Thursday, June 6, 2019

The 75th Anniversary of D-Day

It was 75 years ago today that over 160,000 troops from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States landed on the beaches of Normandy to do battle with Nazi Germany. They faced heavy German fortifications and were under constant gunfire as they landed. The causalities were great, with more than 9000 Allied soldiers either wounded or killed. Despite this, in the end the Allies won the day, allowing more than 190,000 Allied soldiers to make it through to take Europe back from the Nazis. It was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

D-Day was a truly heroic effort, the largest seaborne invasion in history. It was also one of the biggest turning points in history. Quite naturally, D-Day has then figured prominently in motion pictures and television shows since the end of World War II. In fact, so many movies and TV shows have referenced D-Day that it would be impossible to list them all. Indeed, the first movies to touch upon D-Day were made only a few years after the war.

Among the earliest films to deal with D-Day was Breakthrough (1950). The film starred David Brian and John Agar and followed a company of infantrymen from the 1st Infantry Division from basic training to D-Day through to the Normandy Campaign. A good part of Breakthrough is comprised of stock footage, and it is not as highly regarded as many of the films that succeeded it. That having been said, it was one of the earliest movies to depict the events of D-Day.

D-Day the Sixth of June (1956) is less a war film than it is a romance film, depicting as it does a love triangle between an American paratrooper, a British Commando, and a Women's Royal Army Corps officer. It is notable primarily because it depicts not only American troops, but British and Canadian troops as well. While it does not show very much of Omaha Beach, in that particular respect it is more accurate than many films about D-Day.

Of course, one cannot discuss movies about D-Day without mentioning The Longest Day (1962). The all-star film utilised several Allied and Axis military consultants. Several of the film's stars had served in World War II and one even took part in D-Day. Richard Todd was part of the British Airborne invasion and was among the men who took part in the battle for Pegasus Bridge.

The Longest Day was based on Cornelius Ryan's 1959 book of the same name about the Normandy Invasion. The movie follows the events on both sides of the English Channel in the days before D-Day. The movie proved to be a hit, eventually making a total of $50.1 million. The film is still well respected to this day.

While The Longest Day was an epic with a large cast, Overlord (1975) was a much more personal story which followed a young British man through being called up, his training, and his eventual death on D-Day. In making the film director Stuart Cooper not only consulted footage from the war, but the diaries of World War II soldiers as well.

The Big Red One (1980) centred on an Army sergeant as he led his men through to D-Day, the liberation of France, and the invasion of Nazi Germany. Director Samuel Fuller had the benefit of experience, having served in the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division and seeing action in Africa, Sicily, and Normandy.

What may be one of the most realistic portrayals of D-Day appears in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Not only did the film portray the heavy casualties the Allies suffered upon landing on Omaha Beach, but even the sea sickness many soldiers experienced while the landing craft grew close to the store. While Saving Private Ryan was praised for its realistic depiction of the Normandy landings, the film was criticised for ignoring the contributions of countries other than the United States. Namely, in Saving Private Ryan, the 2nd Rangers are portrayed as being aboard an American ship and making it to the beach in United States Coast Guard-crewed landing craft. In truth, the 2nd Rangers were aboard the British ships and made it to Omaha Beach on Royal Navy landing craft. Despite the occasional inaccuracies, Saving Private Ryan is still highly regarded today, to the point that it is counted among the greatest war movies of all time.

Television has dealt with D-Day less than motion pictures have, perhaps because portraying the Normandy Invasion would be difficult on the budget of most television shows and even TV movies. It should come as no surprise that the pilot of the legendary World War II drama Combat! dealt with the events of D-Day. The pilot as it was originally shot would not air, but it formed the bulk of the show's 11th episode, "A Day in June," in which Sgt. Saunders (played by Vic Morrow) remembers his experiences during the Normandy Invasion. "A Day in June" aired on December 18 1962.

D-Day would also figure in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, based on Stephen E. Ambrose's 1992 book of the same name. Band of Brothers depicted E Company,2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division, from their jump training to the airborne invasion of Normandy to the war's end. At the time, Band of Brothers was the most expensive mini-series ever made.

There have been many, many more movies and TV shows that have touched upon D-Day in some way. To even deal with documentaries about D-Day would fill a very large book. It seems quite likely that D-Day was the most pivotal event in the 20th Century and one of the most pivotal events in human history. Had the Allies lost the various battles that comprised the Normandy Invasion, history would be very different. D-Day was one of the most monumental undertakings of all time, and it was made possible by the many men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, parachuted into Normandy, or served aboard the many ships that were part of the invasion. Although if you ask any man who served in the Normandy Invasion, he will tell you that he is not a hero, all of them were indeed heroes.  

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