Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Day of Days": The Depiction of D-Day on Film


               In honor of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, I would like to inform my readers of some options for cinematic takes on the famous invasion.  Surprisingly, there are not that many options for this topic.  The movies that use Operation Overlord either as the subject or the setting vary wildly in quality.  There are several great ones and several embarrassments.  Before revealing my list and rankings, allow me to get specific about one of the better ones. 

 

                In 2001, HBO premiered a miniseries based on the bestseller by Stephen Ambrose.  “Band of Brothers” chronicled the history of Easy Company, 516th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne from training through Normandy to the end of the war in Europe.  Episode 2 entitled “Day of Days” dealt with D-Day.  It was directed by Richard Loncraine (“The Gathering Storm”) and written by John Orloff (who received an Emmy nomination).  The episode follows Lt. Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) through the night and first day of the invasion.  Winters is in command of a “stick” of ten paratroopers that cross the English Channel on a C-47.  The interior is an actual C-47 and the close-ups on the men’s faces are just as authentic.  You see the variety of emotions and little idiosyncracies of men about to face the elephant for the first time.  Although Winters has never been in combat, his cool and inspiring demeanor evidence a great leader in the making. 


Go into comabt with this man.
                The convoy of C-47s come under hellacious anti-aircraft fire.  This is the first time the mini-series gets to show off the production values that made it the most  expensive mini-series of all time (until its sister series “The Pacific” came out).  The CGI is excellent and the sound effects are awesome.  It is a chaotic scene with plenty of fireworks.  One thing about the series, it really rewards repeat viewings as the characters tend to get lost in the fog (and darkness in this case) of war.  Once you can identify the multitude of Easy members, you can recognize their roles in the invasion.  When Winters’ plane takes flak, the pilot panics and green-lights the drop before the drop zone is reached.  Winter’s jump is shown in the now iconic POV.  Upon landing, he hooks up with a PFC Hall (played by Andrew Scott, later Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty).  When Hall comments that they are lost, Winters counters:  “We are not lost, we’re in Normandy”.  Given the confusion of the paratrooper landings, that was a pretty bold assumption.

                Winters and Hall encounter other paratroopers, some of whom are from the 82nd Airborne.  They ambush a German supply wagon in a culvert and we get the first look at the kinetic violence that marks the miniseries.  A theme is established as “Wild Bill” Guarnere (Frank John Hughes) questions Winters’ leadership abilities.  When Winters’ little group links up with a larger unit, Malarkey (Scott Grimes playing the Easy Company member who spent the most time in combat of the entire company) talks with a fellow Oregonian who was in the German army and is now a POW.  Subsequently, the legendary Lt. Speirs (Matthew Settle) prisoner incident occurs.

                Even though Easy Company is scattered all over the country, there is enough of a core group to be given a key mission.  Winters’ job is to take out a battery of 105s that threaten the Utah Beach egress.  He sketches out the plan for his men and the audience.  The reenactment of what is known as the Brecourt Manor Assault is depicted in the style that the miniseries is famous for.  It builds on the “Saving Private Ryan” cinematography.  This features lots of hand-held with an emphasis on close-ups.  We follow Winters as he leads the assault.  The miniseries proudly eschews clichés by putting Sgt. Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) up a tree without the usual results.  The action is frenetic and the deaths are realistically random.  Soldiers make mistakes and do foolish things.  Once again the sound effects are a standout.  


Warning:  If this man offers you a cigarette,
do not accept it!

                By the end of the day, Winters has earned the respect of his men (in particular, Guarnere) and has suffered his first lost men.  They won’t be the last and one great thing about the rest of the miniseries is the suspense of who will survive.  The episode concludes with narration by Winters.  He dreams of a quiet, peaceful life after the war.  A post script informs the viewers that several members of Easy Company were awarded medals for the Brecourt Manor Assault.  Winters was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross.

"Hey fellas, someday Coach Hardy's class will study
this action" 
                There have been attempts to depict the role of the airborne forces during D-Day and they have been hit or miss.  “The Longest Day” spends a lot of time with them and those scenes are outstanding, but you also have drivel like “Pathfinders:  In the Company of Strangers”.  “Day of Days” is the best that has been done.  Unlike the bigger picture approach of “The Longest Day”, it gives a more micro view of one officer.  It also is more modernly realistic in its combat.  If you pair the paratrooper sections of the first with the second, you have as complete a tutorial of the paratroopers’ experiences as you can expect from cinema.

                If I may get personal, I have to admit I have a strong affinity for “Band of Brothers” in general and this episode in particular.  I read Ambrose’s book long before the mini-series was a gleam in Tom Hanks’ eyes.  When the mini-series was publicized I got a subscription to HBO just so I could watch it.  (This was right around the time HBO was going big on prestige mini-series, so that worked out well for me.)  Back in the good old days when I was teaching my History of Warfare course, I showed most of the episodes.  I used “Day of Days” to teach small unit tactics by using the Brecourt Manor Assault sequence.  By the way, so does West Point. 

                Obviously, “Day of Days” is a must see for anyone wanting to honor the memory of D-Day.  Here is my ranking of movies that cover D-Day in one way or another.

1.        "The Longest Day" (1962)  – This is the granddaddy of the battle epics.  It covers the entire invasion from both the Allied and German perspectives.  The cast is all-star and the scope is breathtaking.  All of the key facts about Operation Overlord are covered in an educational but entertaining way.  The only drawback is the dated special effects and combat, but the lack of graphic violence does not detract from its relevance to a modern audience or its entertainment value.  As proof of this, it won my 2013 March Madness Tournament to determine the best WWII combat film.  It is the best film ever made about D-Day.  Grade =  A+ 

2.        Band of Brothers “Day of Days” -  Technically not a movie, but certainly belongs on this list.  Each episode of BoB was almost like a mini-movie.  Although  small scale in scope, it does cover actual paratroopers and one of the critical actions on the first day.   Grade =  A+

3.        "Saving Private Ryan" ((1998)  -  SPR brought D-Day to modern audiences in a big way. It is a fictional tale of a squad of Rangers sent to rescue the last survivor of four brothers.  The opening scene on Omaha Beach is the greatest combat scene ever filmed and has spawned the recent hyperrealistic renderings of combat in films like “Band of Brothers”.  The rest of the film has come under criticism for its Spielbergian plot devices which brought in huge audiences, but polarized the war movie lovers community.  Despite the schmaltzy moments and head scratching implausibilities (and a central character who is a moron tactically), the movie is still outstanding.  By the way, although Ryan is a paratrooper, the movie is not about paratroopers.  Grade =  A

4.       “Thirty Six Hours” – This is an espionage thriller with the intriguing premise that the German kidnap an American staff officer who has knowledge of the invasion plans.  A German doctor sets up an elaborate scheme to trick him into spilling the beans.  Oh, and there’s a babe and an evil Nazi involved.  Obviously not based on historical fact, but still a lot of fun until it gets silly towards the end.  Grade  =  B

5.      "The Americanization of Emily" (1964)    -  This farce is set during the lead up to the invasion.  The aide to an addled admiral is tabbed with documenting the death of a sailor as the first American to die on the D-Day beaches so the Navy can score a publicity coup.  Problem is the aide (who is the stereotyped movie scrounger) is a practicing coward and does not want to be near any flying ordnance.  Emily is the British widow of a war hero who falls for him in spite of his avowed survivalism.  It’s meant to be scathing satire, but it is not very funny, has a repugnant main character, an implausible romance, and does not have the courage of its convictions.  Grade  =  C

6.       "D-Day - the Sixth of June" (1956)  -  This is a love triangle set in England before the invasion.  It does culminate in a Pointe du Hoc type assault, but that is the little action that occurs and it is not worth the wait.  The rest of the movie is boring with lots of talking and schmaltzy romancing.  Grade = D

7.       "Overlord" (1975)  -  This is a low budget movie about a British soldier from boot camp through landing in Normandy.  There is a large quantity of actual footage blended into the story, but much of it is unrelated to the plot (WWII documentary viewers will be very distracted).  Some critics were kind to the movie, but in reality it is terrible.  Grade = F

8.       "Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers" (2011)  -  D-Day could use a good movie about the Pathfinders who helped prepare the way for the airborne invasion – this movie is not that movie.  It is absolutely terrible.  It looks like it was filmed by a third grader with ADHD using an old camcorder he found in the attic.  The actors are his grown up classmates playing soldier in the back yard.  Grade =  F- 

I suggest honoring the men who made D-Day a success by watching one of the better movies.  If you watch the "Band of Brothers" episode, please keep in mind that of the main characters, only Donald Malarkey is still alive.  The Greatest Generation" is passing on and we will not see the likes of it ever again. 

 
HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD:  “Day of Days” (BoB episode 2)

Which of the following incidents depicted in the episode are historically accurate and which are Hollywood inventions?

1.       Winters’ C-47 was taking anti-aircraft fire so the pilot turned on the green light early.

2.       Winters landed without a weapon other than his knife.  He was joined by a stranger named Hall.  They met up with other paratroopers as they moved.  They were all far from where they were supposed to land.

3.       Winters’ group ambushed a German supply wagon in a culvert and Guarnere opened fire prematurely because he wanted revenge for the recent death of his brother at Monte Cassino.  The Germans and the horses were dispatched with extreme force.

4.       Lt. Speirs offers some German prisoners (one of whom was an American who fellow-Oregonian Malarkey had previously been talking to) cigarettes and then machine guns them.

5.       Winters is assigned the task of eliminating a battery of 105 howitzers  that were threatening the causeways leading out of Utah Beach.

6.       Winters uses the German trench system to take each of the guns and spike them using C-4 and grenades.

7.       “Pop” is wounded in the ass, Compton drops a grenade, Lipton climbs a tree,  Compton hits a fleeing German in the back with a grenade,  Malarkey risks his life for a Luger, and Hall is killed randomly.

8.       Winters finds a valuable map in a German dugout that pinpoints German artillery and machine gun positions in the area.

9.       Speirs leads the assault on the final gun in a Rambo sort of way.

10.     Winters takes his first drink of liquor that night.

Here are the answers.
 
1.        Winters’ C-47 was taking anti-aircraft fire so the pilot turned on the green light early.  History  To tell the truth, the episode lays the anti-aircraft fire and the results on a bit thick, but the effects are so spectacular who cares?

2.       Winters landed without a weapon other than his knife.  He was joined by a stranger named Hall.  They met up with other paratroopers as they moved.  They were all far from where they were supposed to land.  Histywood  Winters did lose his M-1 on the drop.  He, like most paratroopers, landed far off target.  He met up with other men, but Halls (Hall in the episode) was not one of them.

3.        Winters’ group ambushed a German supply wagon in a culvert and Guarnere opened fire prematurely because he wanted revenge for the recent death of his brother at Monte Cassino.  The Germans and the horses were dispatched with extreme force.  Histywood  It was actually four wagons and some of the Germans escaped.  The Germans were in open ground, hence the escapes.  The American force was much larger and Guarnere was not near the front so did not open the engagement.  He had lost a brother recently at Casino.  (This incident did accurately reflect the German reliance on horse-drawn transportation.)

4.       Lt. Speirs offers some German prisoners (one of whom was an American who fellow-Oregonian Malarkey had previously been talking to) cigarettes and then machine guns them.  Histywood  The incident was believed to be true by members of Easy Company, but there is no proof that it happened.  Generally speaking, paratroopers were at least encouraged (if not ordered) to not take prisoners.  It would have been likely that a man like Speirs would not have burdened himself with any German that raised his hands that day.  However, it is highly unlikely that any officer would have executed prisoners under the circumstances depicted in the show (men who had already safely surrendered and were in an occupied zone).  My opinion is that the “legend” grew out of the actual shooting by Speirs of some hand raising Germans during action that night which would have made taking prisoners impractical.  The story got ballooned from there (as the mini-series implies with humor).  Contrast this with Capt. Miller’s ridiculous decision in SPR to set free the German prisoner at the radar station.  As far as Malarkey’s fellow state-mate, the meeting did happen but not in connection with the alleged execution.  The conversation was almost verbatim, but the German-American was from Portland, not Eugene.  

5.       Winters is assigned the task of eliminating a battery of 105 howitzers that were threatening the causeways leading out of Utah Beach.  History

6.       Winters uses the German trench system to take each of the guns and spike them using C-4 and grenades.  History  Not surprisingly, the actual action took three hours, not fifteen Hollywood minutes.  Other than that, the depiction is astoundingly accurate.

7.       “Pop” is wounded in the ass, Compton drops a grenade,  Lipton climbs a tree,  Compton hits a feeling German in the back with a grenade,  Malarkey risks his life for a Luger, and Hall is killed randomly.  History  Virtually every little incident actually happened.  One little caveat -  Winters did not have a personal connection to Halls.

8.       Winters finds a valuable map in a German dugout that pinpoints German artillery and machine gun positions in the area.  History  And he did turn the map over to Nixon.

9.       Speirs leads the assault on the final gun in a Rambo sort of way.  History  As shown, he left the trench to make the assault.  I am a big fan, but Speirs' tactics probably cost the lives of two of his men.
 
10.     Winters takes his first drink of liquor that night.  History  And Winters was not a Quaker (as Guarnere had posited), but was a strait-laced Mennonite.

 
RATING  =  .85

An 85% rating for accuracy is extremely high and indicates that this episode of “Band of Brothers” is the most accurate rendering of D-Day yet.

 
the Brecourt Manor Assault

 

8 comments:

  1. thanks for providing the list, I have not seen several of those movies, since I am waiting until I cover the landings. Liked you, I loved Band of Brothers, but I am not a fan of SPR, for the reasons you mentioned basically. Would the Big Red One also fit on the list? It has that scene on Omaha Beach with the Bangalore mines, although it does not actually spend much time on D-Day.

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  2. I considered BR1, but as you say, it spends only one scene on D-Day. I do not feel it can be classified as a D-Day movie.

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  3. I watched some interviews with RAF pilots yesterday. It was quite moving, alos because it was obvious those gusy wouldn't be around for the 80th anymore. We should have travelled to Normandy. The planes were quite impressive. Anyway - There are a few movies on your list I haven't watched so I might have some catching up to do.
    I'd like to re-watch BoB. It still is one of my favourites.

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  4. the war movie buffJune 7, 2014 at 7:59 AM

    They are going fast. As I mentioned, only Malarkey (of the main characters) is still alive. In the last two years Compton and Guarnere passed away. Winters died about three years ago as I recall.

    I've been meaning to rewatch it as I am trying to work my way through the various mini-series. I have already reviewed (but not posted) The Pacific, The Winds of War, and Piece of Cake.

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  5. Great write up - I too got caught up in the passion as I watched BoB starting last week and then restarted it again this AM. I also love SPR - it is a good movie and I thinks folks are way too critical of it - movies are made to entertain and depending on the director, will get some varying degree of accuracy. Bat the end of the day, their prime directive is to entertain - not to document. If people want pure accuracy, then documentaries are your pick.

    I agree that the generation that fought in WW2 are sadly leaving this Earth. They were a great bunch but I do think we can see another like them again but probably not in our lifetime - which is maybe what you meant...

    In honor of Easy Company - CURAHEE

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    1. LOL - horrible typist - I meant to say...

      I agree that the generation that fought in WW2 that are sadly leaving this Earth were a great bunch - one of the best - but I do think...

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  6. Just to make a factual correction to your fact checks:

    #3) You are correct. The director changed the staging of the scene to make it as it appears. It was originally written as you wrote, which is actually not the complete truth either. Only years after the mini-series did Guarnere tell me what really happened that night.

    #4) History. It happened, though the man from Eugene Oregon was not there in reality.

    In term of Hall/Halls, Winters remembered his name as Hall, hence his name is Hall in the series (we didn't have a way to check it pre-internet). Winters DID know Halls from the 101st Basketball team.

    And thanks for acknowledging how accurate the battle scene is. It was very difficult to figure it out. I interviewed everyone that was involved and alive at the time (1999), and they all had slightly different stories. What you saw was what I figured out. I now see my version has become the official one on the internet, though there is some differences of opinion as to how the 4 gus are positioned.

    Best

    John Orloff, writer DAY OF DAYS

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    1. I have to apologize. I had responded to your comments promptly, but somehow it did not get posted. I greatly appreciate your responding to my post and am honored.

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