BACKSTORY: The Longest Day (1962) is the granddaddy of the war movie epics. Its progeny include A Bridge Too Far, The Battle of the Bulge, Battle of Britain, etc. It was a labor of love for famed producer Darryl Zanuck, who purchased the rights to Cornelius Ryan’s bestseller. Zanuck got multinational cooperation and brought in a international cast. At $10 million, it was the most expensive black-and-white film until Schindler’s List 31 year later. Zanuck used several directors and was very hands-on. He insisted on shooting at the actual locations whenever possible which included Ste. Mere Eglise, Pointe du Hoc, and Pegasus Bridge. The Omaha landings were filmed on Corsica. The movie was a box office success and was the highest-grossing black-and-white movie until, once again, Schindler’s List. It won Oscars for Cinematography and Special Effects, and was nominated for Best Picture (Lawrence of Arabia won), Art Direction, and Editing.
OPENING: A comely French Resistance operative named Janine (Zanuck’s new mistress, Irina Demick) uses her low-cut blouse to distract German soldiers while her fiancé smuggles contraband past them. Several other characters are introduced in mini-scenes. The sequence ends with Rommel intoning that the first 24 hours of the invasion will be “the longest day”.
SUMMARY: The Longest Day is a difficult movie to summarize because it is basically like the book – a series of vignettes bouncing between the Allies and the Germans. The first third of the film introduces the multitude of characters and gives the audience perspective on the Allied plans and the German cluelessness. Dialogue is used to inform the audience about the military situation. The role of the weather (its’ raining cats and chiens) is highlighted. Little details like the clickers used by American paratroopers for identification and the Rupert decoy dummies are introduced. It becomes apparent through the introduction of characters that the movie will be balanced between the brass and the boots.
Once the battle begins the film can be divided between its set pieces. Maj. Howard (Richard Todd, who actually participated in the assault on the bridge) leads a glider attack on the Orne River Bridge (Pegasus Bridge). There is some good POV and the scene is done with no soundtrack. The first bullets fly at the 53-minute mark of the movie. It’s a “guns and grenades” scene with lots of intensity, but no gore (typical of the whole film). The deaths are not silly, thankfully.
Next come a variety of paratrooper landings, again sans music but avec frogs and crickets. The confusion authentically depicts the “fog of war.” This leads to the famous Ste. Mere Eglise landing. Here the star is Pvt. Steele (Red Buttons), whose parachute gets caught on the church steeple. His comrades aren’t so lucky as they land in the middle of the German garrison.
The next big set piece is the Omaha landing. Werner Pluskat (Hans Blech) sees the armada coming right at him from a bunker in an iconic scene. The view is not tainted by CGI. The naval bombardment is realistic. There is a nice tracking shot following the first wave to the sea wall; no bullet wounds or blood. It’s the opposite of Saving Private Ryan, but if Zanuck had used that style, the 1962 audiences would have needed paramedics. It’s pretty large-scale, with help from the U.S. fleet available off Corsica. The other beaches are appropriately given less coverage, but each has its memorable moments, like when the Canadian correspondent accuses wayward carrier pigeons of being “damned traitors” or when German uber-ace Josef Priller (Heinz Reincke) and his wingman strafe Gold and Juno beaches.
The scaling of the cliff at Pointe du Hoc by the Rangers is grandly reenacted. Believe it or not, the standout is one of the teen idols recruited by Zanuck. Paul Anka runs around like an urchin with a Thompson. This scene also includes the killing of Germans attempting to surrender (“I wonder what ‘bitter, bitter’ means.”). The movie emphasized the myth that the assault was useless because the targeted guns were not emplaced.
Shocking for an American movie, the movie’s biggest set piece is the French assualt on the Ouistreham casino. This features a magnificent helicopter tracking shot of the French commandos charging through the streets. Most memorable here is the gaggle of nuns which walks through the maelstrom to help with the wounded. Eventually a tank shows up to wreck the German bunker.
The movie returns to Omaha so Gen. Cota (Robert Mitchum) can chew his cigar and kick some ass. “Only two kinds of people are going to stay on this beach – those that are dead and those who are going to die.” He encourages Sgt. Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter) to use bangalore torpedoes and TNT to blow a hole in the sea wall. Not exactly the way it happened, but neither was Savin Private Ryan.
CLOSING: Pvt. Schultz (Richard Beymer) has his arc that began with a crap game end with an intersection with downed RAF pilot Flying Officer Campbell (Richard Burton). This scene also closes the arc of the Nazi wrong-booted dude. Schultz represents the typical paratrooper when he comments that he has not fired his gun all day. He sums up the fog of war when he says, “I wonder who won.” Sadly, this question could be asked by many of my students before we cover D-Day. If they were to watch this movie, they would find out.
Acting – A
Action – 8/10
Accuracy – A
Realism – A-
Plot – A+
Clichés – A
Overall – A+
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Yes. Although there is only one significant female character, there is one significant female character. That’s better than most war movies. Just don’t tell your girl friend how she got the role. The violence is intense, but lacks gore or bloodshed. Plus, you can go back in a time machine and see what hunks looked like in 1962. If she loves Justin Bieber, there are three of them in this movie (Paul Anka, Tommy Sands, and Fabian)!
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: People who have not read Ryan’s book have faulted some of the obvious Hollywoodisms in the movie. And truthfully, there are vignettes and character developments that seem invented. However, as you will see if you go to my post on “History or Hollywood: The Longest Day,” most of the dubious elements are actually true to Ryan’s well-researched book. Some of the supposedly hokey dialogue in the movie is straight from the book (which was based on extensive interviews by Ryan).
As a tutorial, the movie does a great job telling the story of D-Day. Zanuck brought in 10 technical advisers, but entertainment and logistics trumped them in some cases (for instance, Rupert was a lot less photogenic in real pseudo-life, and there was no casino at Ouistreham at the time of the assault). Most problematic is the simplistic success at Omaha. The movie is often labeled a docudrama. This is a misnomer, but buttresses its claims to accuracy. It is easy to watch the way the movie covers most of the cogent facts about Operation Overlord and the balanced approach to both sides and think you are watching a documentary.
CRITIQUE: This is a big movie. Zanuck went all in and it shows. He literally commanded an army of actors and crew. The equipment is sometimes anachronistic (the ME-109s are actually ME-108s, for instance), but it was not from lack of trying. He also spent a lot of effort trying to get things right. For example, he originally tried to reenact the drop on Ste. Mere Eglise using actual paratoopers dropping from planes (uncooperative winds put an end to that noble attempt). The producer insisted all the dialogue be in the correct language; using subtitles was a bold move and sends a strong message that entertainment was not the only goal.
Some critics find fault with the cast and the acting. There is something of a stunt feel to it, but the variety of characters was based on the book, and why not have the best professionals play the roles? Granted, it is hard not to see John Wayne as playing Col. John Wayne (actually he is Lt. Col. Vandervoort). Can anyone seriously argue that Zanuck, who was making the epic WWII movie, should pass up the chance to have the biggest star on Earth and the man most associated with war movies in his film? By the way, when Wayne wanted in, Zanuck agreed to pay him $250,000 instead of the standard $25,000 the other stars made (Wayne forced the fee due to a grudge against a crack Zanuck made about the bombing of his own The Alamo).
The movie is uniformly well-acted. There is little scene-chewing by the stars in spite of their recognition that their screen time would be very limited. It is interesting to see how the big stars use little tricks of the trade to maximize their time on camera. The best example is the inflection Rod Steiger puts into his big line: “You remember it. Remember every bit of it, ’cause we are on the eve of a day that people are going to talk about long after we are dead and gone.” The amazing aspect of the casting is the most memorable performances are by the B-Listers. Richard Beymer (“Dutch” Schultz) and Hans Blech (Werner Pluskat) come to mind. More importantly, some of the performances made the actual people famous. What American would have cared about the fascinating “Pips” Priller (look him up on Wikipedia) if not for Heinz Reincke’s vibrant portrayal?
The cinematography is crisp black and white. Most of it is standard, but then you have the Ste. Mere Eglise drop and the casino tracking shot to marvel at. he movie has a surprising lack of score. This is so refreshing compared to other Old School WWII movies! No pomposity or mood manipulating.
The plot handles a complex topic in a way that you do not need much knowledge of D-Day to follow it. Unlike many similar movies, The Longest Day periodically informs us when and where the action is taking place. The jumping between the Allies and the Germans works well. The Germans are not demonized and in fact there is not a single “heil Hitler” in the film. For a serious pseudo-documentary, there are brief, but effective, interjections of humor.
CONCLUSION: Considering it was the first of its type (the big-budget, all-star battle epic) and has had many challengers over the years, it is amazing that you can argue The Longest Day is still the best of them all. I doubt it could be much better than it is, given the state of war movie making in 1962. I think it is also true to say that even with modern technology, a remake could not improve on it. Zanuck did not try to reinvent the genre, but he did create a subgenre and using orthodox methods fashioned a masterpiece. Although it is sometimes unfairly compared to Saving Private Ryan, it is actually the perfect companion to it. By watching both, one gets a well-rounded view of D-Day.
The War Movie Buff is a blog that reviews war movies with a focus on their historical accuracy. The goal is to compile a list of the 100 Best War Films, but all manner of war films are reviewed.