Films, particularly Hollywood films are often criticised for their historical inaccuracy, however for good or for bad they have a place in our image of history. As I listened to the radio on the way to work this morning the commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings were underway. The morning was full of compelling stories from veterans, most of them in their late teens or early twenties at the time in 1944, now old men in their 80’s and 90’s. Some told of the horror and the terrible loss, some or the heroism, most spoke with unbelievable humility and self deprecation. Fortunately I have no first hand experience of war, so all I thought of as I listened to the stories was films I had seen on the subject. Far more memorable and visceral than anything else on the subject, including documentaries stands one film, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).
For those who haven’t seen it, the opening twenty-five minutes of Spielberg’s movie depicts the Normandy landings. Concentrating on the assault on one (unnamed) beach, the scene is possibly the best depiction of war on film ever. It shows every aspect of war from the horror, brutality and futility to the heroism. The scene is captivating, enthralling and terrifying, it achieves this despite the fact that it appears at the start of the film before we have met or invested in the characters involved.
The landings, codenamed Operation Neptune were the largest seaborne invasion in history, part of Operation Overlord, the invasion of German-occupied western Europe. They were the beginning of the end of the war in Europe and took place in the early hours of 6th June 1944. The loss of life on both sides was catastrophic. The figures of casualties and fatalities vary depending on the source material, the following quote comes from the D-Day Museum:
“Today, twenty-seven war cemeteries hold the remains of over 110,000 dead from both sides: 77,866 German, 9,386 American, 17,769 British, 5,002 Canadian and 650 Poles.
I am not suggesting we get our history from Hollywood, As good a film as Inglourious Basterds is, I am not convinced it is exactly historically accurate, but I also don’t think we should dismiss movies. A film, even a documentary can never give a total and true picture of an event, especially one in the past. Films are at their best when they capture the mood and the ideas of what they are depicting. This is what was achieved by Saving Private Ryan, Platoon (Oliver Stone – 1986) and They Were Expendable (John Ford – 1945). . If every time we watch such a film we think of the truth behind it, then they have been successful. There is a certain truth in this fiction that ensures we will always remember the sacrifice of a past generation