Fifty-eight years ago today, Allied Expeditionary Forces invaded France’s Normandy beaches to begin liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny.
June 6, 1944—D-Day—witnessed the largest air, land and sea military operation in world history. It included over 5,000 ships, 10,000 airplanes and 150,000 servicemen and women.
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The AEF attacked five beaches—Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword—and eventually broke German defenses. The AEF lost well over 4,000 soldiers in the assault, but the invasion secured the beaches and paved the way for eventual victory in Europe.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the AEF, told military personnel prior to the attack, “You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”
The eyes of the world were upon them, and they still are: through museums, memorials … and movies.
Several war movies focus exclusively on D-Day events, while others touch on June 6 briefly. There’s the “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), with Lee Marvin; “Where Eagles Dare” (1968), starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood; and “The Big Red One” (1980), also with Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill.
Three other “D-Day movies” stand out, but for different reasons.
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998, Rated R)
Steven Spielberg directed this masterful film about a U.S. squadron sent behind enemy lines to recover Private Ryan—the only surviving brother of four sent to war—and send him home.
Many of Spielberg’s films deal with World War II, but none as grittily as this one. The first 20 minutes depict the D-Day invasion in close-up. Its sights and sounds are horrifyingly numbing, and surely only a hint of that day’s combat.
“Code Name: Emerald” (1985, Rated PG)
This little-known film stars Ed Harris, Eric Stoltz and Max von Sydow. Harris plays a double-agent sent to rescue an “overlord” (the name for an Allied serviceman who knew D-Day plans) from German captivity before he spills the beans.
Espionage and intrigue run high as Harris’ Gus Lang isn’t sure who to trust. The B-storyline holds romance for Lang, so “Emerald” is easier viewing than “Ryan.” But the twists, and the film’s mood, make for good viewing.
“The Longest Day” (1962, Rated G)
This three-hour film chronicles D-Day from the perspectives of Americans, British, French and Germans. This blow-by-blow account of “the longest day” in history starts with Allied concerns about the weather on June 6, and ends with Allied troops securing the beaches and moving inland.
It stars Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, John Wayne and many more notables. Some of the actors were actually soldiers on D-Day.
“The Longest Day” has it all: Ike weighs the odds. British confuse Germans with dummy-parachutists called “Ruperts.” Allies battle the enemy at Sainte Mere Eglise. Germans hunker down in their bunkers. Landing craft hit Omaha Beach. U.S. Rangers storm the Pointe du Hoc.
The film shows an incredible cross-section of June 6 situations, even as its characters note the momentous nature of the day.
Just before the invasion, one American soldier says to another, and to freedom-loving people everywhere and in every time: “You remember it. Remember every bit of it. Because we are on the eve of a day that people are going to talk about long after we are dead and gone.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.