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D-Day movies
Photograph: Time Out

The 6 best D-Day movies to watch for the Allied landings anniversary

From ‘Overlord’ to ‘Saving Private Ryan’, the movies that tackle June 6, 1944 head one

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Eighty years ago this week, Allied forces hit the beaches of Normandy to begin the invasion of Western Europe. Cinema has thrown all its resources at recreating its epic scale, historical significance and individual heroism over the ensuing decades, with Hollywood employing a ‘go big or go home’ ethos to depictions like The Longest Day and, of course, Saving Private Ryan. But there’s been other, more reflective films about that violent day on the French coast. Here’s a few to check out to mark this year’s big anniversary.   

What are the best D-Day movies?

Saving Private Ryan
Photograph: DreamWorks Pictures

1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The D-Day movie to watch, not least for being the film that changed the grammar of war movies in one extraordinarily visceral opening 24-minute scene. Steven Spielberg’s shakycam depiction of the slaughter on Omaha Beach, with Janusz Kamiński’s desaturated cinematography mirroring Robert Capa’s famous photographs of the battle, plunges you right into the maelstrom of D-Day’s fiercest fighting. It’s as close as you’ll get to understanding what ‘hitting the beaches’ was really like, as the German defenders fire down from bunkers on horrifically exposed G.I.s inching up the sand. Somehow Tom Hanks and his squad of US Rangers make it off intact, but 2,400 others weren’t so lucky. 

Photograph: IWM

2. Overlord (1975)

Something akin to the British New Wave crashes onto the Normandy beaches in this naturalistic, Tommy’s-eye view of the build-up to the D-Day landings from director and one-time Dirty Dozen cast member Stuart Cooper. It follows a young British Army conscript, Tom (Brian Stirner), from basic training to the beaches of D-Day, lingering longest and most poignantly on the anxious wait to go into action, saying goodbye to his sweetheart and girding himself for the dangers ahead. A downbeat, sombre docudrama, it’s an insightful view of soldiers’ experiences, enhanced with footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archives. 

The Longest Day
Photograph: 20th Century Studios

3. The Longest Day (1962) 

Hollywood introduced conscription for an old-school recreation of the D-Day landings so vast in scale, it required no less than three directors (Ken Annakin and Andrew Marton, with Bernhard Wicki doing the German bits). Every movie star worth their salt was required to stiffen their lips, don khaki and report to the set for a whopper recreation of June 6, 1944, that gave its big hero moment to John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum. Richard Burton, Sean Connery and real-life D-Day veteran Robert Todd help keep the British end up. Shot in moody black-and-white, and with Beethoven’s 5th lending a grandeur it hardly needs, it’s where to start your D-Day viewing. 

D-Day the Sixth of June
Photograph: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy

4. D-Day the Sixth of June (1956)

British acting legend Richard Todd was a D-Day war hero in his own right. He landed with the airborne forces at Pegasus Bridge on the eve of the invasion, a battle he recreated in a meta touch in 1962’s The Longest Day, playing the commanding officer, Major John Howard, he actually fought with on the night. This boy’s own war flick, which came only a decade after the conflict, casts him as a fictional commando embarking on a mission to take out Nazi guns ahead of the invasion. He’s one of a few military men in love with a brigadier’s daughter (Dana Wynter). It’s a far cry from the gritty realism of later films but still touches on the trauma of combat and the perils of the vast operation.

The Great Escaper
Photograph: ROB YOUNGSON/Pathé

5. The Great Escaper (2023)

British acting legends Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson unite for a drama about a D-Day veteran desperately trying to make it to Normandy for the 70th anniversary commemorations and the wily wife who helps him sneak out of their nursing home. It’s based on a true story and offers a lovely, elegiac perspective on veterans’ relationship with the past and their long-buried traumas. It flashes back to the D-Day experiences of Caine’s character, a sailor on a landing boat, and brings a vivid female perspective on the war from the wonderful Jackson in her last performance. If you don’t fancy the carnage of Saving Private Ryan, give this one a spin. 

The Big Red One
Photograph: BFI

6. The Big Red One (1980)

Director Sam Fuller landed in Normandy as a G.I. in June 1944 so he had a fair idea of what combat on the beaches of France was like. His time with the US 1st Infantry Division (aka ‘the Big Red One’) informs a combat epic that acts as a kind of staging post between the bloodless 1950s and ’60s war flicks and the gory verisimilitude of Saving Private Ryan to come, with some fairly gritty depictions of the fighting. Lee Marvin, a sniper in the war, plays a grizzled sergeant leading his men, including the newly enshrined Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, from North Africa to Nazi Germany, via Omaha Beach.

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