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The story of the D-Day invasion of Europe, June 6, 1944
on June 6, 2004
The first time I saw "The Longest Day" in a movie theater they got a couple of the reels mixed up. The only way I knew this was that every time a major figure shows up in the film we are told their name, rank and unit. This mistake did not hurt the film all that much because this sprawling story of the D-Day invasion sixty years ago today was so huge and complex that it had four directors: Ken Annakin (British scenes), Andrew Marton (American scenes) Bernhard Wicki (German scenes), and the uncredited Darryl F. Zanuck. Granted, the realism of the opening scenes of "Saving Private Ryan" make the storming of Omaha Beach in this 1962 film look like a walk on the beach in comparison, but "The Longest Day" remains along with "Battleground" one of the most realistic portrayals of what it was like for the infantry in World War II from what we will know have to call the old school Hollywood and which ended with "A Bridge Too Far" in 1977.
Based on Cornelius Ryan's celebrated book of the same title, "The Longest Day" is almost three hours long and has one of the largest all star casts every assembled (42 international stars according to the poster), albeit with big names like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchem, Richard Burton, and Rod Steiger playing supporting roles because, to tell the truth, there is nothing else to play in this film. If you are telling the story of D-Day, no single figure is going to emerge as the star, which is the point (Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, played by an uncredited Henry Grace, has one scene). Sean Connery was about to become famous as James Bond in "Dr. No," and familiar faces include Red Buttons, Curt Jürgens, Edmond O'Brien, Kenneth More, Robert Ryan, Robert Wagner, Eddie Albert, Roddy McDowell, Peter Lawford, George Segal, Gert Fröbe, and Jeffrey Hunter. The idea of throwing in teen idols like Paul Anka, Fabian, Sal Mineo and Tommy Sands makes sense because a generation earlier they would have been storming the beaches of Normandy. However, you might have a hard time picking up the likes of Richard Dawson and Bernard Fox in the crowd. Several minor players in the film were involved in D-Day, and the piper playing as Lord Lovat's commandos storm ashore is the man himself, Bill Millin. The key thing is that the story being told is so big that it gobbles up all the stars.
The film shows events on both sides of the English Channel both before and during D-Day. On the side of the Allies there is the bad weather, troops tired from being on constant alert for several days, and the sheer size and importance of what is about to happen. Meanwhile the Germans are confident the Allies will attack at Calais and certainly wait for better weather, which explains why the key commanders are away from the front. One of the strengths of this film is that it also tells the story from the German's side. Not only do we get necessary exposition and explication concerning German troop movements before and during June 6, 1944, but there is also the human element of Maj. Werner Pluskat (Hans Christian Blech), the guy sitting on the Atlantic Wall who looks out one morning and suddenly sees the Allied invasion fleet when the fog lifts and we hear the "da da da daaah" of Beethoven's 5th (it is also Morse Code for "V," used to denote "Victory" by the Allies). It is Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Werner Hinz) himself who calls the coming battle "the longest day." There are also the efforts of the French Resistance ("Wounds my heart with a monotonous languor") and French troops in helping to free their own country as well as the British efforts, so this is not just the Americans versus the Germans.
There are several sequences that stand out, most notably the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne landing directly into Ste. Mère-Eglise and being butchered by German troops. The shots of a a terrified and helpless Red Buttons stuck on a church steeple are probably the most memorable in the film, as is the reaction of John Wayne's colonel when he sees the carnage and orders the bodies be cut down. The assault on the cliffs at Omaha also stands out, with Mitchem sending a series of men off to their deaths trying to blow a hole open to get the troops off the beach. Again, there is not the bloody carnage of Spielerg's "Saving Private Ryan," but the scene still retains an emotional power even by contemporary war movie standards.
"The Longest Day" was the most expensive black & white film ever made until "Schindler's List" in 1993 and in both instances not using color works; after all, our "memory" of World War II is based on black & white images. The DVD has some solid extras, with "Hollywood Backstory: The Longest Day" providing a 25-minute documentary on the making of the film, focusing primarily on Zanuck and a 50-minute documentary on "D-Day Revisited," while offers the rather strange sight of Zanuck telling strangers about D-Day and providing historical commentary mixed with clips from the film. In addition to the trailer for "The Longest Day" you get those for "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (certainly a comparable film), "Patton," and "The Thin Red Line."
Certainly "The Longest Day" is one of the best World War II films, even if now have to talk about it as representing the old school of that genre. At some point, given the success of "Saving Private Ryan" and the early chapters of "Band of Brothers," I would expect that someone is going to again try and do the macro view of D-Day. But clearly the next time around it is going to take a mini-series or limited series format to come up with something grander than this 1962 film.