At the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France during World War II, here are some excellent films about this iconic moment in U.S. history and a few recommendations of other WWII movies.
Just for the record, D-Day was on June 6, 1944, and was the invasion of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” by the allies on the western front. Just as Stalingrad and the huge armor battle at Kursk in the two years before D-Day spelled doom for Germany on the eastern front, the allied landings at Normandy was the first in the series of inevitable steps of vanquishing the Nazi regime in the west.
So, get the DVD player ready and have the clicker at hand. Here we go …
- “Band of Brothers” (2001; rated TV-MA; starring Damian Lewis, Scott Grimes and Ron Livingston)
- “The Longest Day” (1962; rated G; starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton and Sean Connery)
- “Saving Private Ryan” (1998; rated R; starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore and Barry Pepper)
Although not a single film or specifically about the invasion, the HBO series “Band of Brothers” is at the top of the D-Day class with “Saving Private Ryan.” Its storytelling, characterizations and acting are all top notch, as is its battle sequences (which are similar to “Saving Private Ryan’s” since “Band” is an outgrowth of it). The ensemble cast is outstanding and brings the viewer into their world at war that begins in boot camp and culminates in the first weeks of post-WWII occupied Germany. The army boys in this one go from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, which is also coming up on its 70th anniversary this December. Although not purely a D-Day film, this one’s sheer scope and quality makes it one of the best.
As for “The Longest Day,” it is a black-and-white film with a wonderful cast of big names – something Hollywood still does, but not as much as we saw in the 1960s and 1970s. John Wayne heads the cast which also includes Fonda, Burton, Connery and Red Buttons. At 178 minutes, this is an epic story and while it is not up to verisimilitude of war action in films today, this one rests on its star power.
“Saving Private Ryan” put the WWII film genre back in the spotlight when it arrived via Steven Spielberg’s direction in 1998. WWII films were numerous across the globe following the 1970s (such as the excellent “Das Boot” in 1981) but “Ryan” sets a new standard for storytelling as well as visual accuracy. “Saving Private Ryan” has the most realistic and therefore gory opening sequence of any war film I’ve seen. Its portrayal of the D-Day landings is graphic and will having you squirming in your seat. It sets the stage for the rest of the film. Hanks gives a signature performance in a war film that is not to be missed and his squad’s members, including Sizemore, Pepper and Vin Diesel, all give top-of-resume performances.
- “D-Day, the Sixth of June” (1956; this film is unrated, but consider it PG; starring Robert Taylor, Dana Wynter and Edmund O’Brien)
- “The Dirty Dozen” (1967; rated NR; starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and John Cassevetes)
- “Where Eagles Dare” (1968; rated M; starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood; click here for my full review …)
“D-Day, the Sixth of June” can be compared to “The Longest Day,” much as it reflects 1950s filmmaking as “Longest” reflects 1960’s big-budget blockbusters. If you like “Longest,” you’ll enjoy “D-Day, the Sixth of June.”
Both the “Dozen” and “Eagles” are D-Day peripheral and both are action films of note.
“The Dirty Dozen” is about a tough, against-the-establishment officer (Marvin) who builds a team of military convicts into a squad bound for a pre-D-Day suicide mission. The stellar cast, including Charles Bronson, Cassevetes, football star Jim Brown and Borgnine, has one of the largest contingent of doomed headlining characters of any film.
As for “Where Eagles Dare,” it is about an espionage mission to rescue a captured U.S. officer who knows too many secrets about the upcoming D-Day invasion. Adapted from an Alistair MacLean bestseller, the action is solid and framed with a deep story and top shelf performances by Burton, Eastwood and Mary Ure. Eastwood mows them down in such large numbers that he once remarked in an interview that people who complained about his death-count in “Dirty Harry” obviously didn’t see “Eagles.” If you haven’t seen this one or haven’t for some time, put it at the top of your list.
YOU’LL HAVE TO DECIDE
- “Ike – Countdown to D-Day” (2004; rated PG; starring Tom Selleck and James Remar)
- “The Red Ball Express” (1952; this film is unrated, but consider it PG; starring Jeff Chandler and Alex Nicol)
I have not seen either of these films, so it’s impossible to judge if Selleck is right in the role of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, or the accuracy of “Red Ball.” “Ike” is the story of the 90 days before D-Day and how Eisenhower handled all the intricacies of the invasion planning. “Red Ball” is a film about the transport system – named for a series of red ball logos that marked the way — trying to keep pace with speeding allied units after D-Day. Given the date of release, “Red Ball” is most likely typical of the war films of the day. Consider buying a copy if you’re looking for a title not much broadcast across the cable landscape, but you’ll pay a premium ($19.95 at the time of this article) because it isn’t in general re-release.
OTHER WWII FILMS
- “Cross of Iron” (1997; rated R; starring James Coburn, James Mason and Maximilian Schell); click here for my full review …)
- “The Great Escape” (1963; this film is unrated but consider it PG; starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Charles Bronson; click here for my full review…)
- “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970; rated GP – the rating “M” for mature became “GP” in 1970 and evolved into today’s PG in 1972; click here for my full review …)
- “Stalag 17” (1953; rated NR; starring William Holden and Otto Preminger)
Finally, here are four more WWII films that I’ve enjoyed over the years.
“Cross of Iron” was legendary director Sam (“The Wild Bunch”) Peckinpah’s only WWII film. It is the story of a German unit on the eastern front that is being ground to pieces by the inexorable Russian offensives and under pressure from an officer seeking to win an Iron Cross for bravery in battle. Coburn gives a solid performance and the Russian T-34 tanks are great in their limited action sequences.
“The Great Escape” is one of the signature WWII films with just about the most star power of the day you can find: McQueen, Bronson, Garner and Richard Attenborough just to name a few. It is the story of a group of POWs who escape from a German camp.
“Kelly’s Heroes” turns out to be as much a comedy as an action film and its star, Eastwood, has really never liked it, according to interviews. Donald Sutherland is WWII’s only hippie and the film bounces back and forth from laughs to combat as a story about a U.S. Army group that wants to pull a bank heist behind enemy lines. Sutherland steals the show, with Rickles and Savalas not far behind.
Finally, there’s “Stalag 17.” I’m not a fan of black-and-white films, but this one is so superbly acted (William Holden), directed (by Billy Wilder) and filmed that it must be considered one of the top five of war films of all time. It is gritty and intelligent. Holden won an Academy Award for best actor while Wilder was nominated for director for this film adapted from a Broadway play. A trivia note: Harvey Lembeck, who reprised his role in “Stalag 17” from its stage production, went on to become Eric Von Zipper in the Frankie-and-Annette beach movies. I don’t believe you could find a more divergent pair of roles for any actor.