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Good, Better, Best D-Day Movies
Tom Miller | June 05, 2007

Military.com film critic Tom Miller recommends the top D-Day movies.


GOOD: "The Longest Day" (1962)

Darryl F. Zanuck's "The Longest Day" remains the starting point if you want a broad overview of the invasion told from the perspective of grunt and general, Allies and Germans.  Even "Band of Brothers" falls short of this classic's scope.  Based on Cornelius Ryan's classic book of the same title and featuring an all-star lineup (John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchem, Richard Burton, and Rod Steiger among them), the film recreates the Normandy invasion hour-by-hour.  This sprawling epic won Academy Awards for cinematography and Special Effects and was nominated for the American Film Institute's "Top 100 American Movies."  The film also includes an unforgettable movie image—comparable to the shower scene in "Psycho."  Most of the paratroopers miss their drop zones on D-Day and are scattered all over the Normandy countryside.  One unlucky group is dropped into a German-occupied village and a paratrooper played by Red Buttons has his chute catch on a church steeple.  As German soldiers below massacre his buddies as they drift down, he's left dangling precariously and helplessly from the roof. 

(Available in DVD: Extras include "Hollywood Backstory," a documentary on the making of the movie, and "D-Day Revisited," a retrospective documentary on D-Day and the movie.)


BETTER:  "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)

"The Longest Day" was the D-Day movie for thirty-six years until director Steven Spielberg took up the subject.  Deftly employing technology unavailable to earlier generations of filmmakers, Spielberg plunged viewers into the dizzying chaos and gut-wrenching horror of combat.  The extended opening sequence reenacting the Allied landing at Omaha Beach includes some of the most graphic and realistic combat on celluloid and forever redefined how war movies are made.  Loosely based on a true incident, the movie follows a small post-D-Day patrol led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) sent to find and bring back to safety Pvt. James Ryan, whose three brothers have already been killed in action.  A powerful experience, "Saving Private Ryan" helped revive interest in World War II and the generation of heroes whose legacy can't be exaggerated.  Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it won five including Best Director, Cinematography, and Film Editing.  In one of the great injustices in Oscar history, Academy voters gave the Best Picture Oscar to the lightweight and forgettable "Shakespeare in Love."   "Saving Private Ryan" is No. 45 on the American Film Institute's "100 Most Thrilling American Films."

(Available in "Special Edition" and "Two-Disc Special Edition" DVDs.  The former includes a featurette "Into the Breach" that includes interviews with historian Stephen Ambrose, D-Day veterans, and the movie's actors.  The latter adds another 90 minutes of material including a feature on the abbreviated basic training that the actors underwent in preparation for the movie.) 


BEST:  "Band of Brothers" (2001)

There was a time when no one would have considered made-for-television movies and miniseries as legitimate films.  "Big screen" and "small screen" were about more than size.  That time has passed.  In many ways, television now sets the standard.  Think "24," "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," etc.  "Band of Brothers," Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' World War II drama, was a big part of that revolution.   Fresh from their triumph with "Saving Private Ryan," Hollywood insiders Spielberg and Hanks undertook an even more ambitious World War II project: a ten-part series following a single infantry company from training through combat, victory, and occupation.  Their reward—and ours—is an incomparable film of shared sacrifice and uncommon heroism.  As good as "Saving Private Ryan" is, "Band of Brothers" raises the bar.  Based on the late historian Stephen Ambrose's best-selling nonfiction book of the same title, "Band of Brothers" follows the exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, from their rigorous training in the U.S. and Britain to their night-time jump into occupied Normandy and the fierce battles that followed.  The miniseries format allows for a thoroughness that's impossible in a traditional movie and nonpareil character development.  With combat scenes as hauntingly realistic (and sanguinary) as "Saving Private Ryan," superb writing throughout, and an inspired ensemble cast, "Band of Brothers" is destined to become a classic.  Nominated for nineteen Emmy Awards, it won five, including Best Miniseries.  It also won a Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television. 

(Available in DVD.  There are ten episodes on five discs.  The first three episodes carry Easy Company through the aftermath of D-Day.  Among the extras on the sixth disc is an excellent documentary, "We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company," that includes interviews with the veterans of Easy Company.)


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Copyright 2013 Tom Miller. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.

About Tom Miller

A former history professor, Tom Miller is a novelist and essayist. His most recent novel, Freshman Sensation (2007), is available from the publisher at http://www.ccjournal.com/. His reviews and essays have appeared in numerous books, journals, and newspapers, including The Encyclopedia of Southern History, American History Illustrated, the Chicago Tribune, and the Des Moines Register. He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam veteran.