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Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. During World War II a handful of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and filmmakers enlisted and risked their lives—not to fight, but to film combat. Mark Harris wrote a book about these filmmakers and the unprecedented relationship between the military and Hollywood in his book Five Came Back. Here’s what Harris said about filming D-Day: 

George Stevens (for the Army) and John Ford (for the Navy) were really the ones that came up with a concerted plan. … It involved hundreds of cameras, hundreds of cameramen, dozens of cameras fixed to the front of landing vessels.

What is ironic is that most of the footage that was shot at D-Day was destroyed. Many of the stationary cameras didn’t function. The cameramen miraculously almost all survived, but a lot of their footage didn’t. So there was no way to create a clear narrative, chronological structure of what happened at D-Day out of the footage. What there was was an extraordinary amount of raw footage that was then collected from every camera, and every cameraman, that hadn’t malfunctioned. It was all sort of packed up, sent to England and edited, apparently, into several hours of continuous footage that was shown to the War Department back in the United States.

Most of the most shocking footage, the most realistic footage, the best footage, if you will, from D-Day was much too raw and frightening and upsetting to be shown to home front audiences. So while movie theaters across the country advertised for 10 days with signs outside that said, “Ten Days Until First Footage Of D-Day” … the actual footage that made its way to theaters was a very carefully manicured selection of stuff that was acceptable to show …

Most of the D-Day footage was not shown until much, much later. And really, you’d have to go forward to the movie Saving Private Ryan, the first part of which is a recreation of D-Day that is in part inspired by that never-seen footage.

Photo: U.S. infantrymen wade from their landing craft toward Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (Credit:U.S. Coast Guard/National Archives, Washington, D.C. via Britannica 

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