10 Classic Films About D-Day, Recommended by a War Historian

Saving Private Ryan

One of the most renowned D-Day films of the modern era is Stephen Spielberg's 1998 film 'Saving Private Ryan,' which starred Tom Hanks alongside other big names including Matt Damon, who played the eponymous Private Ryan. Spielberg won the Academy Award for Best Director for his effort. Photo: Everett Collection/Canadian Press

The allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, commonly known as D-day, was an enormously significant moment in the history of the Second World War.

Commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, D-day began the liberation from Nazi rule of France (followed in turn by the rest of western Europe). This fact, together with the sheer scale and drama of the event itself, has made it a persistent subject of commemoration, as this year’s 80th-anniversary events will again make apparent.

D-day has also drawn the attention of numerous filmmakers over the years. Here are ten of the best D-day films, each suggestive of the invasion’s prominent place in international memory.

 

1. True Glory (1945)

All the nations involved in the second world war produced propaganda. True Glory is a notable example of the approach adopted by the western allies.

A combined Anglo-American endeavour (much like D-day itself), the film – which was released shortly after the war ended – is introduced by General Eisenhower and was the 1945 winner of the Academy Award for best documentary feature. It starts with the D-day landings in Normandy and then follows the march of the allied army through Europe.

 

2. Breakthrough (1950)

The war film emerged as a popular genre in postwar Hollywood with several notable features produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Breakthrough is one example. It follows a newly graduated infantry officer, Lieutenant Joe Mallory (played by John Agar), as he leads an experienced platoon of the 1st Infantry Division, an American unit that played a central role in the D-day landings at Omaha Beach.

 

3. D-Day: The Sixth of June (1956)

This film put D-day in its very title. Based on a book by Canadian writer Lionel Shapiro, at its centre is a love triangle involving a British officer (Lieutenant Colonel Wynter, played by Richard Todd), an American officer (Captain Brad Parker, played by Robert Taylor) and a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (Valerie Russell, played by Dana Wynter).

The American and Briton are both members of Special Force Six, a fictional Anglo-American unit with a key role in the Normandy landings. But they are also in competition for the heart of Russell. Is the success of D-day compromised by jealousy or distrust? Watch it and find out.

 

4. The Longest Day (1962)

Until the release in 1998 of Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day was for many years the D-day film. Based on a book by Cornelius Ryan and featuring a who’s who of contemporary movie celebrities (including Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery and John Wayne), the scope of the film – which focuses specifically on June 6 itself – is almost as vast as the original D-day operation.

Keep an eye out for Richard Todd, here in his second D-day film. Todd was a real-life D-day veteran, who parachuted into Normandy on June 6. He plays Major John Howard, who led the famous British glider assault on the bridges over the Caen Canal and Orne River.

 

5. Overlord (1975)

Taking its name from the official military designation for the Battle for Normandy, Operation Overlord, this is a rather unusual and enigmatic film.

Directed by Stuart Cooper, it follows a young man named Tom (Brian Stirner) from civilian life, to joining up, to D-day. But this is no celebration of martial heroics; it is a sad and sombre tale that lingers on loss.

 

6. The Big Red One (1980)

Drawing on the real war experiences of its director, Samuel Fuller, this film is focused on the same formation as Breakthrough – the 1st Infantry Division (the insignia of which is a “big red one”).

It follows a grizzled veteran played by Lee Marvin as he leads his squad of soldiers from North Africa, to Sicily, to Normandy and on into Germany. Among their number is a young private played by Mark Hamill, then at the height of his Star Wars fame.

 

7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Perhaps the most well-known D-day film of the modern era, this Stephen Spielberg production stars Tom Hanks as a US Army Ranger on a special mission. He is to rescue a paratrooper, the eponymous Private Ryan (Matt Damon), given a ticket home by the army top brass after the death in action of his three brothers.

Celebrated on its release for the visceral violence of its opening scenes, the film won a best director Oscar for Spielberg.

 

8. Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004)

The figure of General Eisenhower has featured in several D-day films. As overall commander of the operation, it was Eisenhower – or Ike, as he was known – who had ultimate responsibility for deciding when the assault on Normandy would begin.

The discussions that surrounded this decision feature prominently in The Longest Day, but this made-for-television American film puts Ike’s burden at its very centre.

 

9. Les Femmes De L’Ombre Female Agents

D-day films have tended to be very male-centric, giving relatively little space to the contributions made to the success of the landings by women.

This French film flips this on its head and focuses on the invaluable role played in the allied war effort by those women who served in the Special Operations Executive, a secretive espionage and sabotage unit. It follows five female agents as they help prepare the ground in Normandy for D-day.

 

10. The Great Escaper (2023)

Starring Michael Caine in his final film role, this production is based on the real tale of Royal Navy veteran Bernard Jordan who famously broke out of his care home in June 2014 to attend the 70th anniversary D-day commemorations in Normandy.

Interestingly, another film released the very same year and starring Pierce Brosnan, The Last Rifleman, was also inspired by “Bernie’s” great escape.The Conversation

Sam Edwards, Reader in Modern Political History, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.