Thursday, June 6, 2019

D-Day 75th anniversary - Earn This.

Marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day today, Turner Classic Movies is showing a roster of films related to this monumental event.  Probably chief among them is The Longest Day (1962), which is of special interest to classic film fans because of its large cast of notables from the heyday of the studio system. I'm not sure that even with the recreation of the most horrible moments of battle we have come to understand or appreciate the significance of the military effort, equally parts poignant and Homeric.

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.


Marty said...

My stomach turns at the thought of Donald Trump "honoring" the fallen at Normandy Beach. He stands for the very same thing those heroes died to prevent. If only more Americans would realize that supporting Trump is the opposite of patriotism.

Caftan Woman said...

Your beautiful words made me proud of the past and bitter for a present that should have remained unimaginable. I don't want to be fearful of the future. If we must to the past for inspiration, we know we will find it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well said, Marty, and thank you CW. The past does seem to hold more inspiration than the present for now, but perhaps that will change. If more people have the courage to speak out, despite the risks that involves, it will.

Unknown said...

Well said, and thanks for noting the Canadians who fought in the battle (as well as Poles, Australians and more) -- most Americans tend to parse it down to the two countries (of course, movies continue to re-inforce that over the years, too)... As we get further and further from the overwhelming sacrifice of that generation -- truly the Greatest -- one hopes the lessons and courage they had can light a way for us to confront our troubles.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Indeed, not only is there a shameful lack of knowledge about the war and that era, particularly among younger generations not involved in it (I have read some reports that a poll among high schoolers revealed they thought the U.S. fought on the same side as Germany), but that among those who are at least somewhat familiar with the topic chauvinistically believe the U.S. fought the war alone, or that the Allies' contributions were marginal. Agreed that seeing these events through the prism of Hollywood films adds to this.

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