Probably the most astonishing thing about this movie is how much of it was filmed over thirty years before it was made. Director Stuart Cooper made it in cooperation with the Imperial War Museum. Much of the film that doesn't actually have the movie's characters in it was in fact filmed during World War II. I didn't know that until I was watching the special features, so I was indeed watching for faces I recognized. Inasmuch as I would have recognized them at all; aside from the odd episode of [i]Red Dwarf[/i] or some such, none of the major characters have done anything I've seen. Many of them haven't even done much of anything that I've heard of. However, that combines with the period footage to make it more realistic; in [i]The Longest Day[/i], you're too busy thinking, "Hey, that's Sean Connery!" or whoever. The characters here are just ordinary people, and having them as fairly obscure actors makes that even better.
Young Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner) has been called up. It is World War II, and he is one of thousands upon thousands of young men who will be among those on landing craft on the beaches of Normandy, not that Tom knows where exactly the invasion will be. Tom is just another private. There is nothing particularly unusual about his experiences. He goes through training. He is shuttled about the country for reasons he doesn't understand. He makes a few friends. He even meets a Girl (Julie Neesam), though of course by the time he meets her, there are only days left before he will be crossing the Channel. He will not meet her on Monday after all. He turns twenty-one while waiting for the invasion, and he is certain that it is to be his last birthday. Of course, he is too young to remember World War I, but he knows about it, and the thing that it most obvious about World War I is that not all the young men who went to fight in France ever returned from there.
Of course, I've also read enough to know that merely being certain you were going to die wasn't actually proof that you would. Perhaps young men certain they would not survive the war took more foolish risks than others, but perhaps not. Being certain that you're going to survive can make you do stupid things, too, after all. It is a fact of war that a certain percentage of those who go to fight will die, whether they think they're going to or not. Honestly, if I were one of the young men on those landing craft, it would be hard to believe that it was possible to survive. Plenty of people did; among other things, Cooper was influenced by the D-Day photography of Robert Capa, who survived the landing himself (and was killed by a landmine in Vietnam, but being a war photographer is a dangerous job). The Criterion release features excerpts of two diaries that also helped shape the film, and both of the diaries' authors were still alive when the movie was made--possibly even when the DVD was released.
The film manages to be both stylized and realistic at the same time. We spend a fair amount of the story inside Tom's head, and the images he creates are not quite like the real world. Every girl he's met since getting called up is the same girl, for example, and I don't think his thoughts of her match what actually happened with any of them. It seems that Cooper had a vague outline of the story before he actually worked out some of the details, and he was in many ways more interested in the look and feel than the actual story he ended up telling. He didn't want to tell the same war story that everyone else had. Oddly enough, this meant he wanted to tell the story that more people experienced. No one in this movie does anything all that interesting, nothing that would be remembered in years to come. Tens of thousands of unexceptional stories went into the scope of D-Day. Though of course, every story was interesting to the person who lived it.
In [i]Johnny and the Dead[/i], Terry Pratchett gives us World War I veteran Tommy Atkins, and I kept thinking about him as I watched this movie. We don't actually know as much about Tommy Atkins as we do about Tom Beddoes. He only appears in one scene, and he's dead at the time. We never get inside his head, and of course, it is many years since the war. However, we learn about him because literally every person in his brigade died in the Battle of the Somme but him. He was the one who lived, and he went home and lived an unexceptionable life. The only interesting thing he did was survive. We don't know what happens to the young men with whom Tom Beddoes grew up; this was one lesson the British military did learn. Tom Beddoes wasn't in a "Pals Brigade." I would imagine Tommy Atkins spent the rest of his life wondering what was special about him. The terrible secret of war is that it was really luck--good or bad depends on how you feel about being the survivor, I suppose.