THE LONGEST DAY —–“You know those five thousand ships you say the Allies haven’t got? Well, they’ve got them!”
24-year-old Irish war correspondent Cornelius Ryan flew in a bomber over the Allied invasion of France on June 6th, 1944. The plane was one of 11,000 the Allies put in the air that day, covering the 5,000 ships in the armada below and 156,000 men set to slam head-on into Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall”. Countless millions around the world prayed for success. It had to succeed. An event you don’t forget. In 1959, after years of interviewing an army of participants, Ryan published “The Longest Day”, which eventually sold more than 25,000,000 copies. By the time legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck released his giant 178-minute movie version in 1962, after 200 days of filming, he’d sunk at least $8,600,000 into the most expensive black & white film ever made, put “42 international stars” on the marquee, gambled his career legacy and put the fate of a Cleopatra-consumed 20th Century-Fox on the line. A show you don’t forget. *
Filming in Normandy (on some of the actual locales including Saint-Mere-Eglise and Point du Hoc), Corsica and Cyprus, Zanuck used several directors, thousands of extras, part of the U.S. 6th Fleet and a half-million rounds of blank cartridges. It was the #2 hit of the year (after Lawrence Of Arabia), taking $34,200,000 in the States and another $15,900,000 abroad. Oscar nominations went up for Best Picture, Film Editing and Art Direction, winning for b&w Cinematography and the Special Effects.
It had been 18 years since the D-Day landings, and only a few films had addressed it—the so-so programmer Breakthrough in 1950, using a good deal of stock footage (there are only quick two snips of it in Zanuck’s film), and the nonsense 1956 ripoff D-Day the Sixth of June, best left in obscurity. The Longest Day landed in the high tide of the 60s Mega-Epics. How does this star-studded blockbuster shape up nearly six decades on? **
Overall, the celluloid invasion succeeds–its sheer production scale, propulsive narrative momentum, acres of star-power and stunningly orchestrated action scenes still pack a wallop. It self-inflicts some wounds by the script over-deploying exposition for actors to spout (officers having conversations about things they’d already know, in order to convey info to the audience), and a number of Old-School anvil-drops of Irony or Sage Pronouncements in lines like “We’re on the threshold of the most important day of our times” or “We’ve all changed a lot—pause—-since yesterday“.
Essentially, all the roles are cameos, some with more meat than others. Most work well, a few stand out, others seem needless, like Rod Steiger’s one brief bit. Roddy McDowall’s unconvincing wistfulness makes me squirm. Every review seems to make an issue of pot-shotting at John Wayne, who was 54, playing a character (Col. Vandervoort) who was 27 in ’44. Others have sport with Zanuck packing the cliff-assault on Point du Hoc with teen idols Robert Wagner, Fabian, Paul Anka and Tommy Sands (they all do just fine). Then again, the exposition-speak and the star-spangling won’t mean much, if anything, to most viewers younger than 45. Obviously, even with all the dying, the nearly bloodless standards of an earlier day don’t get within cannon-range of the show-it-all guts & gore of Saving Private Ryan.
The mediocre moments are just that–moments, easily dismissed in the sweep of a great many more effective ones. The documentary approach works smoothly, having the French and German characters speaking in their own languages, with leading figures identified via captions, with sharp black & white camerawork in a blizzard of incidents at multiple settings. Gallantry and tragedy crisscross with exultation and incongruity, and a cascade of sound and fury. In the cast, the most telling slices go to Robert Mitchum (bluff Gen. Norman Cota rallying his men on Omaha), Red Buttons (hung up on the church steeple during the slaughter at Saint-Mere-Eglise), Jeffrey Hunter (a bracingly honest death scene), Hans Christian Blech (startled Maj. Werner Pluskat), Eddie Albert —another honestly handled death scene—the movie gracefully avoids idiotic dying declarations, but it does give Sal Mineo a famously painful exit with “I heard TWO clicks!”
Nine major action sequences showcase intricately detailed and complex, often vast, yet easy-to-follow and exciting set-pieces of great skill, with superior craftsmanship shown by the second-unit directors, stuntmen, sound crews and effects technicians. There are some jaw-dropping shots of the nightmarish parachute fiasco in Saint-Mere-Eglise, the thunderous chaotic mayhem of Omaha Beach, the insane cliff-climb at Point du Hoc and a forlorn fighter-plane in a dizzying swoop over thousands of scrambling extras. The helicopter-tracking shot of the commando assault in Ouistreham is one of the most astounding segments of battle choreography ever done.
Maurice Jarre did the score, incorporating the most recognizable snippet of Beethoven’s 5th as well as the spirited theme tune written by Paul Anka. The epic gets off to a riveting start and things rarely flag: the three hours fairly charge by.
“Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts.”
Among the swarm: Richard Beymer, Richard Todd, Henry Fonda, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, Peter Lawford, Richard Burton, Mel Ferrer, Leo Genn, Edmond O’Brien, Sean Connery, Kenneth More, Wolfgang Preiss, Heinz Reincke, Gert Fröbe, Steve Forrest, Stuart Whitman, Tom Tryon, Ray Danton, Peter van Eyck, Paul Hartmann, Bourvil, Jean-Louis Barrault, John Gregson, Donald Houston, Alexander Knox, Ron Randell, Christian Marquand, Michael Medvin, George Segal, Leslie Phillips, Norman Rossington, John Crawford, Richard Dawson, Bernard Fox, Walter Gotell, Tony Mordente, Richard Münch and Madeleine Renaud.
* Cornelius Ryan and Darryl Zanuck feuded from the get-go, and though Ryan is credited with the screenplay, there were contributions from four other writers; novelists Romain Gary and James Jones, and scenarists Jack Seddon & David Pursall. Zanuck was so involved and obsessed that he directed a good deal of it himself, though screen credit went to Ken Annakin (Swiss Family Robinson) for the British episodes, Bernhard Wicki for the German, and Andrew Marton for the American. Marton, Elmo Williams and Gerd Oswald handled most of the extraordinarily complex and memorable battle scenes, the indispensable element. Myself, I would have given the Special Effects award to the other nominee in that category, Mutiny On The Bounty. It’s odd the Academy didn’t put the film up for Sound (which went to Lawrence Of Arabia).
** Hit the dirt! Incoming factoids! The casting of French actress Arletty may have raised a few eyebrows in her homeland, as she had spent 18 months in prison in 1945 for having had an affair with a German officer. Richard Todd plays the commander of the very unit that Todd served in on D-Day. Christopher Lee was turned down for a role purportedly because he didn’t “look like” a soldier: Lee had actual WW2 record cred up the kazoo. Sexy Irina Demick, 25, playing French Resistance damsel Janine Boitard, was 60-year-old Zanuck’s mistress. Zanuck pleaded with Wayne to join the cast, but, irked by the mogul giving him public grief over The Alamo, Duke demanded $250,000—ten times what most of the cast were getting. He got it, and special billing to boot.
Though the film has plenty to do for the Americans, Brits and French, it leaves out the Canadian contribution on “Juno Beach”, a bloodbath second to Omaha. Of course there is no mention of the thousands of French civilians killed during the attack. The daring and drama of June 6th overshadowed the Fall of Rome (June 4th), the vicious “D-Day of the Pacific” battle for Saipan ten days later and the gigantic ‘Operation Bagration’ launched by the Russians on June 22nd. As Wayne’s paratrooper observes “It’s a helluva war.”
Sure as shootin’, it made one hell of an impression on a 7-year-old boy. Every guy-kid I knew “played Army” as a religion, and The Longest Day’s day not only coincided with the eye-opening spectacles of Lawrence Of Arabia, Mutiny On The Bounty and How The West Was Won, it dovetailed with the first season of TVs Combat. Plus, everyone’s Dad and or Uncle had been in World War Two. JFK had skippered a PT boat. We were going to the Moon! ‘Victory’ was in our DNA. The wake-up-and-smell-your-innocence of something called a ‘Vietnam’ was just out of sight down the road, lying in wait like a leopard.