Top Ten: D-Day Movies

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Alex Kershaw
May 11, 2024

With the 80th anniversary fast approaching next month, here’s my list of D-Day-related films. Although some feel pretty dated and at times are downright quirky, they’re all highly watchable and underline just how important a date 6 June 1944 was. As with my other lists, I’ve placed my favorite first. The others are highly recommended. Where possible, I’ve indicated how you can watch them.

1] The Longest Day [1962]

The unmistakable John Wayne.

I recently watched this three-hour epic again and enjoyed it more than ever. Based on Cornelius Ryan’s classic book, this is Hollywood with all guns blazing - with a true all-star cast including Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne, to mention but a few. Produced by the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck for 20th Century Fox, it was the most expensive black and white film ever made until Schindler’s List arrived in 1993. Historians will no doubt continue to nit-pick about accuracy, as they do with all movies based on real events, yet the film captures better than any other the epic scale of D-Day, thrusting us into monumental combat sequences a decade before CGI was first used. My only complaint is that Robert Mitchum, playing the 29th Infantry Division's legendary Norman Cota, gets to utter the famous words: “Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die.” In fact, those words, or rather words very similar, belonged to Colonel George A. Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment.  Best watched on a cross Channel ferry on your way to Normandy, so long as the seas are not rough.

Youtube, Apple TV, Amazon Prime

2] Saving Private Ryan [1998]

Heading for hell on Omaha Beach.

Readers may be surprised that I have not placed this at the top of my list. Needless to say, this almost three-hour classic, directed by Stephen Spielberg, is often described as the best war film ever made, let alone one covering D-Day. I prefer The Longest Day simply because it shows the international dimension to D-Day. US veterans have told me the first twenty minutes, showing Americans landing on Omaha Beach and being slaughtered, is the most realistic recreation of WWII they had ever seen. Starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, the film deservedly won Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. It was also a huge commercial success, becoming the second-highest grossing movie of 1998.

Amazon Prime, Apple TV.

3] The Big Red One [1980]

Lee Marvin, second from right, at his gnarly best.

Sam Fuller’s extravagant, over the top account of the First Infantry Division’s heroics and travails starred bona fide WWII veteran Lee Marvin. Fuller himself had served with the Big Red One, as the 1st ID was otherwise known, and the camaraderie and crisp dialogue ring true. Marvin is magnificent. Watch out for a young private played by Mark Hamill, who much more famously starred as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.      


4] 36 Hours [1964]

Terrifically fun, 36 Hours rests on an ingenious plot involving a Nazi doctor who attempts to extract vital intelligence from a captured American, played by James Garner. Will the Allies’ plans for D-Day be revealed? In this taut cat and mouse thriller, always entertaining, we’re kept guessing almost to the end.

Youtube, Amazon Prime.

5] Where Eagles Dare [1968]

German uniforms never looked better than on these two legends.

They sure don’t make them like this anymore. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are magnetic in this thriller spy classic penned by the great Alistair MacLean. The mission to rescue an American general with critical knowledge of Allied plans is indeed daring and relentlessly action-packed. Richard Burton is at his most charismatic. “I decided to do the picture,” he said, “because [two-time wife Elizabeth Taylor’s] sons said they were fed up with me making films they weren't allowed to see, or in which I get killed. They wanted me to kill a few people instead.” Burton does so with wonderful panache.      

Youtube, Amazon Prime, Apple TV.

6] Ike – Countdown to D Day [2004]

A remarkably persuasive Selleck.

Tom Selleck, minus mustache, does a very creditable job playing Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower in the ninety, increasingly tense days before D-Day. I’m a huge Ike fan and this underrated tv movie shows just how lucky the Allies were to have him at the helm, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders as he set in motion arguably the most impactful invasion in history.

Youtube, Amazon Prime, Apple TV.

7] Overlord [1975]

The fate of so many on D Day.

This compelling, black and white film is a masterful mélange of archive footage, about a third, and live action footage shot in just ten days. It’s so well done that you can barely tell the difference between the action involving the central hero, an English soldier, and material from 1944 itself. Without doubt the most interesting feature film to draw on the Imperial War Museum’s vast archives.


8] Eye of the Needle  [1981]

Kate Nelligan with the “Needle”.

I once met Ken Follett, author of Eye of the Needle, upon which this fantastic thriller is based. Follett was modest and funny and deservedly rich. I was also lucky enough to chat with Donald Sutherland at dinner in Los Angeles a couple of decades ago. He had lost none of the charisma he displayed in this brilliant movie, in which he starred as a German spy on the run from British intelligence, prone to using a stiletto knife when cornered. Shipwrecked on Storm Island, off the coast of Scotland, he encounters an alcoholic, paralyzed RAF pilot whose wife, played by the gorgeous Kate Nelligan, is charmed by the utterly ruthless “Das Nadel” (The Needle) – Sutherland at his menacing best. I won’t spoil the movie by adding more about the plot, which twists and turns before climaxing with the shock of a dagger thrust to the heart.

Amazon Prime.  

9] The Americanization of Emily [1964]

Julie Andrews not singing.

James Coburn, Melvyn Douglas and Julie Andrews grace this black comedy written by the witty iconoclast, Paddy Chayefsky. The film follows the fortunes of a cynical US Navy adjutant who falls in love with Emily Barham, played by Andrews, who resists being corrupted - “Americanized” - by the lavish attention of her gift-bearing American suitor. Both Andrews and Garner regarded the film, directed by Arthur Hiller, as one of their favorites.        

Apple TV, Amazon Prime.

10] The Desert Fox [1951]

James Mason as the legendary German commander.

Released just six years after the war, this bio-pic did far more than any book to mythologize German Field Mashal Erwin Rommel. Starring James Mason, who was a conscientious objector during the actual war, the film follows Rommel from the deserts of North Africa to D-Day and beyond. Rommel was not the military genius and courageous anti-Nazi depicted, but he was a fascinating and formidable commander and this well-crafted film humanizes the man who could very well have defeated the Allies on D-Day had he been allowed to do as he wanted.