The Longest Day Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Longest Day Review
    “A landing at Normandy would be against military logic. It would be against all logic.”
    Based upon the bestselling book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan (who also penned the mighty tome recreating Operation Market Garden in A Bridge Too Far), Darryl F. Zanuck's leviathan production of The Longest Day remains one of the most exciting, wide-ranging and detailed war time movies ever made. Drafting in a cast of 48 internationally recognised stars, including top-liners John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Kenneth Moore and Richard Burton, the film told, in an often clinical, almost documentary-style how the allies finally returned to Nazi-occupied France by sea and by air in the biggest invasion ever seen, and swung the tide of the war once and for all. Told very effectively from both the allied stance and the German's shocked viewpoint, The Longest Day is ground out in the fashion of the big studio epics - it is lavish, star-studded and aflame with production values - and its lofty enterprise was ultimately rewarded with two Academy Awards in the 1962 ceremony that David Lean's immortal Lawrence Of Arabia almost swept the board, one for its extraordinary cinematography from Jean Bourgoin and Walter Wottitz and one for its awesome special effects.

    “You know those five thousand ships you say the Allies haven't got? Well, they've got them!”

    Plus, you've got the original James Bond in here and not one, but two of his future villains in both Gert Frobe's Goldfinger and Curt Jurgens' aquatic dictator Stromberg. Never has warfare, and its far-reaching implications and terrible importance been so much fun, for whilst The Longest Day does not shy away from the carnage - we are not talking Saving Private Ryan here, but, for its time, the film pulls few combative punches - it delights in its endless series of vignettes, bristly exchanges and a multi-pronged, multi-lingual approach to an undertaking so huge it was previously believed to be unfilmable. And that it also manages to avoid being preachy and ramming history down out throats is an absolute blessing to those of us who love our Boys Own, Captain Hurricane approach to cinematic derring-do.

    “As best I can figure it, this is the wrong beach. They landed us about a mile and a quarter south of where we were supposed to land.”

    There is so much going on in the movie that it is pointless to find rhyme or reason to its methods or trajectory. A story that is made up of segments, set-pieces and asides - the perfect live-action interpretation of the book's wide-ranging memoirs and anecdotes, just like Richard Attenborough's take on A Bridge Too Far in 1977 - The Longest Day is best assessed by the little things that stand proud amidst the blitzkrieg. Sean Connery's appalling Irish accent and big beaming grin beneath his tin-pot helmet; Kenneth Moore's fabulously taciturn beach-master employing sheer no-nonsense practical savvy and sporting some gruff trawlerman facial foliage; Roddy McDowell's short-sighted trooper taking out a German machine-gun nest and bragging about it to a corpse; Luftwaffe Major Werner Pluskat's (Hans Christian Blech) wonderfully stunned moment as he observes the allied armada hoving-in off the horizon and the frantic, almost-ecstatic vindication of his concerns as the bombardment begins juxtaposed with the casually dismissive reverie of his commanding officer sitting safely back at HQ; explosive dolls that drop from the sky; Rangers reciting chat-up lines before falling into a maelstrom of fire and death. But the set-pieces are also fabulously told via the extensive characters and situations that unfold continually. Few would argue at how well the initial edgy comedy of Red Buttons' getting his parachute caught up on the steeple of the church turns to tragedy and horror as he witnesses his comrades getting massacred all around him. The moment when his knife clatters to the ground beside an unsuspecting German is electrifying. Then there is the exquisite confusion of the “cricket”-sounding click-clack device used by the allies to identify one another in the darkness of the French countryside which again mingles comedy with pathos when fatal mistakes are made. The pure randomness of war's oddities is also perfectly well conveyed as an aerial bombing raid distracts both German and American patrols as they pass by each other on either side of stone wall and the later moment of calm brevity as Richard Burton's injured RAF pilot alerts Richard Beymer's perpetually-perplexed paratrooper to the fact that the German officer he has just shot has his boots on the wrong feet. The poetry of this moment is a great knot-tying of a previous scene that neither party is aware of, and this amusing abstraction is a part of warfare that allows us, as impotent observers, a sense of gloating, yet futile superiority.

    “The thing that's always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer.”

    Lord Lovat (Peter Lawford) and his commandos' valiant taking of a pivotal bridge and strict, stiff-chinned adherence to their orders “Hold until relieved” is another grandstanding section that marries up the typical British attitude to conflict with the more cavalier and, in this film at least, more desperate stance of the Americans who, with their rogue parachute drop and frantic race to scale the cliffs before getting cut to pieces by the machineguns speckling them their heights, certainly appear to be flying by the seat of their pants. Although some may bemoan the lack of Canadian input in the film's depiction of the events of 6th June 1944, Zanuck's assessment does take in the Resistance fighters and the French commandos returning to take back their homeland and drive the Germans out of towns and villages that they, themselves, once fled. Thus, The Longest Day often comes across as a smorgasbord of ethnic diversity, patriotic motivation and common-cause crusade which, for the most part, doesn't attempt to play favours in any one direction.

    The size and scale of the battle scenes are stuff of legend. The initial Normandy landings are simply dazzling in their majestic depth and breadth, the chaos and the ferocity of the clash staggeringly well-shot - unless, of course, you can't ignore the shadow of the camera-rig as it races alongside the troops storming the beach. The valiant and actually quite comical grand stand of the fighting Luftwaffe is strikingly-well done, with a breathtaking vista of soldiers ducking, diving, dying and darting-about as Pluskat does his celebrated flyover.

    “For God's sake, Padre, stop that damn clicking!”

    But the most audacious, most breathtaking shot of the entire film, and surely something that the likes of Steven Spielberg was immediately enamoured with, is the awesome aerial tracking shot that starts off focussing on a group of French commandos huddling behind a pockmarked wall and follows the men as they breach the German defences, run around the port, splitting up into groups that either remain in shot or suddenly appear a little further around as they meet up again, and eventually sweeps up and back until it arrives a junction looking out over the shoulders and heads of the enemy gunners on a rooftop - all in one simply amazing and lengthy take. It isn't just the camerawork that is admirable, though. Watch the scene and think of the choreography and the direction that it must have taken to orchestrate. There are men dying, explosions going off, bullets raking up the walls and roads and several large numbers of men covering a hell of a lot of ground and, again, all doing it in one glorious, intricate and hugely ambitious take. Having such God-given locations and lavish set-dressings obviously helps, but the sheer determination to make the combat look as realistic as was possible (at the time) pays immense dividends. History professor Mary Corey, in her detailed commentary track, may find many inaccuracies, but The Longest Day was, by far, the war film most dedicated to authenticity that had ever been mounted. It simply looks and feels like the real thing during these epic battle scenes. A couple of years later, Cy Endfield's equally lavish Zulu would take a similar “in-yer-face” approach to such large-scale confrontation, but while colour photography would lend it a greater visceral immediacy, its scope was severely limited by its setting. The Longest Day would, for many years, remain the high watermark for war movie excess, knocking tin-hats off the battalions of bullet-and-bayonet ballets that had whistled, screamed and exploded all around cinema screens for the two prior decades, and really only being trumped once Sam Peckinpah introduced blood-squibs and slo-mo slaughter into the mix with the likes of Cross Of Iron heralding a yet-more realistic depiction of on-screen carnage.

    “This is history. We are living an historical moment. We are going to lose the war because our glorious Führer has taken a sleeping pill and is not to be awakened. Sometimes I wonder which side God is on.”

    With the action distributed between four different people - Elmo Williams coordinating the battles, Ken Annakin directing the British exterior episodes, Andrew Marton taking control of the American activities and Bernhard Wicki helming all those for the Germans - you would think that the tone, pace or flow of the film would suffer. But, in spite of the sheer volume of footage, the huge number of personnel both in front of the cameras and behind them, and the groundbreaking spectacle that Zanuck was clearly determined to capture across a wide-ranging array of locations, the movie gels together at least as well as anything that the vicious Nazi “paper-hanger” ever accomplished. No-one gets overtly short-changed, and seeing big stars appearing in sometimes fleeting cameos - Richard Burton especially - lends a marvellously nostalgic aura of the “we're all in this together” attitude that won the war. And it is nice to see that someone as iconic and gung-ho as John Wayne doesn't mind sitting the battles out as he is wheeled around on a rickety cart with a severely broken foot. Let's face it, the Duke was performing implausible action shenanigans as heroic cops, cowboys and soldiers even into the seventies, so his acceptance of such an important, yet hamstrung role speaks volumes of his commitment to the cause. Check out that paralysed look of disgust and horror when he surveys the bodies of his men still hanging from lampposts and littering the town square. And, damn it all, those Ranger paratrooper uniforms look cool, don't they? Stuart Whitman's prancing around the rubble and running down country lanes would seem stupid in any other garb, but with those tucks and pads and plethora of pockets, he looks like the most pose-able Action Man ever made.

    “He's dead. I'm crippled. You're lost. Do you suppose it's always like that? I mean war.”

    At the end of the (longest) day, the film does not attempt to make any notable verdicts on war and its catastrophic consequences. It longs to put you in the throes of combat, thriving on the immediacy and the randomness of it all, hurling the grandiose plans and machinations of leaders, tacticians and backstreet schemers to the billowing smoke from a burned-out pillbox and reminding us that the human cost is always first and foremost and that battles are won by those in the thick of the fighting and not those reclining beside vast maps back at HQ. Cleverly, though, in adapting Ryan's complex chronicle, Zanuck's movie actually manages to have its cake and eat it too. The campaign is thrillingly told in terms of ass-in-the-grass squaddies and GI's but also extremely generous towards those higher up the chain of command. It takes the situation and the event incredibly seriously, despite some comical interludes of circumstance and fate that are necessary foils to the documentary style, and the lengthy first act before the landings take place - by sea or by air - is just as engaging as the go-for-broke mayhem that dominates the rest of the movie. Intelligently, and in rather a groundbreaking stance for the genre, we have a degree of sympathy for the enemy as well. The Germans are not just goose-stepping morons (as the Jones Boys would call them), but courageous, frightened and even likeable characters too. Pluskat, with his German Shepherd and rusty old plane is an earnest, believable and, ultimately, amenable old chap. The power-play back at the Nazi-controlled chateau produces idiots and frustrated professionals with equal aplomb, Curt Jurgens becoming an eminently pitiable and beleaguered officer hemmed-in by red tape and etiquette. By contrast to his defeated air of inevitability, the piffling worry back on the home front about the weather foiling the Allied plans for the invasion seems hardly consequential. The biggest armada ever assembled for attack is going to be formidable no matter when its sets off. Frightened officers refusing to wake up the Führer at a time of imminent disaster does, well, smack of Homer Simpson's biggest ever “D'oh!”

    The Longest Day was a bold and expensive experiment. A passion for Zanuck, who fought just as hard as the troops to get it under way and on target, and an explosive, mesmerising epic of glorious destruction - both personal and large-canvas. When my dad set me down to watch the film as a child, years ago, I feared an interminable history lesson - and in black and white, as well - but was absolutely staggered by the spectacle and raw excitement of it all. Even now, the film blows me away with its size and courage, effortlessly relocating me to a time and a place that still resonates with noble endeavour and a resounding sense of pride and valour. Between this and Saving Private Ryan - different films, different styles, but still brothers in arms - I would pick The Longest Day anytime. It never falters, never loses steam and still packs a mighty wallop.

    The Rundown

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