Academic journal article Film & History

Hollywood's D-Day from the Perspective of the 1960s and the 1990s: The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan

Academic journal article Film & History

Hollywood's D-Day from the Perspective of the 1960s and the 1990s: The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan

Article excerpt

Cinematic history from Hollywood is intriguing not only for its perspectives on the past but, also, for what it says about the times in which the films went into production. Often the creators of motion pictures address concerns of the present when they fashion stories about the past. This characteristic is certainly evident in the case of movies depicting events and problems associated with World War II. For instance, Bataan(1943) shows United States forces fighting bravely in the face of an overwhelming enemy. The movie's tragic conclusion, in which all of the Americans die, symbolizes the difficult position of American soldiers in the Pacific during the early period of the war (Basinger 45-46). In another example of conditions of the present weighing heavily on a cinematic treatment of the past, the creators of Patton (1970) planned to tell the story of a heroic general when they moved their project toward production in the 1960s. By the time they were ready for major photography, however, controversies over the Vietnam conflict made the intended gung-ho portrait of General Patton problematic. Consequently, the filmmakers shaped their story and advertising in ways that suggested a complex and sometimes critical portrait of their subject's militarism (Toplin, History By Hollywood, 163-164).

It is useful, then, to consider the messages and appeal of two films that are among the most influential American movies about the Second World War, The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Both deal with the invasion of France's beaches on June 6, 1944, and each became a blockbuster, drawing large audiences in the United States and abroad; each proved a surprising success because, in 1962 and 1998, the traditional war film seemed to have run its course; and each film was the project of a leading Hollywood mogul who had racked up a long list of movie successes. Darryl Zanuck was the major force behind The Longest Day (he produced the movie and directed more than half of its scenes). Saving Private Ryan owed its success largely to Steven Spielberg.

Why did these movies resonate with audiences in 1962 and 1998? In which ways did Zanuck's and Spielberg's films address different or similar concerns of the American people in 1962 and 1998? How did critics' reactions differ, and in which ways do these distinctions throw some light on changing attitudes toward war? Above all, did these films contribute to the public's appreciation of history, even though each communicated very different impressions of warfare and history?

The Longest Day

Darryl Zanuck look a substantial risk when he made The Longest Day. After years of splendid successes (including many Academy Awards) as a producer and head of production at Twentieth Century Fox, he seemed to be losing his magic in the early sixties. Zanuck's work on Cleopatra turned out to be a fiasco (the long-delayed picture eventually appeared in theaters in 1963). That expensive historical epic left Fox stretched financially. Yet, while Cleopatra was in production, Zanuck proposed to make the most expensive black-and-white war epic in Hollywood's history. His $10 million gamble succeeded magnificently. The Longest Day grossed seventeen million dollars in the United States and reaped millions more abroad, and it is still shown on network TV at least once annually.

Zanuck's movie carried a symbolic message regarding the Cold War. It showed that American, British, and French troops could cooperate to defeat a common enemy. In 1944 the Allies successfully challenged Nazi Germany; and in the sixties, the movie seemed to suggest, those very Allies could successfully confront the communists (Ambrose in Carnes). Zanuck made this message more workable by depicting the German leadership with a modicum of empathy. German military commanders in The Longest Day seem confused, fumbling, and sometimes comic. They are not enthusiastic about Nazi policies, and, in one telling moment in the story, a general complains about Hitler's foolish leadership, blaming the Fuhrer, especially, for the failure of the German counteroffensive (Custen 362). …

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