Saving Private Ryan (1998)

A gruellingly realistic recreation

Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan was the US’s highest grossing film of 1998, netting a total of five Academy Awards, including the Best Director Oscar for Spielberg. More than 20 years later, it arguably still ranks as one of the most impressive war movies of all time.

The movie is remembered by many for its gruelling 23-minute sequence depicting the US landings on Omaha beach – by the far the bloodiest event of D-Day. Filmed in Ireland, the sight of machine guns raking down soldiers makes the viewer feel as though they too are under attack, and remains one of the most scarily realistic war scenes ever committed to camera.

The rest of the movie follows Captain John H Miller (Hanks) as he and his platoon comb the Normandy countryside in search of paratrooper Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). As the only surviving sibling out of four brothers – the other three already having been killed in the war – the authorities in Washington have ordered him to be brought back home to his mother as an act of kindness.

Unlikely as the plot seems, the movie is in fact inspired by the true story of the Niland brothers, four Irish-Americans from New York state. Two of the brothers were killed in Normandy on 6-7 June, while a third was thought to have died in Burma but had actually been taken prisoner and survived.

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The fourth brother, Fritz, also served in Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles”. Like Ryan, he was removed from action on compassionate grounds after being told of his brothers’ deaths. After the war he became a dentist and died in 1983.

Storming Juno (2010)

A spotlight on the Canadian story

Of the five beaches selected as the strike points for the D-Day landings, it is Juno – the focal point for Canadian forces – that often gets overlooked.

This fascinating docudrama redresses the balance somewhat. Blending interviews with Juno veterans alongside re-enactments of their deeds, the movie vividly conveys the fear, disappointment, tragedy and final triumph of the day.

The Canadians had more experience of seaborne landings than their US and British allies, having been the main force in the disastrous rehearsal for D-Day at Dieppe in August 1942, when – thanks to inept planning – they suffered 60 per cent casualties.

Fortunately, Juno had a happier ending. Although the first wave of the assault experienced nearly 50 per cent casualties, later waves successfully managed to push inland, cutting the Caen-Bayeux road and making deep advances.

Of the 21,400 troops who arrived on Juno beach on 6 June, remarkably, only 1,200 became casualties. This gripping movie tells the story of the Canadian soldiers who risked their lives that day.

The Longest Day (1962)

Still the definitive classic

Despite its age, this three-hour epic still remains the ultimate portrayal of D-Day on screen for many. Originally filmed in black and white, it was re-released in colour for the 50th anniversary of the landings in 1994.

Boasting a cast of thousands and no fewer than five directors of different nationalities, the two most important figures in creating The Longest Day were producer Darryl F Zanuck and author Cornelius Ryan, whose non-fiction book of the same name formed the basis of the screenplay.

Massively ambitious, and largely successfully, the movie covers almost all aspects of Operation Overlord in a series of fast-moving docudrama scenes, ranging from the initial planning in England to the actual invasion itself.

Working just a few years after the events depicted, Zanuck secured the services of real-life D-Day veterans such as actor Richard Todd, who had been dropped at Pegasus Bridge and was able to recreate his wartime actions on camera, albeit now playing the role of Major John Howard.

In fact, many of the battle scenes – such as the scaling of Pointe du Hoc by US Rangers, and the taking of Sainte-Mère-Église – were filmed in the locations they actually took place.

As a result, The Longest Day achieves a high level of authenticity, the excitement aided by a star-studded cast that includes John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger and Curd Jürgens. Upon its original release, it became a huge worldwide hit, winning two Oscars.

For many, the film’s standout moment is not the grandstanding of John Wayne, but the look of sheer astonishment on the face of German actor Gert Fröbe when, delivering coffee to his unit, he sees the invading forces advancing over the horizon.

Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004)

An intimate portrait of Eisenhower

Despite not showing any fighting, this 90-minute TV movie is a fascinating portrait of Operation Overlord’s most important figure: commander-in-chief (and future US president), Dwight D ‘Ike’ Eisenhower.

Filmed in New Zealand and starring Tom Selleck in the title role, the movie follows Ike from the moment he establishes the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in London, right through to the invasion itself.

Much of the drama is to be found in Ike’s relationship with British prime minister Winston Churchill, as well as his occasionally stormy clashes with subordinate generals, many of whom thought they would do a better job of running the show.

At the end of the day, though, “Ike” comes across as the quiet hero of the movie. A conciliator able to resolve explosive clashes between his warring colleagues, he is finally shown to be the leader the Allied forces needed, carrying out his responsibilities with dignity and honour.

Band of Brothers (2001)

A moving portrayal of comradeship

Just three years after Saving Private Ryan hit the big screen, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks teamed up once again as the executive producers of this HBO mini-series charting the story of ‘Easy’ company of the 506th Regiment, US 101st Airborne Division.

Starring British actor Damian Lewis as its central character, Major Richard ‘Dick’ Winters, the 10-episode series follows the company as its men undergo parachute jump training in Georgia and endure the events of D-Day, tracing their story right through to the conclusion of the war in Europe.

Costing $125 million (making it the most expensive television series ever made at the time), Band of Brothers was based on a popular non-fiction book by American military historian Stephen E Ambrose, who drew heavily on his interviews with survivors and memoirs written by real Easy company soldiers.

The television adaptation prided itself on authenticity, especially in its accurate depiction of the uniforms, weapons, aircraft and vehicles used. As before, veterans were closely involved in the project as historical advisors, with several of them even attending the premiere at the Utah Beach Memorial, close to the famous D-Day landing site.

While minor artistic liberties were taken for dramatic purposes, Band of Brothers was widely praised for showing the war as it really was. The record-breaking cost of the production was justified when it became a worldwide hit, scooping up numerous Emmys and a Golden Globe award.

D-Day is depicted in the second episode of the series, entitled ‘Day of Days’, in which Winters struggles to gather his men together after the company commander is killed and the paratroopers are dispersed over a wide area stretching far beyond their designated drop zone. The third episode goes on to deal with the strains of combat later in the Normandy campaign, as Easy company get caught up in the battle of Carentan.

Taking its title from a line in the king’s rousing battlefield speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Spielberg’s series is notable for its emphasis on the close bonds of comradeship forged by men under the extreme stresses and strains of war.

Nigel Jones is a historian, journalist and biographer.


This article was first published in the D-Day: 24 Hours That Saved the World bookazine