“If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,” says Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, showing Julius Caesar’s slain body to the Romans. I say the same to you, if you’re going to Discovery Place for “D-Day: Normandy 1944.” I can’t imagine that anyone interested in world or even American history could come away dry-eyed.
I didn’t, and I thought I knew this story. (I majored in history in college, specifically 20th-century history.) I knew the June 6 invasion successfully sent Allied troops into France and dealt the first of the blows that knocked out the Nazis a year later. I had seen “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” and other fictional films. But until I watched this splendid documentary, I didn’t fully understand the planning and execution of the assault.
French-based writer-director Pascal Vuong first released a version in his own language, narrated by François Cluzet. The one you’ll see comes with narration by Tom Brokaw, the former newsman who wrote “The Greatest Generation” and has become associated with the 1940s.
Vuong found a remarkable way to convey information quickly. Though we expect sweeping aerial vistas from IMAX movies – and he supplies those, especially when soaring over graveyards at the end – he combines images from a pop-up book, historic photographs and recordings, actors’ re-enactments and beautiful sand animation, in which pictures ebb and flow magically. (That’s apt, as the landing took place on five beachheads.)
When he cuts to a huge map, and arrows onscreen give us a sense of troop movements, we feel like a general standing around a map table, watching the war progress. The movie conveys information not only visually and auditorily but kinesthetically, with a thrustful sense of excitement.
Vuong gives full weight to all participants: the United States, Great Britain, Canada and the French Resistance. We hear about our brave rush onto Utah and Omaha beaches, and I knew Britain landed at seafronts called Gold and Sword, but I didn’t realize Canada took a beach dubbed Juno. We learn that the Battle of Normandy didn’t end soon after the Allies successfully took those beaches; it concluded after 100 days, when they finally liberated the entire region.
That pop-up book keeps opening to reveal the Five Keys to Victory, as they were apparently called by General Eisenhower: Liberty Ships that ferried materials to Europe, 2.5-ton trucks that moved over all terrain, the indefatigable Jeep, the C-47 Skytrain (a plane that transported supplies and paratroopers) and humble bulldozers, which cleared obstacles and created makeshift runways.
Touching sequences show cemetery after cemetery, with countless rows of white crosses among soft green hedgerows. But the most moving photograph has one elderly French woman staring at the corpse of a U.S. soldier, as her husband bends to put flowers on him. The real strength of this movie is that it shows the massive scope of the triumph while retaining an intimate sense of the sacrifices it demanded.