May 2024

The Longest Day (1962)


American scenes: Andrew Marton

British scenes: Ken Annakin

German scenes: Bernhard Wicki


Americans: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Beymer, Rod Steiger, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowall, Eddie Albert, George Segal, Paul Anka, Red Buttons, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Steve Forrest, Robert Ryan, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman

British: Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, Kenneth More, Sean Connery

Germans: Curt Jürgens, Hans Christian Blech, Heinz Reincke, Paul Hartmann, Richard Münch, Wolfgang Preiss, Peter Van Eyck, Werner Hinz, Gert Fröbe

French: Irina Demick, Christian Marquand, Georges Wilson


The king of the ’60s and ’70s epic WWII films.  One of the most colossal productions ever mounted, and a pet project of high-rolling Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, The Longest Day was an adaptation of journalist and author Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name, a 180 degrees chronicle of D-Day from compiled interviews from both Allied and German participants, as well as French Resistance agents and civilians.  Like Ryan’s book, the movie tells the story of the pivotal Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France in June 1944 from every conceivable angle, from the Allied commanders risking it all on a nail-biting roll of the dice, to their harried German counterparts across the English Channel struggling to organize an effective counterattack amid hopeless confusion, to the common soldiers fighting it out on the beaches and in the hedgerows, to the French Resistance fighters doing their part to aid the liberation of their country, to the French civilians, overjoyed even as they are plunged into the middle of one of the most famous battles in history.  This is a boon to history buffs with a strong interest in the subject matter, while those less enthralled might uncharitably refer to The Longest Day as “the longest movie” (it runs a formidable three hours).  It’s not for everyone, and it lacks the intensity and immediacy of smaller-scale, more character-driven onscreen depictions of the D-Day invasion from Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, but for history buffs seeking a comprehensive overview of D-Day, or fans of classic ’60s and ’70s war films, this is an epic “classic” the way they don’t make them anymore.

June 1944: After months of preparation, the Allied High Command is ready to launch Operation Overlord, the long-awaited—and long-delayed—invasion of Nazi-occupied France (the front lines of what Adolf Hitler has portentously dubbed “Fortress Europe”).  Despite unfavorable weather conditions, the overall Allied military commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Henry Grace) reluctantly gives the greenlight, unwilling to endure any further delays.  Across the English Channel, the Germans have had months to prepare as well, covering the beaches with land mines, obstacles, and pillboxes, but their uncertainty over precisely where the Allies will land, the unfavorable weather conditions lulling them into false security, and having their hands tied by their own micromanaging and complacent High Command will all contribute to their downfall.  Before dawn on June 6, 1944, paratroopers are launched inland into occupied France to help lay the groundwork and sow confusion, aided and abetted by the French Resistance, and then at dawn, a massive armada of men and ships hit the beaches of Normandy.

Like most “classic war epics” of the 1960s and 1970s (along with its “cut from the same cloth” cousins like The Battle of Britain or A Bridge Too Far), The Longest Day is overflowing with a star-studded cast to the extent where watching the movie is like playing a game of “spot the movie star”, with the American and British casts in particular a virtual roll call of anybody who was anybody at the time (and some who weren’t yet famous, like a pre-Bond Sean Connery).  And like those films, the vast array of characters and the constant rotating among them is both an asset and a detriment.  On the one hand, the huge ensemble cast gives the film great scope and helps to show every aspect of D-Day.  On the downside, the lack of focus on any individual character limits the human interest or emotional impression.  Many of the actors’ scenes are few and far between, and some simply walk on, say a few lines, and are never seen again.  The Longest Day is a chronicle of the operation itself, not a character-based drama.  While a film such as Saving Private Ryan throws us straight onto the beach and into the trenches with the common soldiers with immediacy and intensity, The Longest Day is a bird’s eye view, keeping it at more of a detached, documentary distance.

Somewhat ironically, the weakest scenes are often the American ones, hampered by corny dialogue in big flag-waving speeches and too many characters spending too much time standing around and solemnly droning on about how important this day is.  We all know D-Day was important, and even if we didn’t, surely there is a better way to get that across than having actors simply stand there and tell us over and over.  Such heavy-handedness—as well as some questionable 1960s acting veering between laughably wooden or laughably overdramatic—weakens a number of scenes.  Too often, the American characters launch into flag-waving speeches that not only feel obviously scripted for the benefit of patriotic American viewers flocking to the theater, but also overly self-aware, like characters who know they’re movie characters (Curt Jürgens’ German General Blumentritt has a “the war is lost” monologue later on that has the same effect).  John Wayne—who was paid $100,000 more than his co-stars and is undeniably onhand primarily for his megastar status—has probably about the most screentime of anyone as the hard-ass paratrooper commander Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort, who stoically leads his men to their objective even while hobbling on a broken ankle using a rifle as a crutch.  Robert Mitchum chomps on his cigar and his overripe dialogue as General Norman Cota, who must lead his men up the beach under heavy fire, but spends most of his screentime solemnly imparting the seriousness of the day before he finally actually really does anything.  Henry Fonda has a few scenes as General Theodore Roosevelt, son of former President Teddy Roosevelt, who is determined to hit the beach with the troops despite arthritis, Richard Beymer is a young paratrooper, Sal Mineo lands on one of the heavily defended beaches and Robert Ryan is far too old for the youthful General Gavin.  We have a smaller British contingent, with Richard Burton as a cynical Battle of Britain veteran who (in one of the movie’s various melodramatic one-liners) says “the thing that’s always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer), Kenneth More stealing his bit with panache as a flamboyant Scotsman, and a pre-James Bond Sean Connery (his Goldfinger nemesis Gert Fröbe also has a fatuous bit part as a portly German sergeant).  Familiar faces are also scattered around in bit parts, including Mel Ferrer, Red Buttons, Fabian, Eddie Albert, and Stuart Whitman, with George Segal, Robert Wagner, Paul Anka, and Roddy McDowall in small roles as American soldiers, Rod Steiger as a destroyer commander, and the film debut of Richard Dawson as a British soldier.  Dwight Eisenhower makes a cameo, played by a man named Henry Grace who was a set decorator cast in the bit part for his uncanny resemblance (reportedly it was considered for Eisenhower to play himself before it was decided makeup couldn’t hide the age difference).

In contrast to the flag-waving American scenes, the German sequences are to-the-point and no-nonsense (the differences in how the winners and losers of a war portray themselves after the fact, I suppose).  The standouts among the German contingent are Hans Christian Blech as Major Werner Pluskat, who first sees the invasion fleet appear out of the morning mist off the coast and then endures a long, grueling journey back to headquarters amid heavy bombing, Heinz Reincke as Luftwaffe pilot Josef “Pips” Priller, fuming at being reduced to only two planes when the invasion could come at any moment, and Curt Jürgens as General Günther Blumentritt, who remarks with scathing sarcasm that “we are going to lose the war because our glorious Führer is not to be awakened“.  War movie staple Wolfgang Preiss is General Max Pemsel, trying to coordinate a counterattack with limited forces and poor information, and Richard Münch is General Erich Marcks, who shrewdly points out in hypothetical war games that the Allies would achieve the most surprise by attacking when everyone assumes the weather is too poor, and at Normandy rather than Pas-de-Calais (where the Germans and Hitler himself assumed the invasion would take place, as the shortest straightest route across the English Channel) but considers Eisenhower too cautious to actually go through with it.    

From a purely filmmaking standpoint, one has to admire the ambition of the production.  An estimated 23,000 soldiers were supplied by the US, Britain, and France, with France contributing 1,000 commandos (despite being embroiled in the Algerian War at the time), leading Darryl F. Zanuck to joke that he was “in command” of more troops than any actual General during the war.  At $10 million (a costly sum in 1962), the film was considered a risky prospect, but it turned out to be one of Fox’s biggest hits and helped offset costs of its unprecedented $40 million flop Cleopatra, which had been filmed concurrently.  So great was the scope that Zanuck appointed three directors, American Andrew Marton, British Ken Annakin, and German Bernhard Wicki, to handle the separate American, British, and German sequences.  The battle scenes are sanitized by modern standards, especially in comparison to the gritty, bloody realism of Saving Private Ryan, but what they’re grand in scope and epically-mounted.  There is one sweeping tracking shot covering a long length of beach covered with thousands of soldiers and vehicles.  Alas, while perhaps an inevitable effect of the time period in which it was made, the massive casualties of the beach landings, portrayed unflinchingly in Saving Private Ryan, are greatly watered-down and largely glossed over here.  However, there is a long and occasionally cringe-inducing scene in which a unit of Vandervoort’s paratroopers miss their drop zone and come down right in the middle of a unit of German soldiers, with many killed before they hit the ground, and one unfortunate paratrooper actually landing inside a burning church.  Other memorable moments include a French Admiral reluctantly giving the order to open fire on his own country, a battle forced to a halt by a procession of stoic nuns, Allied planes strafing a column of German troops, and a Frenchman so overjoyed to greet the Allies that he rushes onto the still-contested beach.

The film follows Cornelius Ryan’s book with meticulous detail, with much of the dialogue taken verbatim from the actual words of the historical figures (it was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself who gave the book and film its title by remarking that “for the Allies, as well as the Germans, it will be the longest day“).  Zanuck also insisted on the touch of authenticity of casting actors of their characters’ nationalities and speaking their own languages (the Germans speak German, and the French speak French, with subtitles).  Various D-Day participants, both Allied and German, portrayed by actors in the movie were real-life technical advisers to the production, including Dwight Eisenhower, James Gavin, Günther Blumentritt, Max Pemsel, Josef Priller, and Lucie Rommel and Manfred Rommel, the widow and son of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.  Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) served as an uncredited script consultant.  The film does a good job showing the confusion and uncoordination which plagued the German counterattack (or lack thereof).  Field Marshal Rommel (Werner Hinz) had gone on leave for his wife’s birthday, secure in his confidence that the Allies would never attack in such poor weather conditions.  There were Panzer reserves being held inland, but Hitler had taken control of them himself, meaning they could not be released without his authorization, and his sycophantic chief of staff General Jodl (Wolfgang Lukschy) refuses to wake him. German Generals at their headquarters miles from the front had to try to make sense of panicky and contradictory reports flooding in from all over the coastline, and were in no position to strike back effectively.  It had been generally assumed that the invasion would come at Pas-de-Calais, and when the naval bombardment and landings began at Normandy, many on the German side—including Hitler and his High Command, along with Field Marshal von Rundstedt (Paul Hartmann), commander-in-chief of all German forces on the Western Front—believed it was a diversionary maneuver, and the true main assault would still be at Pas-de-Calais.  Further confusion was sown by the Allies parachuting man-sized dummies into France, and the French Resistance (represented principally by Irina Demick, at the time Darryl F. Zanuck’s girlfriend, and Christian Marquand), helped hinder the German counterattack by blowing supply lines, ambushing German troops, and sheltering Allied paratroopers.

The Longest Day is bloated and ponderous and overlong, with a lot of bluster and flag-waving, but it conveys a convoluted operation from a 180 degrees perspective with great scope and clarity.  It’s the kind of “epic” Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, and while that might not be such a bad thing, any fan of these kinds of grandiose star-studded war epics of the 1960s and 1970s should check out the granddaddy of them all, as should anyone with a strong interest in D-Day.  For those who don’t fall into either of those categories, however, it might be a slog.

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