"D-Day" is actually a generic military term which refers to the day a planned military operation will be launched, while "H-Hour" is the hour of attack. But because of the sheer scope of Operation Overlord—when 2700 ships dropped 156,000 American, British, French, and Canadian soldiers onto a 60-mile beachfront—and the high stakes involved (it was arguably the most important moment of World War II), "D-Day" has come to be associated almost exclusively with June 6, 1944.
It was a tale of two legendary tank division commanders: Gen. George S. Patton and Hitler's "Desert Fox," Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. In 1942, the two were in Africa, with Patton leading the Allied invasion and Rommel directing his famous Panzers against the British in Egypt, in what would become his Waterloo. But both men also played a crucial part in Operation Overlord. Patton was such a high profile leader that the Germans were convinced that he would be at the center of things. When Patton was put in charge of an army amassing in Dover, England, the Nazis never dreamed that he was a decoy, and they shifted troops to Calais, across the English Channel from Dover on the northeastern French coast of Picardy. Rommel, meanwhile, had been put in charge of the French coastline defenses, and according to this History Channel documentary, aside from not anticipating the actual invasion sites at Normandy gearing up for a WWI-style fight in the trenches, instead of the waves of warfare that were coming, But Rommel's biggest mistake? That would be not anticipating the day of the invasion. As an ironic twist of fate would have it, Rommel returned to Germany to celebrate his wife's 50th birthday—on June 6, 1944—and the German officers at the invasion site had been trained not to act unless they received orders from the top.
Gerald McRaney ("Simon & Simon," "Major Dad") narrates "D-Day: The Total Story," which was aired in three parts in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of Operation Overlord. Also included on this two-DVD set are two other History Channel episodes, "The True Story of the Screaming Eagles: The 101st Airborne," and "Dear Home: Letters from World War II," as well as a Biography documentary on "Eisenhower: Commander In Chief." Though it's a little hokey having McRaney doing his walk-and-talk in a set that's designed to look like a WWII command tent, and while the talking-heads interviews might dominate more than history-lovers wanting vintage footage and voiceovers might like, the approach does lend itself to a more complete and "total" picture of the impact that the event had on history and on the lives of all who participated. One common thread? Almost all of the veterans interviewed (British, French, American, even German) said that they knew that many would be killed, and their mindset was simply that of hoping it was somebody else. And in a market historically directed at students of warfare and tactics, the series ends with a decidedly anti-war message as survivors talk about the boys who never got the chance to grow up, marry, and live a full life. "And for what?" a former German soldier asks. "Nobody wins wars," an American veteran concludes. "There's losers on every side."
In the first installment, "D-1" (that's D minus one, or the day before the invasion) it's fascinating to hear American veterans talking about the mixed blessing of being in England before the big assault. The complaint from British soldiers was that the Yanks were "overpaid, oversexed, and over here" waving their chocolates and nylons and money at the British girls and being welcomed into British homes with open arms—partly because the government was paying Brits who turned their residences into temporary boarding houses, and partly because the locals knew that something big was about to happen which could turn the course of the war. They were treated like royalty. But the training? Who knew that the training would accelerate in England, from five days a week to seven, and that the men would have to endure extreme conditions that make today's "Survivor" episodes look like a kiddie show. Picture fat-naked "Survivor" guy Richard Hatch crawling through the entrails of a butchered hog to prepare him for the bloodshed and carnage, or being asked to jump into water over his head and swim, with rifle and pack, to the beach, then shiver in near-freezing conditions for eight hours until pick-up time. Credit Eisenhower for the severe training regimen, we're told, and while there's a bunch of vintage photos and movie footage, it's the talking heads reminiscences that dominate in this episode. But The History Channel snagged some pretty good interviews, including a fun one from a British veteran who had to check passes and tells how Eisenhower handed him his wallet and said, "Help yourself, Son." The veteran laughs, recalling that Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, was "like a favorite uncle" in his behavior, while "Monty (British General Montgomery, Commander of the Landing Operation) was more like a headmaster."
The second installment, "H-Hour," concentrates on the attack itself, but here's where the preponderance of talking heads gets in the way a bit. We never get long enough clips of the invasion to where we can actually feel the intensity of the battle. In previous D-Day documentaries (and there's been no shortage of them), the reliance has been on the same newsreel footage that audiences saw back on the home front. Here, that footage has been cut up and interspersed with color interviews from the present. Fans of the old V-for-Victory and Victory at Sea series may be disappointed that the vintage footage isn't as extensive or sustained, especially when those who reminisce have had 50 years to deal with the experience. There are more humorous recollections than there might have been had the same people been interviewed 10 years after the battle instead of on its 50th anniversary. Yet, that's also one of the strengths of "D-Day: The Total Story." We get a full complement of reminiscences that range from somber to hilarious, with information that isn't available on other D-Day films. The final installment, "Breakout," pieces together footage from the week immediately following the invasion. And here, finally, the appetite of vintage footage lovers will be sated. There's plenty of film and still photos to chronicle the Allied advance. Total running time for the series and extra features is roughly six hours.
As with all made-for-television films, this one is full screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio). But unlike many of the D-Day documentaries that have preceded it, this DVD has clear and sharp color interviews plus some relatively high-quality vintage stills and video. In short, the digital transfer is decent.
If you're looking for great guns and the sounds of battle, you'll have to look elsewhere. The sound is clear and sharp, but Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo doesn't give the surround effects that would place you right in the middle of the action. Then again, as interviewee after interviewee speaks, it would seem almost disrespectful to wish to experience the full, booming sound effects of a battle that claimed so many lives—2000 at Omaha Beach alone, where Allies met the heaviest resistance. And most of the sound is narration, whether interviews or voiceover.
The only special features listed are the interactive menus, scene selections, and "Battle Stations: Sherman Assault." The latter is one of the Battle Stations productions that traces the development of the Sherman tank and includes some of the best footage on this DVD. Some of the more memorable moments are the offbeat ones, as with scenes of a Frenchman in a welcoming crowd who strangles a cardboard Hitler as the rest of the crowd waves to the Shermans that roll through their town. There are also specs to satisfy military history techies, wrapped in a smoothly edited story about the tanks' value to the invasion—and their vulnerability. It's a great extra, but given the title of this DVD, you'd also have to consider the Biography production on Eisenhower and two other History Channel D-Day-related shows as extras. Meaning, this is one loaded DVD set! The Eisenhower bio quickly gets to the wartime Ike and reminds viewers that he was also a university president before he became a two-term president of the United States. Hearing Ike's philosophy of leadership and seeing the results he attained—and he led the U.S. through some tough confrontations with post-war powers—will be enough to make many viewers wonder why the current administration has gone the route it has in world affairs. As with the Sherman tank feature, it's a great, eye-opening program. So is the feature on the 101st Airborne, whose very first mission was to parachute behind enemy lines on D-Day, and whose storied accomplishments since then include the battle of Hamburger Hill in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. When we see the helicopters in action and how maneuverable they are, and how they can hit a target five miles away, it's almost as amazing as learning how much harder they trained than the rest of the soldiers. Their pre-D-Day training included a 140 mile forced march in three days.
But the best of what could be called the "extras" is a poignant feature on "Letters From World War II," narrated by newsman Harry Smith. The editing is superb, and there is an abundance of footage showing both the lot of the soldiers and the lifestyles of the girls and families they left behind on the home front. At times, the show feels a bit like the Ken Burns production of "The Civil War," with its fade-in, zoom-in, fade-out treatment of vintage photos and quiet background score—light years removed from HBO's equally powerful but loud and boisterous "Letters Home From Vietnam." For the times, and for the black and white shots, though, it's a nice choice. So was Smith. But World War II history buffs, don't rush down to the video stores just yet. The street date on this release is April 27th.
No matter how many documentaries are produced, for conveying the sheer magnitude of D-Day it's still hard to top that black and white fictionalized blockbuster, "The Longest Day," with its epic treatment and star-studded cast (including John Wayne, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Robert Mitchum!). That movie is a recreation, while the documentaries function more as explanations. For insights into what it was like to be there, and for a decent overview of Overlord, The History Channel's 50th anniversary production is one of the better ones, and a nice companion to "The Longest Day." But taken as a package with three substantial related features, this DVD emerges as one of the best on the European Theater of World War II. There's original, never-before-seen footage included on "D-Day: The Total Story, but because so much of the footage is familiar, it seems as if the extras have the most striking images, by far.