Longest Day, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/04/04 14:38:38

"Still holds up as the best D-Day picture ever made."
5 stars (Awesome)

For most in my generation, the definitive D-Day movie is and will most likely always be “Saving Private Ryan.” But this ignores one minor point: “Ryan” isn’t actually about D-Day. Yes, it opens with that impressive battle sequence, but then it moves on to the weeks following June 6, 1944. And so it disqualifies itself. Which is fine, for that makes room for the real definitive D-Day picture, “The Longest Day.”

The film, a labor of love for Fox production chief-turned-independent producer Darryl F. Zanuck, was based on Cornelius Ryan’s remarkable book of the same title, which recounted the invasion in great detail thanks mostly to countless anecdotes of the men who were there. Zanuck’s movie retains that spirit, creating a retelling of that famous day that’s not only specific enough to appease any history buff but also personal enough to create fully involving drama. We get the facts and figures, the names and times, but we also get a more personal edge.

To help in this anecdotal film style, Zanuck enlisted three separate directors. Ken Annakin helmed the “British exterior episodes,” Andrew Marton covered the American ones, and, in a refreshing, unprecedented move, Bernhard Wicki filmed the German sequences, giving us not only a thankful dose of reality (the Nazis here speak in German, not the accented English we’ve had to hear in hundreds of war pictures before and since) but also an audacious glimpse at the enemy as real people. This is a rich, detailed portrait of D-Day that refuses to see any one side of the story in generic terms; how clever of the filmmakers to show us the enemy behaving just like us.

It’s ten minutes into the film before we even see an American or a Brit, and this sort of added time devoted to the Germans lends us a rare chance to get involved with the story as a whole. This is not a clear-cut tale of Us. Vs. Them; the story brings in various shades of grey. As a result, there’s more chances for the viewer to lean in and become involved, and we’re just as intrigued by the German failures as we are the Allied successes. (The film reminds us that the day could have gone differently had Hitler not slept in late that moring, had Rommel not left to celebrate his wife’s birthday, had so many other factors not have coincidentally happened.)

Watching “The Longest Day,” we get the sense that we’re seeing the recontruction of so many war stories, horrific, amusing, and everything in between. A favorite sequence comes when German and American platoons pass each other in the night, both looking skyward to see the planes buzzing overhead. Had they not been looking, a battle might have ensued. As it is, only one soldier noticed, and he was too stunned that nobody else noticed to take action. It’s the kind of friendly yarn your grandpa might have spun.

The screenplay (credited to Ryan but worked on by multiple writers) is full of moments like this. The padre looking for his Communion set in the swamp. The German soldier with his boots on the wrong feet. The G.I. who wins $2,500 playing craps, only to purposely lose it all before getting shipped out just to avoid a potential jinx.

These stories are plentiful, but they’re balanced by a strong dose of War Is Hell. Consider the scene - another favorite - in which a paratrooper (played by Red Buttons) gets his chute caught on the roof of a church. This begins comically, with this poor guy unable to get down. But then things turn, and the scene turns dark as the soldier has no choice but to hang and watch all his friends get shot. It’s comedy that melts into terror without warning, hardening the blow all the more.

These minor stories get spread out, acting as bumpers for the main action. Following nearly two hours of set-up, with both sides putting their forces into place like the world’s most important chess game, we finally get the main event: the storming of the beach. This is a tremendous moment, with cameras soaring above the expansive beach as thousand of extras face off agains explosions and gunfire. And remember, kids, this is decades before CGI. Every inch of the film image is the real deal; the beach really was reworked to look just like Omaha Beach, the explosions really were set to go off, the actors really were storming ahead in groups of hundreds. There is no cop out, no computer enhancement. It’s all jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly huge.

As the film juggles these massive battle sequences and the minor personal stories, and it also throws in all of the historical essentials. Henry Fonda plays Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., determined to lead his men into action depite health warnings. Robert Mitchum chomps it up as Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, who famously declared that “only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die.” Curt Jürgens gives us Nazi Maj. Gen. Blumentritt, who had to suffer defeat while knowing he’d easily have won if Hitler had not been such an incompetent military leader.

There are many more - “48 international stars,” as the posters would boast - with some of them filling out the minor, anecdotal roles, others wearing the shoes of important historical figures. Everyone’s here, from Richard Burton and Rod Steiger to Eddie Albert and Sean Connery to Paul Anka and Fabian. Consider this the first all-star disaster flick, or the biggest parade of marquee names since “Around the World In 80 Days.”

Above all these actors, there’s the Duke himself, John Wayne. Wayne’s role as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort acts as the central thread for the entire film, and while other cast members shine in their individual scenes, it’s Wayne who shines throughout. For the most part, he’s simply typical Duke, the gruff, no-nonsense cowboy soldier type. And his style of acting (or non-acting, as is the case) fits the role. But don’t let the rugged Dukeness fool you; it’s actually a compelling performance, one that hits its best notes in a late scene in which Vandervoort discovers paratroopers hanging from trees, shot during their jump. Wayne lets a dose of pain show through the macho exterior, giving the film its most heartwrenching moment.

Despite the cast of thousands and the credit of three directors, “The Longest Day” is unquestionably Zanuck’s film alone. This is the sort of epic movie that is produced, not directed. The coordination of this kind of production rivals that of the real D-Day itself (although it was just a movie, so let’s not exaggerate too much here), and it was Zanuck’s singular vision that drove this picture. (He even admitted - quite proudly - to directing a good chunk of it himself.) So when this film gets referred to as “Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day,” it is not a matter of ego. It is a richly deserved credit, as this is the crowning achievement in a legendary movie career.

With “The Longest Day,” Zanuck made an elegant, gripping, endlessly watchable tribute to the most important day of a most important war. It is, and will most likely always remain, the definitve D-Day picture.

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