Speical recalls Normandy in words, on faces of regular joes

D-DAY SNAPSHOTS TV

May 30, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A German soldier lies dead, his body still twitching, as flies swarm on the bloody mess that was his face. An American GI cries as two medics try to sew up a huge hole in the side of his

face.

A voice reads from a soldier's diary: "The water was turning red with blood. . . . Men wet their pants. Others cried unashamedly." Another voice reads from a letter home: "We all said the same prayer: 'Give me guts. God, give me guts.' "

The words and pictures are from "Normandy: The Great Crusade," which premieres at 9 tonight on the Discovery cable channel.

There are several TV remembrances headed our way as we approach the 50th anniversary (June 6) of the Allied landing at Normandy during World War II. Discovery's "The Great Crusade" is one that you don't want to miss.

For better or worse, TV has become a kind of national historian, not only shaping the popular sense of our past, but deciding what snapshots will be preserved in our shared scrapbook. TV further decides which pages of the scrapbook will be shown, what stories told, when we gather as a family in front of the tube to celebrate our history.

When it comes to World War II, the stories told have too often been those of generals and politicians. That's not the case with "The Great Crusade."

Borrowing a page from Ken Burns and "The Civil War," Discovery tries to see the invasion from the ground up rather than the top down.

The two-hour report succeeds in that mission by giving us the words and thoughts of German privates, American sergeants, USO chorus "girls," German reporters, French farmers, wives waiting back home and many others whose viewpoints have often been ignored in the retelling of history.

Producer Christopher Koch provides an overview of the war, and the battle's importance to it, through film and narration. But even here, the big picture gets a common touch.

The narration is done by actor Charles Durning, who fought at Normandy as a 17-year-old soldier, winning three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. Durning says the memories are so painful, he has refused during his career to do war films or revisit Normandy. One of the reasons he agreed to do "The Great Crusade, " he says, is that it did not require him to return.

"For 12 1/2 weeks, 2 million men fought in the fields of Normandy, the quiet French province along the Atlantic coast 200 miles from Paris, " Durning tells viewers at the opening of tonight's report.

"A hundred thousand young men were killed here. Three hundred thousand were wounded. Nobody knows how many French civilians caught on the battlefield died. This film is about a few of us who took part. The words, most of them, were written down 50 years ago."

Those words drive the selection of pictures -- instead of the pictures driving everything, as is usually the case with TV.

The mayor of a small French village near the coast wrote in his diary of seeing the Allied paratroopers falling to earth on the first night of the invasion. His words told of one paratrooper whose chute got stuck in a giant elm tree, leaving the man dangling in the air like a target in a shooting gallery. As the words recount how German machine-gun bullets tore into the helpless body, we are shown a black-and-white photograph of a bullet-riddled body of a paratrooper hanging in a tree.

A USO "girl," who was part of a troupe entertaining the soldiers at Normandy, recounted in a letter to her mother back home her excitement at meeting Edward G. Robinson. As the letter is read, we are shown a photograph of Robinson with the troops.

Then, the letter shifts abruptly to the men who have returned from the front, saying, "Mom, you look in their eyes, and you can't imagine what horrors they must have seen." As we hear these words, we see pictures of some of those pained, vacant, empty, sad, faraway eyes, and we share her feelings.

The reading of the letters and diaries is done by such actors as Mariel Hemingway, Leslie Caron, Joanna Pacula and Robert Sean Leonard.

Overall, "The Great Crusade" is not in a league with Burns' work. It's more uneven and, ultimately, has neither the overarching sense of myth nor the moments of incredible intimacy that grounded "The Civil War" in a reality to which we could relate.

"The Great Crusade" is not great TV history. But, for the most part, it's very good. And it's our history remembered in a way that matters.

OTHER UPCOMING D-DAY SHOWS

* "George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin" at 9 tomorrow night on the Disney cable channel. George Stevens, an Academy-Award-winning Hollywood director, headed a unit of filmmakers who filmed World War II for the government. While World War II is generally remembered in black and white images, this report is in color. It's made up of the color footage shot by George Stevens and members of his unit. The special is narrated by his son, George Stevens Jr.

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