What’s the Most Accurate D-Day Movie? Here’s What 3 Movies Got Right—and Wrong – TIME

Thursday marks the anniversary of D-Day — when, on June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy to liberate Europe from Nazi German control.
It was a moment that changed the course of world events. Given its importance and the inherent drama of the massive military operation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that filmmakers have tried to bring that moment to life on screen — some more successfully than others. Here’s a guide to three films inspired by that deadly day, as recommended by Rob Citino, Senior Historian at the National WWII Museum who also provides expert commentary in a Turner Classic Movies (TCM) special on Hollywood movies about the war.
Plot basics:
Based on the 1959 book by the same name by Cornelius Ryan, a journalist who conducted over 1,000 interviews over the course of a decade, “The Longest Day is the ultimate D-Day film. D-Day was an absolute epic of a military operation, and this is a absolute epic of a film,” Citino says. “The joke is that it should have been titled ‘The Longest Movie’ because it takes you through virtually the entire run up to D-Day and pre-planning with Eisenhower and virtually everything that happened that day.”
Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Darryl F. Zanuck, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald
Notable cast members:
Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne
What the movie gets wrong:
One often-quoted line about D-Day — “There are two kinds of men on this beach: the dead, and those about to die. So let’s get the hell out of here!” — is said by Brigadier General Norman Cota, played by Bob Mitchum, but in reality, it was uttered by Col. George Taylor.
The final scene, in which the Allies blow a hole in a ridge and storm through it as if they’d broken down the wall of a castle is a bit exaggerated. “They had to filter their way forward in small groups and attack German fortifications and bunkers from their weaker side, from behind,” says Citino.
And civil-rights groups objected to the film. “Not one Negro was seen in the movie,” as TIME reported in 1963. “Normandy’s Negroes, serving in mostly segregated units, worked under fire instead as stevedores and as antiaircraft men who ran up barrage balloons to frustrate enemy air strikes at the beaches. They, like their white comrades in arms, shed blood.”
What the movie gets right:
The film accurately shows how the Allied invasion caught the Germans off-guard: Hitler was sleeping in; Erwin Rommel, the overall commander of the Normandy sector, had gone home for his wife’s birthday; and his fellow commander of the German forces at Normandy, Major Werner Pluskat, panicked as he watched thousands of ships approach, when it was thought that the Allied forces didn’t have enough ships to invade.
The actors are also recreating real things that happened to D-Day troops. For example, the memorable scene, shown above of a paratrooper’s parachute getting caught on the pinnacle of a French church; Pvt. John Steele’s parachute really did get stuck on a church tower in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first village in Normandy liberated on D-Day. German soldiers got him down, and he was taken prisoner, but managed to escape a few days later and catch up with the Allies.
Plot basics: A 20-year-old British soldier named Tom goes through training for D-Day.
Director: Stuart Cooper
Notable actors: Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries, Nicholas Ball
What the movie gets wrong:
The entire story of the hapless British soldier, who gets lost on a training march, falls down a hill and clumsily flirts with women is “kind of random,” says Citino. “He’s a bit of a sad sack, not very good at soldiering. It’s not about what it was like to be a soldier, it’s about what [the war] was like for this soldier. I’m not sure the story is transferable.”
What the movie gets right:
It incorporates archival footage from the Imperial War Museum of daytime air raids, firing at trains and on-the-ground transportation, and a night bombing sequences from cameras mounted in the bombers. Some of the aerial footage was even taken by live cameraman in the aircraft, like renowned pilot Leonard Cheshire, the youngest group captain in the Royal Air Force at the time.
Citino also cites the film’s brutal ending, when, after over an hour of watching him go through the training for D-Day, Tom is immediately shot to death right as the ramp of the Higgins boat goes down. A lot of D-Day soldiers died that way, especially on the parts of the beach where the Americans landed.
Citino argues the film has a “pacifist streak,” reflecting broader anti-Vietnam war sentiment of the mid-1970s by telling the story of young and tender man embroiled in “an impersonal war waiting to chew him up.”
Plot basics: Capt. John Miller leads soldiers behind enemy lines to find Pvt. James Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, so the U.S. military can send him back home.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Notable actors: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Paul Giamatti, Vin Diesel, Ted Danson
What the movie gets wrong:
One glaring error, to Citino, is that the German tanks were built using the frames of Soviet tanks. Other critiques of the film point out that the scenes of bullets killing people underwater go against the laws of physics. And after getting things mostly right in terms of historical accuracy in the first roughly 30 minutes, the filmmakers took a lot of creative liberties in the next two hours, in terms of the dialogue and the way the search for Private Ryan was carried out.
What the movie gets right:
The search to send home James Ryan, so that his family would still have one son after his brothers were killed in action, is loosely based on the U.S. military sending paratrooper Fritz Niland back to the U.S. after his brothers Robert and Preston were killed on June 6 and June 7 and his brother Edward was shot down over Burma the month before. After the five “Sullivan brothers” died serving aboard the USS Juneau, which sank in November 1942 during the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, the U.S. military started putting brothers in different units to reduce the likelihood that they would die at the same time; that’s what happened with Niland brothers, from Tonawanda, N.Y., north of Buffalo.
Spielberg enlisted a U.S. combat-Marine-veteran-turned-Hollywood-consultant to make the film look as realistic as possible, from body parts scattered on the beach to wounded soldiers crying out for their mothers — even putting the actors through boot camp, where they got soaked in British rain and mud; Tom Hanks learned how to operate a Thompson submachine gun.
Citino singles out a minor scene that says a lot about how much the Germans were struggling at this point in the war. In the scene, two enemy soldiers who are executed after surrendering to the Allies are speaking Czech, not German. After the German Army overran Eastern Europe, people in those areas were forced or volunteered to fight for the Germans, especially in the later years of the war. Therefore, the scene shows how, at this point in the war, “the German forces are pretty ragtag and dependent upon a whole lot of non-German manpower.”
Perhaps most importantly, D-Day veterans say the opening scenes depicting the landing are realistic, in terms of what it felt like to be a soldier on the beach during the invasion.
It’s basically “100% accurate,” says Dominic Geraci, who was a 20-year-old Army medic tending to the wounded on June 7. “There was no Hollywood embellishment.”
In fact, some say it’s too realistic to bear.
Another D-Day survivor, John Raaen says it was “very good portrayal of Omaha Beach” left him speechless, five decades after he landed there on June 6 as a 22-year-old Army captain. “I remember when I walked out into the lobby of the moviehouse, not a single person coming out of that showing said one word,” he says. “Everybody was stunned by it. I was too. I wasn’t about to talk to anyone either. It just brought back so many memories that your mind was racing through all the things that happened to you.”
Correction, March 30
The original version of this story misstated Norman Cota’s rank on D-Day. It was Brigadier General, not Colonel.
Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com


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