Always on 6 June, I have a feeling of gratitude to the more than 160,000 Allied troops that landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 (D-Day) and marked the beginning of the second phase of the liberation of Europe (after the landing in Sicily on 10 July 1943). As a German, I still find it embarrassing that my grandparents could not get rid of the Nazi tyranny themselves, but that soldiers from around the world had to muster their courage and many of them had to sacrifice their lives to allow my parents’ generation to grow up in a free, liberal and democratic Germany.
If you wish to commemorate this day, I recommend to find a veteran of World War II and celebrate with him or her. In the absence of such a veteran, you may at least want to watch a movie about D-Day. Here are my top three recommendations.
The classic: The Longest Day
The Longest Day from 1962 is the classic movie about D-Day, recounting the military action on both sides hour by hour. It is a massive production with an enormous line-up of stars.
Even though the film won several Oscars, by today’s standards the black and white The Longest Day is far less impressive. Because original colour footage of the landing in Normandy has been discovered in the meantime, I would actually recommend to go for that if you want to get a realistic impression.
The fictional: Saving Private Ryan
A much more harrowing account than in The Longest Day is given in the opening landing scene of Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Watching this opening scene is an exhausting, sickening, physical experience. I still remember that I saw it in its opening week at a cinema in New York and I had to fight with the girl who had accompanied me because she wanted to leave the cinema in the first 10 minutes into the movie. I myself was happy that I hadn’t had dinner yet.
Steven Spielberg made a very intense movie about D-Day. The colours that he used create the impression of watching an account filmed in 1944. The brutality of war displayed in this film makes it even harder to watch classics like The Longest Day with the same eyes. The latter seems like a modern version of a Western film, a sanitized depiction of real events.
The only weakness of Saving Private Ryan is its story. Private Ryan has lost three brothers in other battles of World War II and he is the only remaining son of his family. The US War Department decides to send a rescue mission to France to get him home before he will be killed.
The real deal: Band of Brothers
If you are looking for a good story, the director and the star of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, have teamed up to produce the ultimate movie about World War II with great characters, a great script and in the same old-style cinematography as Saving Private Ryan.
However, you will need a bit of time, as Band of Brothers was produced as a TV series of almost 12 hours. It is actually not only about D-Day, but follows one company of a US Parachute Infantry Regiment from their basic training in the USA, to the preparation for the landing in France, to D-Day, the liberation of Europe, including the most moving part about the liberation of a concentration camp until the end of World War II in the Bavarian Alps.
Because of the time available, Band of Brothers can develop the characters with much more depth than the other films. The series covers a time span of two years, with highs and lows in the Allied war efforts, with victories and retreats, with summer lulls and fierce winter battles. What I especially liked about Band of Brothers is that it takes the time to depict some battles in such a detail that one learns about the strategy and the tactics used. Very useful for some of us!
If I had to pick one of the above, I would not hesitate to choose Band of Brothers over the other two. If you have already seen all of the above, I recommend some alternative history with Inglourious Basterds.