For D Day: Some World War 2 Films of the Vietnam Era

Today is the anniversary of D Day. We hope we will ALWAYS be able to stir ourselves to celebrate a time when this nation rallied itself to defeat the forces of darkness in Europe, when those “Antifa Terrorists” Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt led the great democracies of the west in the necessary, bloody task of whipping Hitler and Mussolini. Few days make us feel more patriotic than this one, when the Nazis looked out their window, and said, “Oh, shit.” As the sky and sea and land grew dark with Allied planes and ships and tanks and troops relentlessly headed toward Berlin — to free innocent people from concentration camps, and break the chains that were enslaving some of the world’s great nations. Some of us are able to look at the tasks of the present moment with the same great clarity. Others seem confused by the lies and fog being emitted by a home grown mad man.

So…like a lot of middle aged men, I bask in fantasies of World War Two, as I have done since I was a child, for when I was a kid in the early ’70s, though Vietnam was raging, we didn’t play Vietnam games, but World War Two games. Because in World War Two, there were good guys and bad guys, and in Vietnam some were good and some were bad, and anyway, it was hard for a kid to know about it, because as far as anyone could tell, it wasn’t particularly happening, apart from one half of hour of television news each night. There was, like, one Vietnam movie, John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), a valiant but Quixotic attempt to rewrite history even as it was happening. Beyond this, most of the war movies of the time, interestingly, were about WWII. Big, sprawling, all-star, blockbuster epics, movies that seemed almost as big as the war itself.

The World War Two movie is of course an entire genre, and there are several phases and subgenres within it: ones made during the war, patriotic musicals, propaganda, stories about specific battles, post-war dramas, and ones containing the insights of of subsequent generations. But the ones of my own time have special meaning for me. I’ve developed an attachment to these lumbering cinematic lullabies. Most of them are clunky and stodgy, stubbornly and defiantly produced for an audience of older men at a time when most of the film industry was turning toward youth oriented films with fresher themes and aesthetics, like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Sometimes it seems like these films appeared at the time almost as a sort of counterrevolution. It is especially interesting, and surely no accident, that they popped up during the thick of Vietnam, as if to to say, “Well, the war on the six o’clock news is a bit of a shit show on every level. Here’s something not too long ago we actually did right!”

Sometimes it seems in these films that the all-star male casts were signing up to do these movies as though they were enlisting to fight in the war itself. Often actors who were quite important would suck it up and do their utmost in small, unrewarding roles, just to say they “did their bit”. Generally, the films will have no single protagonist. The main character is the battle itself. And someone who is usually a name-above-the-title will be introduced, have their little moment, and then vanish like a dust mote: “Staff Sergeant Hugh O’Halaran, Radio Operator Third Class” or whatever. I have a theory that they cast these roles with stars because often the character’s scenes are so brief and infrequent and chaotic that if you didn’t already know the faces you’d have trouble tracking the characters from scene to scene or shot to shot. It’s frequently a difficult job even with celebrities in the roles. A character might have an establishing scene a couple of minutes long in the first act of the film, and then 40 minutes later, after dozens of enervating plot developments, they’ll return for their big 10 minute climactic scene. And that’s it.

At any rate, here are some of the key ones. Any time they’re on television, I’m more than happy to have them on, hour after hour, like a patriotic yule log.

The Longest Day (1962)

Hollywood’s greatest D-Day testament pre-Private Ryan, is1962’s The Longest Day.

I had never heard of this somewhat strange movie until I came across it on TMC a few years ago. The most expensive black and white picture before Schindler’s List, it’s a careful retelling of the Normandy Invasion from the perspective of all sides, using American, English, French and German actors, the French and Germans speaking in their native tongues with subtitles (a technique later borrowed for films about the Pacific theatre like Midway (1976) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

Like How the West was Won, released that same year, the film boasts several directors and so many stars that it nearly makes itself ridiculous: not only top of the marquee talent like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, a pre-Bond Sean Connery, but also kitschy pseudo-stars like Roddy McDowall, Richard Beymer, Paul AnkaPeter LawfordRed ButtonsGeorge Segal, and Fabian. The seriousness of purpose combined with the odd hodgepodge of star presence is reminiscent of the We Are The World video, only with Nazis (one of whom is played by Curd Jurgens, better known for playing the title character in Goldfinger). So devoted to accuracy were the makers of the film that they included among their advisors a former German general. One wonders if he walked around the set in jodhpurs, wielding a riding crop? In any case, the ghost of DeMille was smiling on this well-meaning, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production. It’s an earnest tribute to one of America’s proudest days.

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

This one dramatizes Hitler’s last major push to stop the Allies, a move that took everyone by surprise, happening as it did quite late in the war, and when the Allies had a ton of momentum. Occurring as it did in did in the middle of winter, it made for an especially harsh experience for both sides. The all-star cast includes Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, George Montgomery, James McArthur (of Hawaii Five-O) and Charles Bronson (prior to his mega stardom), but for some reason I always remember Telly Savalas best. This three hour spectacle was released in widescreen Cinerama, and pretty much launched a vogue for these type movies, although Ike himself emerged from retirement in order to criticize its inaccuracies.

Battle of Britain (1969)

I only just discovered this one this past year, and was kind of shocked I hadn’t encountered it before. It was a U.S.-U.K.-West German production, but it starred like ALL of the top British actors of the day, giving it quite a different flavor from the Yank-centric ones I was more familiar with. Also, this one, as the title indicates is focused strictly on flyers: the RAF vs. the Luftwaffe. The to-die-for cast includes Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson, Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Ian McShane, Kenneth More, Edward Fox, Michael Redgrave, Barry Foster, Susannah York, and Kurd Jurgens. 

Patton (1970)

The genius of this smash hit (cowritten by Francis Ford Coppola) is that, by focusing on a rebellious iconoclast who served his country it appeals to more than one audience. A couple of years ago I came across a re-creation of George Patton’s actual speech to the troops and hoo boy is it a thing of both ugliness and beauty. I don’t know that I have ever read a more convincing motivational speech. It does the men the honor of being 100% truthful about the horror and the carnage and the animal they would have to unleash within themselves in order to achieve their necessary task. I’m sure I’ve never encountered another document that does the soldiers the courtesy of being this honest about war. So he had that virtue. And he hated bureaucrats and politicians and phonies, and who doesn’t love that? But then he slapped that guy (played by Tim Considine!). This one doesn’t have a ton of stars, just George C. Scott in his greatest role and Karl Malden as Bradley, who runs interference for him and smooths things over. And terrific battle scenes in North Africa, Italy, and the Battle of the Bulge.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

This one attempts to lay out the complicated story of Pearl Harbor in two hours and twenty minutes, from the fumbling of diplomats, politicians, and officers…to the scramble to defend American bases in the sneak attack…to the perspective of both sides, including that of the Japanese (hence the title). The Japanese scenes were written, directed, and cast with the top Japanese cinema talent of the day. The Americans are played by the likes of Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore, Jason Robards, Leon Ames, Edward Andrews, Neville Brand, and George Macready, The action sequences are some of the best for this type of movie, and this is a far superior movie to the later Pearl Harbor, which doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.

Midway (1976)

More of the same but more of it! This one depicting the point in the Pacific war when America finally turned the tables. The cast features Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, Christopher George, Edward Albert (Eddie Albert’s son), Pat Morita, Dabney Coleman, a pre CHiPs Erik Estrada, a young Tom Selleck, and Toshiro Mifune (whose voice is jarringly provided by Paul Frees. )

MacArthur (1976)

An attempt to follow up the success of Patton by telling the story of another problematic, controversial U.S. general. It feels a little perfunctory, almost like a TV movie but Gregory Peck does bring the star power and we love him, even if we’re not always crazy about the guy he’s playing. Ed Flanders, as he often did, plays MacArthur’s bete noir, Harry Truman. 

A Bridge Too Far (1977) 

I watched this one for the first time this year, and enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice in a row (which I often do with complicated stories — I’m often not tuned in enough in the early scenes). I like this one because it gives us the twist of a notable Allied failure, Operation Market Garden, a moment when Eisenhower (undoubtedly for political reasons) allowed Montgomery to have his head and lead a major operation. The idea was to make a rapid incursion into the Netherlands and take the Germans by surprise, by sending an advance cohort of paratroopers to take a series of bridges, allowing the rest of the troops to just roll down the road into Germany. Unfortunately, it was one of those operations where everything would have to go right in order for it to work. And nothing ever goes right. So this a movie about men behaving valiantly in a doomed experiment, and because of this it probably speaks more to Vietnam than any of these other films. (Note that it came out a few years after the Paris Peace Accords). William Goldman wrote the script and Richard Attenborough directed. The cast features Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Edward Fox, Elliot Gould (trying to act butch as a General, not too convincingly), Gene Hackman (as a Polish general!), Anthony Hopkins, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Denholm Elliott, Arthur Hill, John Ratzenburger (later of Cheers), Hardy Kruger, and Max Schell. 

After this, we begin to get into different eras with different outlooks, I think. Topics for a different day. Hats off today to the men and women who won World War Two.