On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, in the largest sea-to-shore invasion in history. The liberation of France began with 24,000 British, U.S. and Canadian troops wading from amphibious vehicles just after midnight. By the end of the day, casualties on both sides would number in the thousands. Several movies would help cement the horrors of the battle generations later—men unloading from the backs of armored boats as German gunners sprayed bullets into the oncoming tide of soldiers.
The first film to try to recreate the battle, 1962’s The Longest Day, did so with nearly every minute of its three-hour runtime. Steven Spielberg would condense the horrors into a dizzying 15-minute opening scene in Saving Private Ryan more than five decades after the war.
Here, in chronological order, are five wonderful films inspired by the brave allied forces who risked or sacrificed their lives on D-Day:
1. The Longest Day (1962)
Director: Ken Annakin, Darryl F. Zanuck, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald
The most impressive of the multinational, star-studded WWII recreation epics to come out of Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s, The Longest Day—a hulking product of collaboration between no less than five filmmakers, approaching D-Day from the British, French, German and American sides—takes a sweeping yet thorough cross-section look at what happened in Normandy on June 6th, 1944, across land, sea and air. As Operation Overlord was a massive display of military might, so The Longest Day is a spectacle of the wealth and power of the ’60s studio system, and the reserves Hollywood kept for the war movie back when the genre was at the peak of its popularity. For the French-speaking portion of the film, there is an espionage mini-thriller and a thunderous Commando assault on a seaside town. For the English-speaking portion, the biggest stars money could then buy, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum, and a large-scale storming of Normandy’s beaches unrivaled in scope even by Saving Private Ryan’s feted opening scene. And for the German-speaking segments, a surprisingly even-handed (and occasionally even lighthearted) portrayal of ill-prepared officers, out-of-their-depth Luftwaffe and the ordinary soldiers who from that point on would be forever in retreat. —Brogan Morris
2. Overlord (1975)
Director: Stuart Cooper
How can something so meager possess such power? Dirty Dozen cast member-turned-writer/director Stuart Cooper fills the budget-necessitated holes of British WWII drama Overlord with copious archive footage, to tell the story of a Brit draftee named Tommy (what else?). Put through military training in preparation for D-Day, Tommy and his fellow soldiers suspect they’ll be killed almost instantly. Before his departure for Normandy, Tommy briefly woos a girl, only to be haunted by the possibilities were it not for a war he’s reluctant to fight. Bolstering the fiction filmmaking with documentary footage achieves some mesmerizing effect here—rather than cheapen the film by highlighting its budgetary shortcomings, the decision to include archival material retains a vital tie to the past. The film basically plays one sustained note about the death of innocence, but Cooper chooses the perfect chord. —Brogan Morris
3. The Big Red One (1980)
Director: Samuel Fuller
The Big Red One feels like the summation of all Sam Fuller took from his numerous careers. It has the eye for detail and human drama of a former journalist; the tough economy of an ex-pulp novelist; the casual ingenuity and resourcefulness of a B filmmaker of more than 30 years; and the been-there verisimilitude of a decorated WWII veteran. A collection of sensational war stories mixed in with Fuller’s own experiences as an infantryman for the 1st Infantry Division, The Big Red One is an intimate sort of epic, taking us from Africa to Italy, from France to Belgium, from Germany to Czechoslovakia, but always keeping the focus narrowed to Lee Marvin’s grizzled sergeant and his four most loyal dogfaces (including Mark Hamill and Robert Carradine, as Fuller’s stand-in). Observed alongside this bickering crew the absurdities of war don’t seem so harsh, their wry commentary keeping Fuller’s biting film surprisingly light—until a final sequence set at the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp finds Fuller confronting the horrors he personally witnessed with unvarnished emotion. —Brogan Morris
4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Despite its overwhelming scale, the economy of Saving Private Ryan is an astounding accomplishment of storytelling. Barely a year into founding Dreamworks—the studio he built with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, essentially allowing him free rein over his creative output—and cuffed by the relative disappointment of Amistad, Steven Spielberg created a nearly three-hour imagistic portrait of Europe in the waning weeks of World War II, all without once allowing the nightmarish breadth of the conflict to overtake the characters at its heart. Twenty years later, and the film’s opening 30-minute salvo, detailing in documentary-like grit the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, still stands as iconic war filmmaking, unflinching but so pristinely focused on the sheer weight of lives lost that it’s a stymying watch even if you know exactly what you’re getting into—even if you’ve seen it before. Within that initial stretch, brutal and breathless, we learn all we’ll ever need to know about the people who inhabit this literally foreign landscape, each character (played by such folks as Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi) presented with the precision of a master who’s discovered how best to balance all that historic weight. For us Millennials who first began to understand the extent of what our grandparents endured as we came of age (as we became the age our grandfather was when he left for war), Saving Private Ryan was an earth-shaking film from a director who’d already reared us on big, blown-out entertainment. For us and anyone else, the film is a near-perfect, heart-wrenching feat that must have been given, as was the film’s titular mission to Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), to Spielberg by fate itself. —Dom Sinacola
5. Storming Juno (2010)
Director: Tim Wolochatiuk
British and American soldiers weren’t the only troops who took the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Juno Beach was right in the middle of the seaborne invasion, and it was the responsibility of the Canadian Army. And the Canadian made-for-TV movie Storming Juno tells the harrowing stories of some of those young men. Alternating between grainy historical documentary footage and newly shot scenes, Tim Wolochatiuk’s 88-minute film follows paratroopers clearing the way behind enemy lines, infantrymen landing on the deadly beach and an amphibious tank launching to support the men on foot. The near constant narration, cuts between historical footage and dramatization and sometimes made-for-TV acting can be a distraction, but the gripping tales of valor make up for it. With bagpipes playing before the launch and Stanley Cup references for troop identification, this is Canada’s D-Day story and one that was key to D-Day and gaining a foothold in Europe. Of the 16,000 Canadian troops who landed on June 6, 1944, almost 1,000 were killed or wounded. But the force that stormed Juno beach made it further inland than any other allied force that day. The final third of the film is made up of remembrances from surviving soldiers who were on the beach that day—who watched all the other tanks from their ship sink with their crews or watched soldiers fall all around them—and that alone is reason to watch. As one soldier put it, “You either grew up that day or you didn’t grow up at all.” —Josh Jackson
Check out our list of the 100 Greatest War Movies of All Time.