Depictions of D-Day

As a historian who has written quite a bit about World War II (okay, three books), nothing looms as large as D-Day, Operation Overlord, launched on June 6, 1944. Allied forces stormed the Normandy beaches and fought their way east to Germany. The war ended in Europe in May 1945.

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What a lot of people today know about D-Day probably comes from Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, which is lauded for its realistic depiction of the landing on Omaha Beach. And in 2001, fans of the movie likely tuned in to HBO’s limited series, Band of Brothers, to follow the exploits of Easy Company, the men who parachuted into Normandy. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose’s popular 1992 book of the same name.

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While both of these projects benefitted from updated, modern filming techniques, the structure of their stories is decades old. Assemble a motley crew of men, give them a mission, and watch what happens. Sure, these newer film versions have vivid color and up close violence. But they don’t have the gritty black-and-white moodiness of the 1962 Darryl Zanuck epic, The Longest Day. And they don’t have John Wayne as Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, a real-life hero.

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All of these are Hollywood, and no matter how many claims film and series creators make for authenticity, they cannot be regarded as accurate history. Scads of books have been published about D-Day. One of the most recent–and one of the best–about soldiers’ experiences in Europe is Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do.

What Soldiers Do

According to the book’s synopsis: “Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty.”

This view of D-Day and its aftermath isn’t likely to make it to the screen, big or little. But for those interested in a deeper understanding of World War II, Roberts’s book is essential reading.



With a Bang and a Whimper: Unbroken on the Big Screen

Unbroken-movie-poster The opening shot of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is majestic: a wave of American bombers on their way to hit Japanese targets. It was the spring of 1943; the United States had been officially fighting the Axis powers since December 1941, and the war in the Pacific had been particularly challenging.

Inside one of those planes sat Louis Zamperini, former Olympic runner and now a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps. British actor Jack O’Connell has the look of young Zamperini, and he plays the part well. That opening scene serves to introduce the audience to Zamperini, though you’d have to be completely out of touch not to have at least heard of him because of Laura Hillenbrand’s mega-bestseller about his life, also titled Unbroken.

As Zamperini’s plane took a hit and the crew prepared for a crash landing, we get a flashback of his life growing up as an Italian-American in early 20th-century California. Young Louie was a troublemaker, but a redeemable one. His older brother got him interested in running, which provided a more appropriate outlet for Lou’s energy and frustration. “If you can take it, you can make it,” his brother told him. I was worried this was going to be used as a catch phrase in the POW camps, but fortunately it was not. It would’ve been insulting to the thousands who perished in those places.

Despite the emphasis put on that bombing mission, it was not the event that led to Zamperini’s ordeal. He survived the landing, but a subsequent rescue mission ended in disaster. Zamperini and two other crew members bailed out and floated on the ocean for over 40 days (one died prior to rescue) before getting picked up by the Japanese. In terms of storyline pacing, I think Jolie was off with this portion, which could have been cut at least in half.

If Zamperini received a glimpse of hell while in that life raft, he was plunged head-on into it as a prisoner of the Japanese.They treated their captives abysmally. Survival rates for Allied prisoners in the Pacific theater were a fraction of what they were in the European theater. The brutality of these conditions is shown in graphic detail, as Zamperini catches the attention of a sadistic Japanese officer known as the Bird. At one point Zamperini tells a fellow prisoner he intends to kill the Bird, and the other man dissuades him. Zamperini would only be killed in return, which wouldn’t accomplish anything. The best revenge, he counsels, is survival. And that’s what Zamperini does. Against the odds, he comes out of the war alive.

For a movie that begins with such an impressive scene–the big bangs of the American military–it ends on a curiously quiet note. Unbroken was author Hillenbrand’s take on Zamperini’s entire life. To make sense of how she reached that conclusion, you have to know about the postwar Zamperini. But the movie doesn’t stretch that far. A few brief summaries at the end tell us what happened to the main characters, but as throughout the rest of the film, this doesn’t give us enough of the interior of Louis Zamperini’s life. Of course we want Zamperini to survive his POW ordeal–he was a nice guy fighting for his country. He didn’t deserve the treatment he received; none of the prisoners did. As a soldier, Zamperini should have been entitled to protections of the Geneva Convention, yet Japan disregarded that international agreement.

But Jolie’s movie doesn’t tell us why this larger story of resilience and redemption belongs to Zamperini in particular. After all, as my husband pointed out as we left the theater, the rest of the surviving POWs emerged as unbroken as Zamperini. The movie version doesn’t illuminate enough about Zamperini the POW. I’m not referring to his treatment, because there are more than enough scenes of the cruel punishments Zamperini endured. But for all of Jolie’s attention to period details–the POW camps look appropriately grim and the actors portraying the prisoners look emaciated–the core of the man was too often overlooked, and that is to the ultimate detriment of Unbroken.