D-Day on film

9 mins read

MHM‘s Taylor Downing surveys screen depictions of D-Day in a ‘War on Film’ special (contains spoilers)

It was one of those rare momentous days that, even at the time, everyone knew was historic. The invasion of northern Europe was possibly the most ambitious operation of the war, transporting 180,000 men – with their equipment and vehicles – across the Channel, and landing them on heavily fortified enemy beaches. One of the most dramatic events in history, it is no wonder that D-Day has received such extensive film coverage.


The first cinematic treatment came in 1962 with The Longest Day, produced by Darryl Zanuck. Key Hollywood players sought roles in the movie, including Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, George Segal, Robert Ryan, and John Wayne. Stars of the British cinema also lined up to appear, such as Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Richard Burton, and Sean Connery (playing his last role before James Bond).

Soldiers who had fought on D-Day were hired as consultants, and ex-President Eisenhower even offered to play himself as the Supreme Commander – the producers cast an unknown lookalike instead.

The Longest Day (1962), depicting the landings on Omaha beach.
The Longest Day (1962), depicting the landings on Omaha beach.

Shot in monochrome Widescreen CinemaScope to look like authentic combat footage, the film is almost as epic as the day itself. Many of the machines that saw action on D-Day, from landing craft to armoured vehicles, were available to film-makers.

Thousands of extras were hired, and in one memorable air-to-ground shot taken from a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Fw 190, an entire section of Omaha is reconstructed: hundreds of men scatter as the German pilot swoops along the beach. In a later scene, the entire port town of Ouistreham, rebuilt in a studio, is fought over by French commandos.

The film explores events from a remarkably balanced perspective; covering both British and American contributions, it also foregrounds the role of the French resistance and shows much of the German side of the story.

With so much going for it, it is a shame that The Longest Day fails to convince. The spectacle is truly spectacular, but the combat scenes are totally lacking in realism. Hundreds of stuntmen leap in all directions as shells land and bullets are fired. But there are no mutilated bodies and certainly no body parts. Everyone is killed cleanly and instantly. The wounded never groan or call out in agony.

It is based on accurate individual stories and uses many words actually spoken on the day – but this is undermined by too many wooden performances. The locations look authentic and convincing; but the plethora of big names makes watching it feel like an exercise in star spotting. It is very much a case of ‘Hollywood meets D-Day’.


In marked contrast, Overlord (1975), which was directed by Stuart Cooper, is an intimate look at the build up to the invasion from the perspective of a single young British soldier, Tom (Brian Stirner).

The film recounts Tom’s development into a soldier and a man after having left home to join up. He is bawled at by drill sergeants, suffers the petty injustices of army life, bonds with his mates, and goes out briefly with a girl.

The scale of the operation is shown by cutting these low-budget dramatised scenes with authentic footage from the run-up to D-Day, taken from the film archive of the Imperial War Museum (IWM).

Image from 1975 film Overlord, directed by Stuart Cooper.
Image from 1975 film Overlord, directed by Stuart Cooper.

The footage has been perfectly preserved, and the dramatic scenes were shot in black and white using lenses from the 1940s – creating a seamless transition from original footage to newly shot material.

Tom has a premonition that he will die during the invasion, but he foresees a heroic death charging up the beach. In fact, he is killed while still in the landing craft. There is nothing heroic about his death.

Overlord is worth seeing not for the rather predictable story of Tom, but for the magnificent IWM archive film – much of it totally unfamiliar to modern audiences. As a footnote, it is the only feature film ever to have been produced by the IWM.


The release of Saving Private Ryan (1998) was a milestone in cinematic history. It not only gave a more authentic view of the horrors of D-Day, but transformed the way war movies were made. US authorities (in the film represented by General George Marshall, Chief of Staff) occasionally pulled out a surviving brother from combat if his other siblings had been killed in action, and this practice forms the basis for the film.

Written by Robert Rodat, produced by Mark Gordon, and directed by Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan is effectively split into two halves.

The opening sequence follows a veteran on his visit to the Normandy American Cemetery, cutting to a 25-minute sequence showing the US landing at the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach. Acclaimed as the finest battle scene ever depicted in cinematic history, Spielberg’s footage achieves a realism never seen before on the silver screen.

As the men in the landing craft approach the beach, several of them throw up. When the ramps go down, German machine-gunners fire directly into the vessels. Many are killed before even having the chance to get off their landing craft; others leap over the side, and underwater cameras follow as bullets rip into the sea around them.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Under heavy fire, limbs are ripped off, fires erupt, bullets ricochet off metal. Nowhere is safe. The sea turns red with blood (40 barrels of fake blood were used during filming). Men shelter around the steel obstacles – as in the famous Robert Capa photos taken on D-Day morning.

At the centre of the action, Ranger Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) struggles ashore with his men. He urges them forward – in the water, they are sitting ducks. The survivors get to the head of the beach, where there is limited shelter.

In a shortened version of real events, Miller leads his men up the low cliffs and eventually overpowers the Germans, knocking out a pillbox. Enough Americans make it up the cliff to overwhelm the defenders – many of whom are shot as they try to surrender.

The sequence is so strong because the men look terrified and scream out when they are hit. Blood oozes from terrible wounds as intestines spill out. A soldier whose arm has been blown off picks up his bloody limb as he staggers about in shock.

Hand-held cameras capturing snippets of action – and sound effects of bullets whizzing into landing craft, sea, sand, and bodies – enhance the cinematic effect. A truly horrifying montage, many Omaha veterans could not bear to see the sequence and reports of PTSD grew dramatically.

The remaining two hours of the film are relatively conventional. Miller gathers a squad of seven men to search for Private Ryan, who was part of the airborne drop that had gone terribly wrong. They do not know where he is. In line with many war movies, the men encounter a variety of threats.

After two of them are killed, they argue about whether their mission is worthwhile. Miller reflects on the horrors he has witnessed and how unreal his life has become.

Steven Spielberg with Tom Hanks on the set of Saving Private Ryan.

Against all odds, the small group begins to bond. They finally find Private Ryan (Matt Damon), who is part of a small group of paratroopers preparing to defend a vital bridge.

He refuses to leave his comrades, proclaiming heroically that ‘these are the only brothers I have left’.

In the ensuing battle, vast numbers of Germans are killed and at the last minute, like in a good Western, relief arrives. It is all a bit corny. But Miller dies on the bridge, and in the final scene the veteran, whom we now recognise as Ryan, weeps as he finds Miller’s gravestone. In classic Spielberg style, it is very moving. And then the stars and stripes flutter in the wind.

This is a truly American movie. Unlike The Longest Day, the only mention of any other force involved in Normandy is when Miller tells another officer that ‘Monty’ is holding up the whole advance by ‘taking his time moving on Caen’.

But the movie did an immense amount to revive interest in World War II in the United States – prompting huge numbers to visit the war cemeteries, and reviving interest in the idea of a Citizen Army that went to Europe to defeat the Nazis.

Some have argued that it helped to rebuild confidence in American arms and generated support for President Bush’s campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11.

After Saving Private Ryan, war films could never be the same again – the movie had set a new standard for the cinematic depiction of battle. The cast is extremely strong, having been trained for ten days in a boot camp run by Captain Dale Dye, formerly of the Marine Corps.

Dialogue is often difficult to hear and there is much confusion in the fog of battle. The sequences of Omaha (shot at Ballinesker beach in Ireland) are horribly realistic, and there was also great attention paid to detail in the Normandy scenes, filmed at Hattfield in Hertfordshire.

There are historical errors, but they are small against the bigger picture. Spielberg did not want the movie to look like a Technicolor epic – so cameraman Janusz Kamin´ski got right in among the action, and his images were desaturated in post-production to give the whole film a gritty look.

Saving Private Ryan was an immense box-office hit in the United States and around the world. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and won five, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Editing. It remains one of the finest and most successful war films ever.


As a postscript, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaborated again a few years later as producers of an ten-part HBO television mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).

This told the story of Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne. Historian Stephen Ambrose had written a book of the same name in 1992, based on the diaries of Major Dick Winters and interviews with other veterans.

The series follows the men of Easy Company from para training in the US to their deployment in England; and through a series of actions including the D-Day drop, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, and the occupation of southern Germany.

The second episode, entitled ‘Day of Days’, is the one that covers the parachute drop on the night of 5/6 June. Whereas The Longest Day concentrates on events around Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American got his chute caught on the church tower, this episode focuses on the total confusion following the 101st Airborne drop on the south-east of the Carentan peninsula.

Damien Lewis as Captain Winters in television miniseries Band of Brothers (2001).
Damien Lewis as Captain Winters in television miniseries Band of Brothers (2001).

The men were scattered over a wide area as the pilots of their C-47 transports panicked under sustained anti-aircraft are and either released the men too early or too late.

Captain Winters (Damian Lewis) gathers a small group of men around him and, in the early hours of 6 June, leads an assault on a battery of German 88mm guns at Brécourt Manor. The successful attack prevented the gunners firing onto Utah beach and potentially causing havoc in the beachhead.

The tactics used by Winters were later taught at West Point to show how a small group of soldiers could overwhelm a position defended by a much larger force. Winters later admitted, however, that he had misremembered some of the details of the layout of the German position and the method of the assault.

Band of Brothers very closely follows the style of Saving Private Ryan, taking it to new heights. Once again, Dale Dye trained key players in an actors’ boot camp – he also played the part of Colonel Sink.

Once again, filming took place at Hatfield in Hertfordshire, and it featured large numbers of British re-enactors, who brought a great concentration on accurate detail. Again, the series follows a group of men as they struggle mentally and physically with the terrors of war as some of them are wounded and others killed.

The film-makers frequently put dramatic licence above historical accuracy but still tried hard to get basic details right. Many veterans visited the set. Several were interviewed and appear at the opening of each episode, although the men are not named until the final programme.

The most expensive television series ever made at the time, Band of Brothers had a budget of $125 million. It was an enormous success, winning seven Emmy Awards (the TV equivalent of an Oscar), a Golden Globe, and a Peabody. Attracting great critical acclaim, it continues to raise revenue for HBO.

From the mock heroics of the 1960s to the blood and guts (literally) of the 1990s and the 2000s, the treatment of D-Day over the years represents a sweeping transformation in the cinematic expression of war.

War has never been glamorous, even if it comes across as such in some movies. But it has rarely been portrayed as so tough, appalling, and threatening as in Saving Private Ryan and, even more so, Band of Brothers – not only to men’s bodies but also to their minds.

This article is from the June 2017 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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