10 great films set on D-day

On the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, here’s our guide to the cinematic incarnations of D-day.

6 June 2019

By Neil Mitchell

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

It’s now 75 years since the allied forces launched Operation Overlord against the occupying German army in France, an event that came to mark the beginning of the end of the Second World War. On 6 June 1944, more than 5,000 ships and landing craft made the journey across the Channel to Normandy carrying nearly 160,000 allied soldiers in the largest armada ever assembled. These massed soldiers were joined by around 23,000 allied airborne troops on D-day, all with the mission to establish beachheads, capture the city of Caen and, ultimately, liberate France from Nazi rule.

It’s unsurprising that this momentous, bloody and crucial invasion has been the theme for a number of war films over the decades. The sheer scale of the operation lends itself to the cinematic form, with individual tales of heroism and determination being rich material for more intimate portraits of those involved in the allied landings. In terms of genre, tone and style, films with a D-day theme have been diverse, as the action-oriented Screaming Eagles (Charles F. Hass, 1956), pre-D-day spy drama Eye of the Needle (Richard Marquand, 1981) and war-horror hybrid Overlord (Julius Avery, 2018) exemplify. Epic battle films, tense pre-invasion thrillers and bruising post-invasion dramas have all – alongside countless made-for-television documentaries and docu-dramas – recreated, represented and analysed the planning, execution and aftermath of the events of D-day. In these films, heroism and self-sacrifice rub shoulders with fear, tragedy and, occasionally, a strong anti-war message. To mark the 75th anniversary, here are 10 great D-day films.

Red Ball Express (1952)

Director: Budd Boetticher

Red Ball Express (1952)

Commencing after D-day, Budd Boetticher’s Red Ball Express is a tense depiction of the kinds of operations that the allied invasion of Normandy enabled. With General Patton’s advancing Third Army running dangerously low on gas and supplies, a military truck route is set up for the ad-hoc, titular truck convoy to replenish and refuel the troops and vehicles. Red Ball Express focuses on one racially integrated platoon whose interpersonal grievances are as threatening to morale as the missions they carry out are to their lives. Starring Jeff Chandler as Lt Chick Campbell and Sidney Poitier as his truck partner, Cpl Andrew Robertson, Red Ball Express drew justified criticism for its historical inaccuracies. In reality, close to 75% of the Red Ball Express drivers were African Americans thought of as ‘expendable’, a far cry from the on-screen demographic and their heroic portrayal in the film. Despite this, Boetticher’s film does effectively capture the perilous nature of the Red Ball Express.

D-day the Sixth of June (1956)

Director: Henry Koster

D-Day the Sixth of June (1956)

Flitting between D-day itself and lengthy flashback sequences covering the period after the Americans joined the allied war effort, Henry Koster’s war drama revolves around a love triangle both enabled and dictated by World War II. Based on war correspondent and writer Lionel Shapiro’s 1955 novel, The Sixth of June, Koster’s engrossing adaptation sees British subaltern Valerie Russell (Dana Wynter) fall in love with married American Capt Brad Parker (Robert Taylor) while Russell’s hitherto beau, Lt Col John Wynter (played by D-day veteran Richard Todd), is posted in Africa. Finding themselves both aboard an advance ship carrying the first soldiers to land on the Normandy beaches, Wynter and Parker both reminisce about their respective relationships with Russell. Featuring an impressively convincing D-day landing sequence shot with only two landing craft, 80 extras and canny use of a back-projection screen, D-day the Sixth of June reaches a tragic conclusion that leaves the love triangle forever unresolved.

The Longest Day (1962)

Directors: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki

The Longest Day (1962)

The recipient of two Academy Awards, for cinematography and special effects, The Longest Day is an epic recreation of D-day, beginning in the immediate lead up to the invasion and ending as the allied troops advance inland into France from their newly established beachheads. Shot in a striking, monochrome docudrama style, with on-screen titles naming various figures and subtitles for the French and German led sequences, The Longest Day captures the invasion from the angles of all the participants. Primed and ready to go, the determination and courage showed by the allied forces is ably matched by the bravery of the French resistance as the invasion commences. The arrogance and misplaced air of invincibility displayed by the German high command is also portrayed as a contributing factor to the invasion’s success. Featuring several D-day veterans among its truly stellar, international ensemble cast, The Longest Day saw British actor Richard Todd sporting the actual beret he wore on 6.6.44.

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Director: Arthur Hiller

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

Loosely based on former Seabee officer and D-day veteran William Bradford Huie’s 1959 novel of the same name, Arthur Hiller’s The Americanization of Emily is a dark, sharp and scabrous anti-war movie. Adapted for the screen by Paddy Chayefsky, the source material’s serious tone is largely jettisoned in favour of satirical black comedy in a tale that makes the controversial case for cowardice being a virtue. Starring James Garner as Lieutenant Commander Charlie Madison, a roguish, cynical American aide to an unstable Rear Admiral, and Julie Andrews as Madison’s new lover, the outwardly priggish, English car-pool driver Emily Barham, the narrative plays out in London in the days leading up to the allied invasion of Europe. A culture-clash romance, a sideswipe at the disingenuous PR of war and an inquisition into loyalty, morality and honesty, it’s easy to see why both Garner and Andrews named the movie as the favourite of their respective careers.

Overlord (1975)

Director: Stuart Cooper

Overlord (1975)

Sombre, poetic and elegiac, American filmmaker, writer and actor Stuart Cooper’s 1975 black and white war drama, Overlord, is stylistically and tonally at odds with the majority of D-day themed films. Eschewing any hints of heroism, bombast or spectacle, Overlord instead explores the grim reality that for thousands of young men the allied invasion was to be a fait accompli ending in their deaths. With no star names in the cast, Cooper’s screenplay, co-written with Christopher Hudson, follows 20-year-old everyman Tom Beddows (Brian Stirner) from his call up into the East Yorkshire Regiment to his seemingly inexorable fate on Sword Beach. Seamlessly combining actual Second World War footage with contemporary sequences, and impeccably shot by regular Stanley Kubrick collaborator John Alcott, Overlord visualises Private Beddows’ premonitions of death and romantic reveries in a number of powerful and experimental sequences. Made with the assistance of The Imperial War Museum, Overlord deservedly won the Silver Bear at the 25th Berlin Film Festival.

The Big Red One (1980)

Director: Samuel Fuller

The Big Red One (1980)

Heavily cut by Lorimar on its original release but restored to its full 162-minute glory in 2004, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One manages to avoid falling into the trappings of many other ‘epic’ war movies. As the late Roger Ebert insightfully wrote in his review at the time: “‘A’ war movies are about war, but ‘B’ war movies are about soldiers,” and Fuller’s self-penned tale, based on the decorated WWII veteran’s own wartime experiences, is as hard-boiled as any of the B-movies that bare the director’s name. Fuller’s action-packed narrative follows Lee Marvin’s unnamed sergeant and his squad of soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division (the titular Big Red One) from the deserts of Africa to the battlefields of northern and central Europe. Fuller himself once stated that “The real glory of War is surviving,” and after watching the movie’s death-defying D-day scenes you’d be hard pushed to disagree with him.

Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Director: Jonathan Sanger

Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Both the first theatrical release produced by NBC and the directorial debut of hitherto producer Jonathan SangerCode Name: Emerald is a slow-burning, effective espionage drama set in Paris during the run-up to the allied invasion of Normandy. Sanger’s film forms part of the small sub-genre of D-day films that doesn’t focus on the invasion itself but is concerned with the allies’ determined efforts to keep the details of the invasion secret. Starring Ed Harris as Augustus ‘Gus’ Lang, a double agent working for the allies against the Nazis, who believe he is one of theirs, the film’s solid cast also includes Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart and a scene-stealing Helmut Berger as ruthless SS officer Ernst Ritter. When ‘Overlord’ signalman Andy Wheeler (Eric Stoltz) – one of the select people with foreknowledge of the D-day plans – is captured, Lang is sent deep undercover, charged with making sure Wheeler doesn’t talk by any means necessary.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Though only those who have experienced the heat of battle first hand can ever truly know how it feels, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – and in particular its opening 27-minute sequence – gave audiences as realistic a portrayal of the true horrors of war as yet committed to film. That opening sequence, depicting the Omaha Beach landings, cost $12 million and featured over 1,500 extras and is as technically dazzling as it is emotionally harrowing. A disorienting, shocking assault on the senses created with Academy Award winning sound design, sound editing, film editing and cinematography, the film’s opening sequence is a frenzy of noise, fear and catastrophic loss of life. For those that survived and made it off the beach, including Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller and his men, there was no respite. Pushing inland, Miller and his company battle against the odds to bring Private First Class James Ryan (Matt Damon) home. An unforgettably powerful, visceral and influential viewing experience.

Ike: Countdown to D-day (2004)

Director: Robert Harmon

Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004)

It’s a far cry from his days as Magnum P.I. for Tom Selleck in Robert Harmon’s made-for-television movie Ike: Countdown to D-day. Cast in the lead role as Dwight D. Eisenhower, popularly known by his nickname ‘Ike’, Selleck gives a suitably beefy, dominant performance as the commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). A D-day film devoid of any combat sequences, Harmon’s film instead focuses entirely on the inner workings of and decision making within SHAEF in preparation for the invasion. For Ike, part of his personal battle was effectively martialling the clashing personalities at the head of the RAF, Royal Navy and the ground forces, with the latter being under the command of the combative and eccentric Field Marshal Montgomery (Bruce Phillips). An intimate and riveting portrait of both Ike and the gargantuan planning that went into D-day – that he assumed overall responsibility for – Harmon’s film is a superior slice of small-screen viewing.

D-day 6.6.44. (2004)

Director: Richard Dale

D-Day 6.6.44. (2004)

Produced by the BBC in association with Dangerous Films to mark the then 60th anniversary of Operation Overlord, producer and director Richard Dale’s D-day 6.6.44 is a gripping dramatised documentary recounting the allied invasion of Normandy. Billed as being, “The dramatic story of ordinary people in extraordinary times,” Dale’s impressively detailed film, narrated by Ian Holm, combines actual footage from WWII and dramatised sequences that recounts acclaimed war photographer Robert Capa’s involvement in D-day among many other individual stories. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the docudrama is the talking head interviews from D-day veterans, as they afford the viewer the opportunity to hear the differing memories of those who experienced the invasion first hand. Alongside the testimony of various allied veterans and a French Resistance fighter, a number of former German military personnel also share their personal, painful recollections of D-day to give a well-rounded account of the invasion as experienced by all sides.

BFI Player logo

See something different

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free