Saving Private Ryan (1998), made long after the studio system ended but still boasting Everyman/star Tom Hanks to head the team, perhaps makes the best show of recreating the chaos and horror of the landings. Those sequences are heart-stopping. But for me, it is the end of the movie when Tom Hanks (oh, look, if you don't like spoilers, why do you even read this blog?) is mortally wounded and, in a haze of sincere and almost sardonic acknowledgement of his circumstances, tells Matt Damon, the Private Ryan whom Hanks and his men have come to save, "James, earn this. Earn it."
In the film's final moments, Harrison Young, who plays Ryan as an elderly man returns to the military cemetery at Normandy to pay tribute at the grave of Hanks's character, a scene which brings me to tears no matter how many times I've seen it. He speaks to the grave marker cross and, as if in defense, tells Hanks he has tried to live his life the best he could. When he and his family are about to leave, he asks his wife to tell him he's a good man.
This hints at the larger message of D-Day, when U.S., Canadian, and British troops desperately hurled themselves against Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" in a campaign long planned and not without problems and tragic mishaps. Thousands of men died, and all who participated knew that would happen. It was the beginning of the end of the grip of fascism on Europe, and Europeans, including young Anne Frank in her secret annex, prayed for the day to come, rejoiced when it did. Anne wrote in her diary, “'This is D Day,' the BBC announced at twelve. 'This is the day.' The invasion has begun.”
Classic film fans are perhaps more aware than those who are not of the powerful idealism of that era, and of that generation that journalist and author Tom Brokaw justly coined, "The Greatest Generation." We can show the recreations of explosions in a movie made after the fact, made more successful at the box office by using famous actors, but the best way to learn from and cherish the event is to remember the idealism that made so many give up everything, including their own futures, for us to have a chance at ours.
Now, fascism has taken foothold on our shores and in our government, even among some military personnel who dishonor their uniforms with political patches that announce their slavish allegiance to a man instead of the Constitution, and among civilians the Nazi emblems and thuggish imitators have unleashed idolatry unthinkable to those men struggling to reach the beaches, to stay alive a few more feet, and then a few more. Private Ryan was warned to earn their sacrifice, and he worried that he had not.
We need to worry more about that. We cannot honor the service personnel of D-Day if we have squandered the gift of freedom from fascism and the world they saved just for us.