As D-Day’s 60th-anniversary approaches, I’m reminded why I was so irritated by Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 Steven Spielberg film that began with 20 minutes of dramatized Normandy casualties in bloody, skillfully shot close-up. You may recall that Spielberg was much lauded for bringing home the gruesome reality of the World War II battlefield to a naïve populace used to ’40s propaganda films. But released as it was during our comfortable vacation-from-history years, how could a movie about a long-ago battle compare in shock value to a World War II film watched by World War II audiences?
Certainly many movies from this era were glossed-over, glamorized takes on reality. But not all. Around the same time Saving Private Ryan came out, I happened to see on TV the 1943 So Proudly We Hail, whose riveting scenes of the fall of Corregidor (based on actual war-photographer footage) manage to convey something of the terror and confusion of battle even from the safe distance of more than half-a-century later.
Unlike Saving Private Ryan, however, So Proudly We Hail was watched by a homefront audience uncomforted by the knowledge that even though the dramatized battles onscreen were lost, we would eventually win the war. Not to mention that these audiences were people with sons and brothers overseas at the time. (And daughters and sisters; So Proudly We Hail is about Army nurses in the Philippines.) If you consider all this for even a few minutes, the notion that Saving Private Ryan was in any way revelatory is sickening.
ON THE FRONTLINES WITH IKE
In contrast, the new A&E docudrama Ike: Countdown to D-Day (it premieres on Memorial Day, May 31, in honor of the Normandy invasion’s 60th anniversary) doesn’t pretend to be a seminal World War II film. Ike has none of Spielberg’s cinematic brilliance, nor, since it ends just before the landings, even one depicted casualty. But I think it conveys more about the ultimate importance of this battle, and the heroism involved, than all of Saving Private Ryan’s special effects with exploded brains and ripped-off limbs.
Which isn’t to say that Ike ignores the terrible losses of June 6, 1944. There is a heartbreaking scene near the end in which General Eisenhower (Tom Selleck, in a quietly powerful performance) pays a cheerful, morale-boosting visit to the 101st Airborne just before the invasion. The Allies were expecting paratrooper losses of up to 70 percent, a sacrifice considered necessary in giving ground forces every advantage to make the world safe for democracy. (You can imagine the yelps of protest from the Left today, were an American leader to use that phrase in planning a D-Day-scale battle against Islamofascists.)
Because of some luck with the weather–which turned bad enough to convince the Germans that the invasion would be delayed (Rommel even felt confident enough to run home for his wife’s birthday), but not so bad as to actually delay it–the casualties were not as huge as they might have been. But they still numbered in the thousands, and Eisenhower never minimized the loss. “Twenty percent is so much better than 70,” says Selleck as Ike in a voiceover. “But if the person killed is you or the one you love, then the odds are 100 percent in that case.”
SO NOT HOLLYWOOD
Some background to this project, which illustrates the prevailing culture here in Hollywood: When he was 17, Ike’s screenwriter and co-executive producer Lionel Chetwynd joined the 3rd Battalion Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), spending two years in the Canadian peacetime military. During that time he met some veterans of Dieppe, a bloody but necessary dress rehearsal to D-Day that established the futility of invading a fortified European port.
Now in his early 60s, Chetwynd is a longtime naturalized American citizen who was born in England and raised in Montreal. He’d remembered from Canadian regimental history that of the 4,400-odd Canadians sent to Dieppe, about 3,600 were killed. Although they knew it was basically a suicide mission, not one man failed to report for duty. Chetwynd asked one of the old soldiers in his regiment, Sgt. Gordon Betts, why.
“My generation had to figure out what we were ready to die for,” Chetwynd recalled Betts telling him. “You kids don’t even know what to live for.”
Many years later, when Chetwynd was a successful Hollywood writer specializing in historical dramas, he told the Dieppe story during a Malibu dinner party–as a sort of tribute to the men who died there so people could sit around debating politics at Malibu dinner parties. One of the guests was a network head who asked Chetwynd to come in and pitch the story.
“So I went in,” Chetwynd told me, “and someone there said, ‘So these bloodthirsty generals sent these men to a certain death?’
“And I said, ‘Well, they weren’t bloodthirsty; they wept. But how else were we to know how Hitler could be toppled from Europe?’ And she said, ‘Well, who’s the enemy?’ I said, ‘Hitler. The Nazis.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I mean, who’s the real enemy?’”
“It was the first time I realized,” Chetwynd continued, “that for many people evil such as Nazism can only be understood as a cipher for evil within ourselves. They’ve become so persuaded of the essential ugliness of our society and its military, that to tell a war story is to tell the story of evil people.”
The Dieppe project never got made. But Chetwynd considers Ike “at this point probably a better vehicle for trying to understand the nature of sacrifice in the face of perceived evil.”
“Eisenhower was very humble,” he added. “He used to say that anyone can accomplish anything if they don’t care who gets the credit.” The other element of the general’s character emphasized in the script is his insistence on shouldering full responsibility in the event of failure. Just before D-Day, Eisenhower wrote in a letter that “if there is any blame or fault in the attempt, it is my own,” and not that of the men who fought on the beaches.
As a Hollywood conservative, Chetwynd has long had a touchy relationship with the press. During a news conference last year for his previous docudrama–Showtime’s DC 9/11, about how the White House handled that terrible day–the murmurs of disapproval I’d been hearing from colleagues about Chetwynd’s pro-Bush sympathies came to a head during one remarkable exchange:
Question: “You did contribute to [Bush’s] campaign?”
Chetwynd: “Yeah, the limit was $1,000… Would it make a better film if I’d given $1,000 to Gore?”
Question: “Because it would show less potential bias.”
My fellow hack was absolutely serious; if you’d donated money to Bush, you are therefore biased toward Bush, but if you’d donated money to Gore you are not therefore biased against Bush. Supporting Gore was just the normal default position, as everyone knows. Chaw!
Critics generally didn’t like DC 9/11. But as Chetwynd pointed out during a press conference later for Ike, “Even the New York Times and the L.A. Times–two more liberal papers don’t exist–did not fault the last film for accuracy, and I promise you that this film will not be faulted for accuracy. It is drawn from the letters and diaries of Dwight David Eisenhower. I’m not Oliver Stone.”
As he sat on the set while Ike was in production, Chetwynd often found himself wondering how Eisenhower would have handled the current war on terror. “In the film where you see Eisenhower say, ‘I don’t want to talk to the press’; can you imagine a military leader saying that today, in the era of the 24-hour news cycle?” he asked.
“The parallel today is not about Democrat or Republican,” Chetwynd noted. “Without leadership that clearly understands what it must do, and is willing to take responsibility for that, you don’t win. In war, there is little nuance. You win or you lose.”
“All through the ’30s and into the first part of the war, particularly during the Battle of Britain, there was a position that if we just sit down with that nice Mr. Hitler and talk to him, everything would go away,” Chetwynd continued. “And there’s some of that now–we just sit down with those nice people, just give them a bit of money and some food, everything will be fine. Well, you know, Eisenhower had a bigger picture than that.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.