudramas – recreated, represented and analysed the planning, execution and aftermath of the events of D-Day. In these films, heroism and self-sacrifice rub shoulders with fear, tragedy and, occasionally, a strong anti-war message.

The Desert Fox: The Story Of Rommel (1951)
Stars: James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke
Erwin Rommel has long held a position of respect among the Allies. In contrast to political generals, Rommel is seen as a German general rather than just another Nazi and this film did a lot to help establish the perception of Rommel in a different way. James Mason portrays Rommel as a complex and conflicted character, which isn’t far from the truth. D-Day plays a small, yet crucial role in the movie. When Hitler prevents Rommel from preparing for the Normandy invasion, he decides to join a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. When his role is discovered, he is given the chance to commit suicide in order to save face and save his family. It’s a rare and effective take on the other side, which allows this film to distinguish itself from its peers.

Red Ball Express (1952)
Stars: Jeff Chandler, Alex Nicol, Signey Poitier
Commencing after D-Day, Boetticher’s film is a tense depiction of the kinds of operations that the allied invasion of Normandy enabled. With General Patton’s advancing Third Army running dangerously low on gas and supplies, a military truck route is set up for the ad-hoc, titular truck convoy to replenish and refuel the troops and vehicles. Red Ball Express focuses on one racially integrated platoon whose interpersonal grievances are as threatening to morale as the missions they carry out are to their lives. Starring Jeff Chandler as Lt Chick Campbell and Sidney Poitier as his truck partner, Cpl Andrew Robertson, Red Ball Express drew justified criticism for its historical inaccuracies. In reality, close to 75% of the Red Ball Express drivers were African Americans thought of as ‘expendable,’ a far cry from the on-screen demographic and their heroic portrayal in the film. Despite this, Boetticher’s film does effectively capture the perilous nature of the Red Ball Express.

D-Day the Sixth of June (1956)
Stars: Robert Taylor, Richard Todd, Dana Wynter

Flitting between D-Day itself and lengthy flashback sequences covering the period after the Americans joined the allied war effort, Henry Koster’s war drama revolves around a love triangle both enabled and dictated by World War II. Based on war correspondent and writer Lionel Shapiro’s 1955 novel, The Sixth of June, Koster’s engrossing adaptation sees British subaltern Valerie Russell (Dana Wynter) fall in love with married American Capt Brad Parker (Robert Taylor) while Russell’s hitherto beau, Lt Col John Wynter (played by D-Day veteran Todd), is posted in Africa. Finding themselves both aboard an advance ship carrying the first soldiers to land on the Normandy beaches, Wynter and Parker both reminisce about their respective relationships with Russell. Featuring an impressively convincing D-day landing sequence shot with only two landing craft, 80 extras and canny use of a back-projection screen, the film reaches a tragic conclusion that leaves the love triangle forever unresolved.

I Was Monty’s Double (1959)
Stars: M. E. Clifton-James, John Mills, Cecil Parker
As D-Day approaches during World War II, British officers Major Harvey (Mills) and Colonel E.F. Logan (Parker) plot to give the Germans misinformation about their military strategy. When Harvey spots an actor (M. E. Clifton-James, playing himself in this true story) who looks just like British military leader General Montgomery, he uses him to impersonate the general in North Africa. James thus draws German troops away from Normandy, becoming both a hero and a major military target.

The Longest Day (1962)
Stars: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger
The recipient of two Academy Awards, for cinematography and special effects, The Longest Day is an epic recreation of D-Day, beginning in the immediate lead up to the invasion and ending as the allied troops advance inland into France from their newly established beachheads. Shot in a striking, monochrome docudrama style, with on-screen titles naming various figures and subtitles for the French and German led sequences, the film captures the invasion from the angles of all the participants. Primed and ready to go, the determination and courage showed by the allied forces is ably matched by the bravery of the French resistance as the invasion commences. The arrogance and misplaced air of invincibility displayed by the German high command is also portrayed as a contributing factor to the invasion’s success. Featuring several D-Day veterans among its truly stellar, international ensemble cast.

The Americanization Of Emily (1964)
Stars: James Garner, Julie Andrews
Garner played Charlie, the adjutant for a rear admiral in this 1964 WWII film. His main job is to make sure the admiral and his fellow officers have all the luxuries they could want, including “companionship.” When his commander loses his wife, he decides to order Charlie to be among the first ashore on D-Day so he can document the first sailor killed on the beach. Emily (Andrews) is a widow who has already lost her husband to the war and falls in love with Charlie, while facing the prospect of losing him, as well. It’s as compelling an account of the absurdity of war as Catch-22 managed to be, with a little romance sprinkled in to give the movie its timeless charm.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton
Just before the Normandy invasion, an American general with detailed knowledge of the planned assault is captured by the Nazis and taken to a castle fortress high in the Alps. An elite team of British and American commandos stages a daring aerial rescue mission. In the process of their suspenseful mission they discover there is a Nazi traitor in their midst. Shot on location in Bavaria and Austria, this twisty thriller, with breakneck action sequences, features a memorable fight atop a cable car and an edge-of-the-seat rescue from the Alpine castle.

Patton (1970)
Stars: George C. Scott, Karl Malden
Of course, Patton focuses on more than just the Normandy invasion. In many ways, this movie does the best job of tying together the entire European campaign, particularly because of the focus on General George S. Patton. Actor George C. Scott plays the iconic figure with such endearing earnestness that it’s hard not to sympathise with his actions. D-Day occupies a position of honour in this film, but like other battles, the emphasis is not so much on the fighting, as it is on the meaning.
Patton won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Although Scott won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role, he declined the award. The opening monologue, delivered by Scott as General Patton with an enormous American flag behind him, remains an iconic and often quoted image in film.

Overlord (1975)
Sombre, poetic and elegiac, American filmmaker, writer and actor Stuart Cooper’s 1975 black and white war drama, Overlord, is stylistically and tonally at odds with the majority of D-Day themed films. Eschewing any hints of heroism, bombast or spectacle, Overlord instead explores the grim reality that for thousands of young men the allied invasion was to be a fait accompli ending in their deaths. With no star names in the cast, Cooper’s screenplay, co-written with Christopher Hudson, follows 20-year-old everyman Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) from his call up into the East Yorkshire Regiment to his seemingly inexorable fate on Sword Beach. Seamlessly combining actual Second World War footage with contemporary sequences, and impeccably shot by regular Stanley Kubrick collaborator John Alcott, Overlord visualises Private Beddows’ premonitions of death and romantic reveries in a number of powerful and experimental sequences. Made with the assistance of The Imperial War Museum.

The Big Red One (1980)
Stars: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill
Heavily cut by the studio on its original release but restored to its full 162-minute glory in 2004, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One manages to avoid falling into the trappings of many other ‘epic’ war movies. Fuller’s self-penned tale, based on the decorated WWII veteran’s own wartime experiences, is as hard-boiled as any of the B-movies that bare the director’s name. Fuller’s action-packed narrative follows Lee Marvin’s unnamed sergeant and his squad of soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division (the titular Big Red One) from the deserts of Africa to the battlefields of northern and central Europe. Fuller himself once stated that “The real glory of War is surviving,” and after watching the movie’s death-defying D-Day scenes you’d be hard pushed to disagree with him.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
Though only those who have experienced the heat of battle first hand can ever truly know how it feels, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – and in particular its opening 27-minute sequence – gave audiences as realistic a portrayal of the true horrors of war as yet committed to film. That opening sequence, depicting the Omaha Beach landings, featured over 1,500 extras and is as technically dazzling as it is emotionally harrowing. A disorienting, shocking assault on the senses created with Academy Award winning sound design, sound editing, film editing and cinematography, the film’s opening sequence is a frenzy of noise, fear and catastrophic loss of life. For those that survived and made it off the beach, including Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller and his men, there was no respite. Pushing inland, Miller and his company battle against the odds to bring Private First Class James Ryan (Matt Damon) home. An unforgettably powerful, visceral and influential viewing experience.

Storming Juno (2010)
Most D-Day movies and content focus largely on the conflict that took place on Omaha Beach, but military buffs know the event was a multi-pronged assault. The second-most famous beach was Juno, which this docudrama film attempted to showcase, with solid results. The film switches focus from American forces to the Canadian soldiers who stormed that particular beach. It tells the story from the perspective of several soldiers involved in the paratroop brigade, tank crew, and front-line infantry, offering different glimpses into what unfolded on that fateful day

Actors who fought in WWII

James Stewart was already an Academy Award-winning actor and civilian pilot with 400 logged flight hours when he first enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. Known for his roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and many other classic films, Stewart became the first major Hollywood actor to enlist in the military at the onset of the United States’ entry into World War II.

Paul Newman may be known for his starring roles in iconic films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the actor also served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Enlisting in 1943, Newman initially enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 pilot training program but was disqualified upon the discovery that he was colour blind. Instead, Newman served as a radioman and rear gunner for torpedo bombers.

Clark Gable, an actor who was once known as “The King of Hollywood,” had already established a significant acting career, starring in films such as Gone with the Wind; then, he decided to enlist in the military during World War II. Supposedly, two events factored into Gable’s decision to enlist: the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and one month later, Gable’s wife Carole Lombard was killed in an airplane crash as she was returning from a war bonds-selling tour. Despite his already-established Hollywood fame, Gable decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps as a private at the age of 41 and work his way up the ranks.

Tony Curtis served aboard a submarine tender, the USS Proteus, until the end of the Second World War. On September 2, 1945, Curtis witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from his ship’s signal bridge about a mile away. Following his discharge from the Navy aged 20, Curtis attended City College of New York on the G.I. Bill.

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