Monday, June 6, 2011

Remembering D-Day, Hollywood-style

Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg's movie about an army squad sent to retrieve Private Ryan after his two brothers are killed on D-Day opens with a now-famous, very graphic segment depicting the landing on Omaha Beach and closes with a battle between a small American force and a much larger — and better armed — German unit. Sure, what comes between the two battles may be a gimmicky premise (even if it was based on similar real events), and at times Spielberg lays on the tension and emotion pretty thick, but the result is still an engrossing and thought-provoking look at battle. The opening invasion scene is worth the hype, though for details less obvious than the gore: the German machine gunners taking careful aim at the first boats to reach the shore, ready to fire as soon as the ramps are dropped, and the almost too-quiet clinking sounds of German bullets hitting metal obstacles on the beach, making you aware of how literally death is in the air as they measure out the American soldiers' lives like clockwork, the sound of each missed shot another moment's reprieve — and enough time to take another step toward the enemy's guns.

The Big Red One
Compared to Saving Private Ryan, the relatively short D-Day segment of this autobiographical Sam Fuller film seems somewhat sparse. Working with a small budget years before the Private Ryan age of realism, Fuller forgoes a large-scale graphic depiction of D-Day and focuses on one element — the Bangalore relay, in which soldiers are sent running one at a time into enemy fire, each carrying a piece of what will be assembled into a long explosive tube capable of clearing dense obstacles. As we watch each member of the squad get called in turn to make their run up the beach, however, we realize the same truth that Private Ryan conveys perhaps more graphically, but no more convincingly: that an invasion like D-Day requires throwing body after body at the enemy, with the hope that eventually some will get through alive.

The one non-Hollywood movie on the list, Overlord follows a British soldier named Tom as he leaves home for service in the army, through his training, and on to D-Day. Throughout, Tom (a stand-in for any British soldier, or "Tommy") ruminates on his fate, imagining his death under enemy fire. The movie combines narrative footage with a diverse assortment of actual combat film — images of London burning during the Blitz, views from fighter planes as they strafe enemy ships, women at work manufacturing parachutes, war machinery being transported across England, new ships being launched, and glimpses of British troops landing at Normandy. The archival materials are fascinating, and the beautifully understated story is woven into them deftly, making a cohesive whole and giving it an authentic feel. It doesn’t show much of the actual invasion, but in this film the emphasis is on getting there, and on what every soldier must have been thinking along the way.

The Longest Day
If you want to become invested in the private lives and back stories of this film's characters, you'd better be quick about it. The Longest Day boasts an international all-star cast, which includes Richard Burton, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Red Buttons (?!), but the emphasis is not on character development or emotionally engaging sub-plots. Instead, this film, like many of the large-scale, star-studded war films of its time, is plotted more like a history book, presenting the Normandy invasion from the points of view of an array of characters on both sides, and including lots of historical tidbits along the way, such as the Allies' plan to drop firecracker-laden paratrooper dolls into France to confuse German troops or their use of clicking noisemakers to tell friend from foe. While at times it feels like "The Longest Film," it is nonetheless a generally satisfying overview of the invasion.

See also:
Remembering Pearl Harbor, Hollywood style
Remembering the Doolittle Raid, Hollywood-style


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