Try searching online for Flying Officer David Campbell, a fighter pilot who was apparently shot down over Normandy in France on the night of June 6, 1944. Chances are that the search will throw up the British actor Richard Burton, who played the role in the seminal war film The Longest Day, released in 1962.
The film was based on the book of the same name, a brilliant piece of reportage by the ace war correspondent Cornelius Ryan, an out-of-luck Irish journalist who decided to work on the book to make some extra cash. Published in 1959, the 15th anniversary of the D-Day landings by the allied forces on July 6, 1944, the book also spawned the most expensive black and white film until Steven Spielberg made Schindler’s List (1993) broke the record.
The story of Campbell, as depicted in the film, is fascinating, but no one seems to know if it is true. The officer, played by Burton, is shot down and found resting in a farm, his wounds split wide open. A medic from an American airborne unit finds him and closes the wound with safety pins. It isn’t clear if this incident did take place, but Ryan’s meticulous reportage lends credence to the film. By extension, the film ends up in the region between history and memory, where fact and fiction mingle to create a new reality.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has generated a rush of pieces trying to reinterpret the history of World War II. As John Broich, the history professor from the United States of America pointed out in his piece for Slate, the film was largely accurate, but for a few major misses, such as the absence of the Indian troops who were present at Dunkirk and gave an excellent account of themselves.
But the recollection of historical facts is affected in myriad ways when retold on the screen. Ryan’s other major work, A Bridge Too Far, published a year before his death in 1975, was also made into a movie, which brought together a galaxy of Hollywood A-listers but didn’t succeed as much as The Longest Day.
Ryan’s book was a detailed recount of Operation Market Garden, the biggest airborne military operation ever planned in history. The operation, which was pushed through at the insistence of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, was quickly discarded by him in his memoirs years later, and he remained in denial of its colossal failure. But the film based on Ryan’s book would reopen those debates, and the presence of Hollywood and British cinema’s heavyweights would ensure that its memory was forever etched in public consciousness.
War films are particularly contentious pieces of work. They can depict violence as heroic or as a horror, depending on who tells the story. While Stanley Kubrick’s retelling of an episode from World War I in Paths of Glory (1957) is considered the classic anti-war film, The Longest Day is a popular celebration of a momentous victory that turned the tide of the most destructive war ever faced by the human race.
A scene from Nolan’s Dunkirk offers interesting perspective to another scene in The Longest Day, and brings about the contradictions on how war and conflict are remembered by future generations. The movie is credited to three directors: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki.
On July 6, 1944, a day that witnessed a rare break from the incessant rain, the largest armada in the history of mankind set sail from England, crossing the English channel to land allied troops on the beaches of Normandy. The long-anticipated invasion of the German-held continental Europe had just been set into motion.
As the men prepared for the battle, Ryan records how non-commissioned officers went around speaking to the men under their command, asking them to remember another battle that had been fought in France in the summer of 1940, leading to a humiliating and chaotic retreat. “Remember Dunkirk, boys,” they would shout out, as troops jumped into waist-deep water and waded into the killing beaches of Normandy.
In Nolan’s film, the tired and broken men who have been evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk, get into trains to return home. They are mortified about the reception they will receive as their fellow countrymen wake up to their return after a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Germans. As the train rolls into the station, they find their countrymen waiting for them, gratitude written all over their faces, greeting them with food and beer.
In some ways, Dunkirk has now set the stage for the telling of the triumphant return to occupied France depicted in the 1962 film The Longest Day. History intertwines with cinema to create memories for new generations, helping them to interpret the horrors, heroism and the futility of wars.