D-Day depictions in film and TV: The best and worst ranked by historians | Ents & Arts News

D-Day has been re-created in literature, TV, film – and even video games – across the last eight decades.

The largest amphibious invasion in history – when Allied forces landed on the coast in northern France on 6 June 1944 – was an event that changed the course of history. So, it’s no surprise it’s made an impression on the big screen.

We’re revisiting 13 of the best-known screen adaptations – and with the help of three top historians – helping you pick the best of the bunch to mark D-Day’s 80th anniversary.

Paul Woodadge: British D-Day historian, YouTuber, author of two Second World War books including Angels Of Mercy and self-described “D-Day nerd”
Dr Peter Caddick-Adams: British military historian and author of books including Sand & Steel: A New History Of D-Day
Joseph Balkoski: American military historian and author of eight Second World War books including Omaha Beach: D-Day

Pic: 20thCentFox/Everett/Shutterstock

FILM: D-Day The Sixth Of June, 1956
WHAT IT IS: Romance starring Robert Taylor, Richard Todd and Dana Wynter
PLOT: A classic love triangle, where a British lieutenant and an American paratrooper fight for the affection of one woman.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The D-Day scenes were shot in California using only 80 extras, cleverly using the projection of another take of the same scene in the background to give the impression there were twice as many soldiers on the beach.
TRIVIA: Todd, who participated in the Normandy landings in real life, wore his original beret in the movie. He also wore it in the next film we look at, The Longest Day.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “Historically it’s awful. Taylor – who was the dreamboat all the women wanted to be with – is clunky and very theatrical. I don’t think it was very good in the 1950s, and it’s just dreadful now… The film has very few redeeming features. It’s best watched and then immediately forgotten. I give it one out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – PETER: “It’s a movie we’ve seen a million times before, dressed up as being on D-Day. When it was made in 1956, we still had national service and many of the people who saw it had lived through the war. So, the characters wearing a uniform in the right way, carrying the right weapons, and doing the right things when they were climbing cliffs for example was important. The actual craft, the setting and the costumes carry it through… but the screenplay really cheats, and that’s why it’s largely been forgotten. I give it five out of 10.”

D-Day latest: World leaders join veterans in Normandy to remember

Pic: Moviestore/Shutterstock

 (1645672a).The Longest Day,  John Wayne.Film and Television
Pic: Moviestore/Shutterstock

FILM: The Longest Day, 1962
WHAT IT IS: Action starring John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Todd and Richard Burton
PLOT: D-Day told from both the Allied and German point of view. The movie had four directors, with German scenes directed by a German director, the British by a British director, American by an American director and French by a French director – and all spoken in their own language too.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: One of the most expensive films ever made, it was billed as featuring a whopping “48 international stars”. Sean Connery wasn’t a big name when he filmed it, but Doctor No came out between filming and editing, and so they whacked him up the billing for release.
TRIVIA: Despite the starry cast, the guy playing Dwight Eisenhower was actually an Oscar-winning set decorator called Henry Grace who was painting in the studios that day and happened to look a lot like the former president. Not the best actor in the world, his voice was dubbed over to improve the performance.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “It still holds up. If you were wanting to try and explain D-Day to someone and you had three hours, it would be a very good way of explaining it. A young audience might find it a bit slow-paced but it’s not overly heroic and is fairly based in reality. I give it eight out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “I think it’s far and away the best D-Day film that people can watch, and I urge them to make it their go-to D-Day film. It captures the aura and the immensity of the day and does it in a relatively accurate way. My father, who served in World War Two, was very moved by the film. If he was a combat veteran and he saw something in that movie that says something right there. I give it 10 out of 10.”

Pic: Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock 

5874348f).Julie Andrews, James Garner.The Americanization Of Emily - 1964.Director: Arthur Hiller.MGM.USA.Scene Still.Comedy.Les Jeux de l'amour et de la guerre
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FILM: The Americanization Of Emily, 1964
Comedy starring Julie Andrews and James Garner
PLOT: A cynical US Navy commander becomes an accidental war hero and finds love in the process.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: At a time when war films were all about heroes, this movie puts a coward at its centre, and explored the unexpected consequences of a media-misunderstanding propelling a reluctant man to the status of national hero.
TRIVIA: Actress Sharon Tate appears as an uncredited extra in the film, as a guest at a party. The scene itself was filmed on 22 November 1963, the same day as President John F Kennedy was assassinated.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This is not bad. Made in the 1960s, a lot of the original audience would have been World War Two veterans and Korea veterans. Julie Andrews is just gorgeous in it. I would recommend watching it – but its old-fashioned humour means you won’t find it funny. It’s certainly not a laugh-a-minute. I give it eight out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “It was somewhat risqué for its time… It did kind of capture the chaos and the violence of the moment in a comedic way, if such a thing is possible. I was dragged to that movie as a teenager because my sister was an absolute devoted fan of Julie Andrews. But I did enjoy it. I give it six out of 10.”

Read more:
Legacy of Mad Piper who played bagpipes on the beaches
Tearful D-Day veterans describe ‘mixed feelings’

Pic: Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock
Pic: Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

FILM: 36 Hours, 1964
WHAT IT IS: Thriller starring James Garner, Rod Taylor and Eva Marie Saint
PLOT: An American major is captured by Nazis who try to convince him he’s lost his memory and six years have passed, in a bid to get him to reveal details about the Allied invasion.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: It’s based on short story, Beware Of The Dog, written by author Roald Dahl in 1944, and first published in Harper’s magazine.
TRIVIA: The movie features a very clever MacGuffin (a term made popular by Alfred Hitchcock describing a device that is essential to plot forward, but which has no significance in itself). Try to spot it if you’re watching it for the first time.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This is one of my favourite films about World War Two. It starts off as a thriller, then becomes an escape movie. It’s a bit Mission Impossible, with one of the most inventive little MacGuffins in a movie ever. I give it 10 out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – PETER: “This is science fiction meets D-Day. The premise of shifting time is interesting, and I think the theme of extracting secrets from each other was given extra significance by the Cold War. Of course, when the film was being made, your opponent would have been a communist rather than a German. The 36-hour structure is a good idea because it means time is ticking down all the while. It’s an ambitious ask and reminds me of Mission Impossible. I give it five out of 10.”

Pic: Everett/Shutterstock
Pic: Everett/Shutterstock

FILM: The Dirty Dozen, 1967
WHAT IT IS: Action starring Lee Marvin, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and Ernest Borgnine
PLOT: A dozen American convicted murderers are sent to assassinate Nazis in northern France ahead of D-Day.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: A comic book version of World War Two, the plot of the movie is said to be very loosely based on a real group of paratroopers called the “Filthy 13” who were part of the 101st Airborne Division, and while not convicts, were known to enjoy their share of drinking and fighting.
TRIVIA: A remake of the movie was announced in 2019, with The Fast And The Furious screenwriter David Ayers at the helm. Four years later it’s still in development, with Ayers describing a “nerve-wracking” process of trying to “modernise something and build it out for a modern audience, while at the same time keeping that DNA”. Watch this space.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “It’s very macho – your testosterone levels increase just watching it. But it’s a brilliant cast and actually quite complex as a character study, taking an hour and a half to get anywhere near the action. A classic, and a bit of a “blokes’ movie,” it’s the kind of film they don’t make anymore. I give it eight out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – PETER: “There’s no attempt at great filmmaking here, this is Hollywood simply trying to coin a lot of money out of a lot of bangs. There is an attempt at characterisation, but only on the Allied side, the Germans don’t have names. Along the way there’s a Hollywood budget of an enormous number of explosions to be triggered, hundreds of rounds of ammunition to be fired, and lots of smoke to be thrown around. It’s a macho flick, trying to reinvent the western in Second World War terms. But it’s certainly lasted the course. I give it six out of 10.”

Pic: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock
Pic: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

FILM: Patton, 1970
WHAT IT IS: A biography starring George C Scott and Karl Malden, with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola (who went on to direct The Godfather)
PLOT: Controversial American General George S Patton’s career is examined through the lens of World War Two (he wasn’t in charge of an actual invading force on the day but led a deception force in a bid to fool the Germans).
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The movie’s famous opening scene is Patton giving a motivational speech to troops in front of an enormous US flag. While the lead star George C Scott had a gravelly, authoritative voice, the real-life General Patton had squeaky, nasal tones, and so would revert to using expletives in important speeches to inject authority. The movie had to tone down swearing to avoid an R rating.
TRIVIA: Scott won an Oscar for his performance (the movie also won best picture,) but turned it down as he disliked the concept of acting competitions.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This is a clever movie, written in a way that appeals to two audiences. If you were a serving American military officer, you watched it as a warring biography of one of America’s greatest heroes. If you were a Woodstock-going hippie, you thought it was a scathing biopic of the idiocy of men at war. And both audiences thought it was for them. It says a lot about why people go to war and what leadership does. I give it seven out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “This film is well made with tremendous acting. When you look back, it does have some historical flaws – the movie starting with the death of Patton’s aid, the storyline skipping over Patton’s philandering and a tinge of cynicism over the British contribution to World War Two, which is very typical in American films. But I think overall the movie stands up to scrutiny, I was moved by it. I give it nine out of 10.”

Read more on D-Day:
How a framed photo of veteran’s wife saved his life
The 21-year-old’s weather report that changed the course of history

Pic: Moviestore/Shutterstock
Pic: Moviestore/Shutterstock

FILM: Overlord, 1975
WHAT IT IS: Action starring Brian Stirner and Davyd Harries
PLOT: A young British soldier prepares to join the fray of World War Two.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: A whopping 27% of the film is made up of Imperial War Museum archive footage, actually shot in World War Two.
TRIVIA: A labour of love for director Stuart Cooper – who appeared as an actor in The Dirty Dozen playing Private Roscoe Lever – the majority of the newly shot scenes which make up the narrative story of the movie were filmed in just 10 days.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This is two films in one – one of which is brilliant and one of which is not. The archive stuff is great, but the narrative was shot on the equivalent of £2.50 and a packet of crisps. The lead actor, Brian Steiner, has the charisma of a wet haddock, and it’s all close shots because they haven’t got enough people to fill out the parade ground for training scenes. When it comes to the culmination of D-Day, you cut from real footage where there are millions of ships and men, to [a scene] filmed in a swimming pool. Two people jump out of a cardboard landing craft. I’m exaggerating, but not much. It’s a worthy effort but ultimately fails. I give it five out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – PETER: “This is a creature of its time, coming out when anti-militarism was at its height both in the UK and US. It’s rebellious, young filmmaking questioning authority and asking what the value of an individual’s life is. Really, a First World War anti-war movie set in D-Day. All the way through you are given the notion that [the lead character’s] going to die and you’re not disappointed. You can see it coming a mile off. An anthem for doomed youth, Wilfred Owen could have written this screenplay. On the plus side, there aren’t many movies that take you through the training for a major military action, and it’s frantically well-researched in terms of visuals and accuracy. I give it six out of 10.”

Pic: Lorimar/Kobal/Shutterstock
Pic: Lorimar/Kobal/Shutterstock

FILM: The Big Red One, 1980
WHAT IT IS: Action starring Mark Hamill and Lee Marvin
PLOT: A US sergeant and four of his soldiers battle across Europe, towards the end of World War Two.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Director Sam Fuller fought on Omaha Beach on D-Day, and the movie is about his experience as a World War Two soldier.
TRIVIA: Beset with development issues since the idea for the movie was first floated in the late 1950s, the film saw its budget cut halfway through production and was heavily cut on release. In 2004 (seven years after Fuller’s death) a new cut was released adding 47 minutes to the running time, bringing it more closely in line with the director’s original vision.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This film is very Marmite. Yes, Lee Marvin was way too old for the role of sergeant. But it’s very clever with its language, and only uses the kind of thing soldiers would say at the time. But to say a bigger thing, I think it’s one of the most worthy attempts to try and show what men who go through combat actually experience. It came out the same year as The Empire Strikes Back, which also starred Mark Hamill, but failed to hit the box office in the same way. It’s a shame. I give it nine out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “I found this movie to be ludicrous. It has a bit of a cult status in America, but for me, the inaccuracies crossed the line of being so grotesque it was annoying. With such a low budget it was ridiculous to attempt to depict D-Day and is an insult to the historical professional. The scripting was just absurd, and completely implausible, as was the hypothesis for the whole plot. I watched it once and have no desire ever to see it again. I give it three out of 10.”

Pic: Everett/Shutterstock
Pic: Everett/Shutterstock

FILM: Saving Private Ryan, 1998
WHAT IT IS: Action starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore and Edward Burns, directed by Steven Spielberg
PLOT: A group of American soldiers go on a mission to locate one of their men – Private Ryan – and bring him home safely.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The movie’s opening scene depicts Allied soldiers storming Omaha Beach and took around 1,500 people and a month to film. Capturing the true horror or war, the viewer – like the lead characters – spends 24 minutes experiencing the chaos, the bloodshed and the blind terror of combat.
TRIVIA: Unable to film in Normandy, due to the built-up nature of the area, the D-Day landing was filmed in Ireland, on Ballinesker Beach. Milk of Magnesia was used to create the illusion of soldiers vomiting from boats and dead fish were put in the water and across the shore. Despite fake blood and sand getting stuck on the handheld cameras used to film the action, the shots were still used as Spielberg believed it made the footage look all the more authentic.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “I have a love/hate relationship with this movie. It broke the mould of how war films were made. Yes, there are incorrect details – German obstacles being the wrong way around and bunkers of the wrong type- but it grips you. It puts blood and death in your face. The scene where the medic dies, at the test screening, everyone said, ‘Oh God, that scene was so uncomfortable’. So, Spielberg made it longer. It changed World War film moviemaking and had a global impact which is all credit to Spielberg. I give it eight out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “While I didn’t really enjoy it, it’s a very pivotal film in the development of the public’s interest in World War Two. The plot is absurd and presents a remarkably American-centric view of the war. And it made some historical whoppers, triggering outrage among British veterans – particularly Royal Navy veterans – when the film was released after Spielberg said British fighters were not involved in the Omaha Beach landing. He made a big mistake and it was a major flaw in the movie. They blew it on the essential research. I give it six out of 10.”

Pic: David James/Hbo/20th Century Fox/Dream Works/Kobal/Shutterstock 

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by David James/Hbo/20th Century Fox/Dream Works/Kobal/Shutterstock (5883529m)
Damian Lewis
Band Of Brothers - 2001
Hbo / 20th Century Fox / Dream Works
Pic: David James/HBO/20th Century Fox/Dream Works/Kobal/Shutterstock

TV SHOW: Band Of Brothers, 2001
WHAT IT IS: Miniseries starring Damian Lewis, Kirk Acevedo, Scott Grimes, Donnie Wahlberg, Ron Livingstone, David Schwimmer and Dexter Fletcher, with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers
PLOT: The show follows Easy Company of the US Army 101st Airborne Division and their missions in Europe across World War Two.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: In a bid to be as historically accurate as possible, most actors spoke with real veterans ahead of filming, and some veterans came to the set. Many of the actors who starred in the show have gone on to play a part in memorial events in the years following, and even have an active WhatsApp group to stay in touch with one another – such was the impact the show had on their lives.
TRIVIA: At the time of filming, this was the most expensive miniseries ever made, costing around $125m (£98m) for 10 episodes. An additional $15m (£12m) was spent on supporting events, including special screenings for Easy Company veterans, with one held on Utah Beach in Normandy.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This is the best World War Two production ever made and has never been surpassed. Lightning struck when they made this. The Why We Fight episode about the Holocaust is taught in Holocaust studies all around the world and has brought the Holocaust to a new generation. It explained duty and sacrifice. Every actor nails it, and the cinematography and music is spot-on. It’s phenomenal, timeless and perfect. I give it a hard ten if not an 11.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “This is far and away the best Word War Two series ever made. It exceeds the portrayal of D-Day in The Longest Day in terms of accuracy and tension and was based on a well-written history book, whereas Saving Private Ryan was a made-up story. It really captured actual events, and was devoid of that American-centric stuff, even though it was about an American unit. It was very fair to other nations that participated. I can’t think of a negative. I give it 10 out of 10.”

Pic:  © 2024 Sony Pictures Television Inc. All Rights Reserved
Pic: © 2024 Sony Pictures Television Inc. All Rights Reserved

TV: Ike: Countdown To D-Day, 2004
WHAT IT IS: TV movie starring Tom Selleck
PLOT: A portrait of General Dwight Eisenhower preparing the Allied troops for D-Day.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Many people rank this among Selleck’s best screen performances, but the fact it was a made-for-TV movie means it has largely gone under the radar. Fans of Selleck may well feel cheated this movie didn’t get better recognition.
TRIVIA: A bit of a continuity nit-picking here – We see a snatch of Laurence Olivier’s movie Henry V being shown in the film, which was set in the spring of 1944. But the Shakespearean movie was not released until the autumn of 1944.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This is pretty damn good – once you’ve got over the fact that Tom Selleck isn’t playing Magnum, or Monica’s boyfriend from Friends. Selleck humanised Eisenhower and is surprisingly good. I also appreciate that it didn’t exploit the fact that Eisenhower may or may not have had an affair with his British driver, Kay Summersby. It had good historical advisers behind it and was authentic. It didn’t get the plaudits it deserved. I give it eight out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “Selleck captured Eisenhower very well. It’s fair to say the film features a lot of men sitting around in rooms talking, but it was very well done. It captures how Eisenhower had to deal with very difficult personalities like Montgomery and to some extent Churchill and how [Eisenhower] was such an agreeable person that he took all these diverse people and brought them together for a unified purpose. I enjoyed the film. I give it eight out of 10.”

Pic: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock (8852518h)
Brian Cox
Churchill - 2017
Pic: Moviestore/Shutterstock

FILM: Churchill, 2017
WHAT IT IS: Historical war drama starring Brian Cox and Miranda Richardson
PLOT: We follow former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the days leading up to D-Day.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The film received mixed reviews on release but was largely derided for playing it fast and loose with the facts. Noted Churchill biographer Andrew Roberts was particularly scathing, saying it rendered the former British PM practically unrecognisable.
TRIVIA: Gary Oldman was originally offered the part of Churchill but turned it down. He’d go on to win an Oscar for his portrayal of Churchill in Darkest Hour just a year later.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “When historians come out in their truckloads to lambast a film you know it’s done badly. While it’s true that Churchill had a phobia of amphibious landings, this presents him as a pacifist or hippie, which he was not. It’s a dreadful film – don’t inflict it on yourself. I give it one out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – JOSEPH: “The portrayal of Churchill vis-a-vis the D-Day operation was highly inaccurate. Churchill was portrayed in the film as being violently opposed to the operation and it was a vast exaggeration of his actual position. I don’t remember much about the movie because I was so appalled by it. I give it three out of 10.”

Pic: Pathe Films/Everett/Shutterstock

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage..Mandatory Credit: Photo by Pathe Films/Everett/Shutterstock (14209340cg).THE GREAT ESCAPER, British poster, from left: Glenda Jackson, Michael Caine, 2023. .. Pathe Pictures International / Courtesy Everett Collection.Everett Collection - 2023
Pic: Pathe Films/Everett/Shutterstock

FILM: The Great Escaper, 2023
WHAT IT IS: Biographical drama starring Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson
PLOT: An 89-year-old British World War Two Navy veteran breaks out of his nursing home to go to the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations in France. It’s based on the true story of D-Day veteran Bernard Jordan.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This is swansong for both its lead stars. Sir Michael Caine, who is now 91, has said it’s his final film, while Glenda Jackson, CBE, died just a few weeks after watching a screening of the finished film in the summer of 2023, aged 87.
TRIVIA: Caine and Jackson had starred opposite each other in the drama The Romantic Englishwoman 48 years earlier, again playing husband and wife.
HISTORIAN VIEW – PAUL: “This film is superb. Due to COVID restrictions, they couldn’t film in Normandy, so it’s shot entirely in UK, recreating the Arromanches in East Sussex at Camber Sands and Hastings. It deals with reconciliation and dealing with trauma that you’ve been bottling away for a long time. Michael Caine – who was an Army veteran in Korea in real life – is so tied up with the genre of war films, that him coming back as an elderly actor, almost revisiting the characters he played as a young man, works well. It’s a beautifully charming film and I give it nine out of 10.”
HISTORIAN VIEW – PETER: “This film is absolutely gorgeous. You’ll need a bucket and an industrial-sized pack of handkerchiefs to help you get through it. It’s the experience of every old soldier going back to their battlefield and about the fading of warriors and how they fade. Everybody has a relative or grandparent who would have been the Jackson or Caine character, who came through that period, and sat us on their knee and said, ‘Let me tell you about the Blitz, or let me tell you about rationing, or let me tell you about those Americans who came over with their chewing gum and their jiving’. It’s beautifully acted and comes across as deep and genuine. I give it 10 out of 10.”


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