06 June 2009

June 6, 1944, Has It Been 65 Years Already?

The joint U.S. British invasion of Normandy to liberate France and defeat Nazi Germany took place on this day 65 years ago. Most popularly known as D-Day. The day has taken on mythic proportions in U.S. culture. It represents the ultimate in American bravery and sacrifice and it came following months of planning that represented the finest in American ingenuity. The success of the invasion, and that victory came at such a costly price in human life has ingrained itself in the baby boomer's ethos.

Every year their are ceremonies, speeches, remembrances at Normandy beaches and nearby cemeteries, with the dwindling number of survivors on hand to remind us that the real heroes are the ones who lost their lives on that and subsequent days. News crews cover the day's events, dignitaries are there, new stories are revealed and contemporary footage and photos are shown.

The British and French are also full participants in ceremonies, but never to the degree that Americans and without the same reverence. U.S. soil was spared the horror of Nazi occupation that the French suffered and never had to endure the bombings of their cities as England did. American casualties during the whole war should never be minimized but they are a tiny drop in the ocean next to what their other allies, the Russians suffered.

In fact D-Day was not the epic slaughter that visited some of the battles on the Eastern Front and was hardly any more significant than the Russian victories at Stalingrad or Kurtz. Without those Russian victories, D-Day might never have taken place.

Still it was a crucial day. Failure of the invasion would have prolonged the war several more years with many more losing their lives in the bargain, Jews and other Nazi victims would have perished in even more frightening numbers.

American film has taken on the enormous but rewarding challenge of bringing that day to the big screen. The Longest Day (1962) was an ambitious effort to cover the immediate events leading to the invasion, the invasion itself and the immediate aftermath. Directors Ken Annakin and Andrew Morton (not exactly household names then or now) presented a nearly three hour epic featuring a who's who of Hollywood. Everyone from John Wayne to Richard Burton to Paul Anka to Red Buttons showed up.

The Longest Day stretched itself pretty thin with predictable results. A film made eight years later on the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) was much more successful at giving its overview of a famous day. It had the epic scope but was much better paced and focused.

By far the best depiction of the D-Day invasion itself is in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). The scenes on Omaha Beach are perhaps the best battle scenes on film. Ever.

In Saving Private Ryan audiences come as close to witnessing battle on screen as seems possible. Those are my words as a combination film and World War II buff. More importantly, actual participants in that battle and others corroborate this view.

There is blood and guts, and people dieing and drowning and burning and being maimed and crying. There is the look of the beach that day and the actors acting as the soldiers did. But there is also the noise. The sound of gunfire. It's not the phony baloney bullets and explosions sounds I grew up listening too. First of all its in stereo and seems to be all around. Most battles are not straight forward affairs but chaotic messes. Bullets flew from all directions and often ricocheted about. Soldiers often reveal that the sound of battle can stick with them as long as the images do. That is to say, forever.

In Saving Private Ryan as in actual battle, death can find the cowardly and the brave in equally arbitrary fashion. I've had students -- 13 year olds -- tell me that they'd never die while in battle. It is impossible to dissuade them of the notion that once in battle a person cannot entirely determine their fate. There is a certain degree of luck throughout life. In battle it plays a particularly prominent role.

Some of Saving Private Ryan's detractors acknowledge that the initial battle scenes on the beaches are great stuff but the film loses steam after that. Suffice it to say that I vehemently disagree. There is nothing terribly groundbreaking about the film again until the climatic battle scene which is another tour de force. But the middle of the movie should never be dismissed as ordinary fare.

While it seems a retread of previous films and TV shows about Americans in battle during WWII, it breathes fuller life into the relationships between soldiers, the vagaries of command at all levels and the price of one human life versus many. A platoon seeks to find and bring back alive one single soldier simply because all of his brothers have already died in battle and the army hopes to spare the family any further tragedy. The man is the mission and there is thus inevitable resentment from those who see buddies die in pursuit of this one man.

There are also decisions to make, such as about a prisoner. Kill him or release him. No room for nuance. There is also time for contemplation, stories and confessions. Typical war film stuff but largely because it is typical war stuff. Here its all done particularly well.

Saving Private Ryan also features one of the most heart rendering battle deaths you'll ever see. I can barely stand to watch it anymore. A German soldier and an American one (who happens to be a Jew) are locked in mortal hand to hand combat. When the tide finally turns in their struggle, it is with a sense of compassion that the final death blow is delivered, while the loser tries to forestall the inevitable -- his death.

There is a bit of hokey sentimentally to the film's end and beginning but that perfectly fits with the place D-Day hold in the American pantheon.

The anniversary of D-Day is a time to reflect on heroes past without ambiguities. While there are a few who think U.S. participation was not necessary (one wonders how many more Jews and Russians and Poles and British would have died if we sat idly by) there is a strong consensus that if this was not exactly the "good war" fought by our "greatest generation" it was in fact a horrible job that had to be done. There was no annihilation of civilians that day. The enemy was a unquestionably led by an evil regime and our soldiers and commanders acted bravely and honorably.

It is well and good that Saving Private Ryan is Hollywood's way of honoring that day.

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