RogerBW's Blog

The Longest Day 23 November 2016

1962 war, dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki and others: IMDb / allmovie

The tale of the D-Day invasion in 1944, with a literal cast of thousands.

This was one of the last of the "big" Second World War films, with filming in many of the real locations, combined with military advisors who'd actually been there (on both sides). It is nonetheless a film of its era: its mannered, bloodless beach assaults are unlikely to send combat veterans into post-traumatic stress attacks as the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan famously did, and that may not be a bad thing.

All the major elements of the fighting on the 6th of June are here: the glider assaults to secure the Bénouville and Ranville bridges, the scattered American paratrooper assault on Saint-Mère-Église, infiltration and sabotage by the French Resistance, and the battles up the landing beaches, on Pointe du Hoc and in Ouistreham. On the Axis side, we mostly see high command's uncertainty about whether this really is the full invasion or just a bluff, as well as a couple of pilots who end up in the only fighters strafing the beaches. Unlike many other American war films, this does admit that there were non-American Allied troops involved; even the Free French get a look in.

It sometimes comes over as more of a pageant of stars than a war film, especially when John Wayne is on screen (nearly 30 years older when filming started than Lt Colonel Vandervoort was in the real thing); he was enough of a star at the time that he was able to throw his weight around and displace Charlton Heston, who was originally offered the role. Most of the other big names are on screen too briefly to register as more than a cameo, and one or two are unrecognisable unless you're looking for them (for example Sean Connery's turn as a British soldier; he apparently asked for his part to be finished early so that he could go to Jamaica to work on a little-known film called Dr. No). Richard Burton has an effective cameo as an RAF pilot who's survived too many missions, and Robert Mitchum as an Assistant Division Commander makes his mark, but otherwise the characters are mostly there as focal points for the viewer rather than as drivers of plot.

The plot is of course pretty simple anyway: bad guys there, good guys here, good guys invade and beat bad guys with some complications. It's simplified further in that there's no mention of the utter failure of the invasion to reach its first-day objectives, or the hard fighting that was to follow. Still, the Germans are not shown as cartoonish villains: some are good men trying to do their best, others (typically higher-ranking) as self-interested politicians, but they're basically on the wrong side more than they are nasty people. (Hitler himself doesn't appear at all.) The film is based on Cornelius Ryan's book of the same name (he also wrote A Bridge Too Far), and I find myself tempted to read it; certainly this is closer to being a documentary than are the vast majority of war films.

Special effects are all practical, with some optical compositing; this becomes very obvious in shots of soldiers on board the landing-craft, with back-projected water and ships behind an obviously fixed boat in a studio, and I can't help feeling that it would have been easier to put a camera aboard the real thing. Other effects work much better: maybe there are squibs going off on the ground even after the strafing plane has pulled up, but dammit they're real squibs that the actors can really react to, not just a mess of pixels added months later.

There are plenty of factual errors as well as some equipment that is clearly anachronistic to the expert eye, but overall this works really rather well, and even at three hours and with all the foreigners subtitled I'd recommend it to a modern viewer.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:51am on 23 November 2016

    How did you manage to miss it so far?

    It was on the telly as part of a regular cycle of films when I was young and you could always expect to see it pop up when the June 6th anniversary came around. (Perhaps you still can: I no longer have a telly.)

    Sean Connery is doing a 'comic turn' in the same awful Oirish accent he used in DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE.

    Despite the lack of gore there are a few good moments of shudder at the (mostly unshown) horrors of war. Roddy McDowell making it ashore despite his fears and discovering the man beside him hadn't. The paratrooper (Red Buttons?) hanging from the church at St. Mere Eglise as his comrades are slaughtered in the square below. The lone lost paratrooper silently passing through a squad of Germans in the darkness.

    I may have watched this movie too many times.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:55am on 23 November 2016

    Never been much of a television watcher, and haven't had one this century. DVD/download/streaming/etc. has the virtue that I see the stuff I choose to watch, rather than seeing it because it's on.

    Also I have a complicated relationship with WWII (when I was young, it was assumed that you knew all about it so nobody ever mentioned it) which only really got resolved when I started the WWII-with-magic RPG campaign about ten years ago.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:08pm on 23 November 2016

    I like Michael have seen this film several times on TV. I agree it's better than many war films of the period.

    I also have Saving Private Ryan on DVD with the DTS soundtrack. With my surround sound system running I find myself flinching as bullets whip past on all sides. The beach landing sequence is a pretty tough experience to watch even as a civilian who has never seen combat (except when my neighbour punched me one time).

  4. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 10:21am on 24 November 2016

    All we need now is someone to do a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan with The Longest Day and Band of Brothers: it could be a long TV series.

  5. Posted by Michael Cule at 04:25pm on 24 November 2016

    THE WORLD AT WAR or maybe THE WINDS OF WAR for the 21st century. With better graphics and less pesky historical accuracy!

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