Representations of War in the Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan
Hollywood's depictions and interpretations of the events that transpired on D-Day have long captured the attention of audiences worldwide. Though Hollywood depictions of the events that occurred prior, during, and after the invasion of Normandy may vary, they still aim to convey a similar message, one that assures the evil forces in the world will be overthrown and the world will be a much safer place. The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan aim to present the events that lead up to the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in an artistic and creative fashion while attempting to maintain an air of realism. The approaches taken to depict the invasion of Normandy in The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan are a positive contribution to the combat film genre. Though creative licenses were taken in each film, the manner in which the events were presented was appropriate for the time in which each film was released. Aside from the dramatic subtexts of The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, both films are successfully able to provide effective cinematic portrayals of war that were appropriate for the time during which they were released.
On June 6, 1944, 160,000 allied troops landed along France's heavily guarded coastline with the goal of fighting Nazi troops on the beaches of Normandy.[footnoteRef:0] One of the targeted beaches featured in both The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan was Omaha. Omaha beach was the intended landing point for the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions of the United States' Armed Forces. Omaha beach was the only location where vehicles could be driven off the beach and was thereby prompting Captain Scott-Bowden to warn General Bradley about Omaha's potential as a formidable place of attack.[footnoteRef:1] Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Marshall, assessing the vulnerability of the beach, ordered the construction of what would be considered the "most fearsome" underwater obstacles. These obstacles included staked mines, hedgehogs made out of steel girders, and "Belgian Gates."[footnoteRef:2] The attack on Omaha beach was to be undertaken from a variety of tactical approaches. The terrestrial attack on Omaha was to be preceded by "massive aerial and naval bombardment."[footnoteRef:3] Military commanders believed that an aerial and naval bombardment would help to achieve tactical surprise and overwhelm Nazi defenders. Contrary to the commanders' beliefs, this tactical approach did little to help them with their attack on Omaha. En route to their beach landing, Scott-Bowden and his crew were informed that 329 heavy American bombers were coming in from behind them. Unfortunately, and to their dismay, Scott-Bowden and his crew noticed that the bombs were being dropped well beyond the top of the ridge and not impacting their desired targets. Anthony Beevor notes in D-Day: The Battle for Normandy that in the "thirty minutes preceding H-Hour, the Liberators and Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force dropped 13,000 bombs, but none fell on Omaha beach."[footnoteRef:4] Though the invasion on Normandy was considered to be successful and allowed for more than 100,000 troops to gain entry into Europe on their quest to defeat Hitler and his regime, more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded by the end of the day on June 6, 1944. [footnoteRef:5] [0: D-Day: June 6, 1944, http://www.army.mil/d-day / (accessed May 23, 2011).] [1: Anthony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 88.] [2: Ibid.] [3: Ibid, 89.] [4: Ibid, 91.] [5: D-Day: June 6, 1944, http://www.army.mil/d-day / (accessed May 23, 2011).]
The events leading up to the invasion of Normandy provide the backdrop for The Longest Day.[footnoteRef:6] The narrative in The Longest Day is presented from three distinct perspectives; each perspective and related vignette is subsequently directed by a different individual. The Longest Day presents the events that took place proceeding the invasion of Normandy and the preparations and considerations that were taken by the Allied and Axis forces. Credited directors Ken Annakin and Andrew Marton directed the British and French vignettes and exteriors and the American vignette and exteriors, respectively. Berhnard Wicki directed the German vignettes in the film. The film begins with depictions of the preparations that were undertaken by the Allied forces including tactical plans, communications with other Allied forces including communications between the French Liberation Army. The Allied forces and commanders are depicted as strong willed men of sound mind who are intelligent and cunning. The Axis forces and commanders are, at times, depicted as bumbling fools. In order for Darryl Zanuck, the film's producer, to ascertain a level of authenticity, he employed several D-Day veterans from both sides of the war to consult on the film's technical and narrative aspects. Furthermore, he employed NATO resources and a barrage of well-known actors to propagate the story.[footnoteRef:7] NATO resources that were incorporated into the film included ships, planes, trucks, and tanks. The French government and armed forces also gave access to and lent Zanuck 2,000 French soldiers, an incredibly self-sacrificial gesture on the French's behalf as they were embroiled in the conflict in Algiers at that time.[footnoteRef:8] Zanuck also received support from the United States Pentagon. The availability of men and resources, with the incorporation of veritable army and navy resources, helped to give The Longest Day a documentary feel. [6: The Longest Day, directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki, 20th Century Fox, 1962.] [7: Joseph Roquemore, History Goes to the Movies: A Viewer's Guid to the Best (and Some of the Worst) Historical Films Ever Made (New York: Main Street Books, 1999), 205.] [8: Robert Brent Toplin, "Hollywood's D-Day From the Perspective of the 1960s and the 1990s: "The Longest Day" and "Saving Private Ryan," Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film, Spring 2006: 25-29.]
In addition to representing the events that occurred on D-Day, The Longest Day was an allegorical undertone that was representative of current world issues. In 1962, the United States was on the verge of the Cold War with Russia. The Longest Day helped to demonstrate the value of unity in order to defeat a common enemy.[footnoteRef:9] [9: Ibid.]
The Longest Day was subject to heavy criticism after its release in 1962. The film was criticized for not depicting the heavy casualties and massacres that were witnessed during the invasion of Normandy. Combat film has been regarded as a visual document that gives the viewer a "powerful sense of immediacy and connection to the past."[footnoteRef:10] It has been suggested that combat actuality films are more valuable to historians than first-hand written accounts as these filmed events are presented without bias and offer an unmediated and unaltered view of the past.[footnoteRef:11] Combat, as depicted in feature films, allows an audience to "indulge in the horrors and excitement of war voyeuristically," and allows the audience to make a conscious distinction between the horrors depicted and the horrors that occurred.[footnoteRef:12] Toby Haggith contends that "feature films give the impression that soldiers are constantly in combat" and do not provide insight into the individuals' lives when they are not at war.[footnoteRef:13] Though it could be argued that The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan provide insight to the events leading up to, and the events that occur after the invasion of Normandy, the truth of the matter is that the sole raison-d'etre for the making of these films is to show the many aspects of war, whether it be the preparation necessary to launch a full scale invasion, or the risks endured while on a search-and-rescue mission. [10: Toby Haggith, "D-Day Filming: For Real, A Comparison of 'Truth' and 'Reality' in "Saving Private Ryan" and Combat Film by the British Army's Film and Photgraphic Unit," Film History, 2002.] [11: Ibid.] [12: Toby Haggith, "D-Day Filming: For Real, A Comparison of 'Truth' and 'Reality' in "Saving Private Ryan" and Combat Film by the British Army's Film and Photgraphic Unit," Film History, (2002).] [13: Ibid]
The Longest Day, like many films of the time, was subjected to self-censorship and did not depict the true horrors of war. Self-censorship was not only restricted to Hollywood films, but there is evidence to suggest that documentaries filmed on the beaches of Normandy during the invasion were also subjected to self-censorship by those filming the events. A reviewer for Time, upon viewing the film, wrote that "Zanuck shamelessly sugars his bullets -- men die by thousands, but not one living wound, not one believable drop of blood is seen on the screen."[footnoteRef:14] [14: Robert Brent Toplin, "Hollywood's D-Day From the Perspective of the 1960s and the 1990s: "The Longest Day" and "Saving Private Ryan," Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film, (Spring 2006), 25-29.]
Unlike The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan freely depicted the horrors of war. The first 26 minutes of the film may be considered some of the most memorable scenes in Hollywood history and vividly and violently depicts the horror encountered by soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Saving Private Ryan tells of Captain John H. Miller and…