Tuesday, June 18, 2013

#15 - The Longest Day


                                TABLE OF CONTENTS

BACK-STORY:  “The Longest Day” 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”.  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 “Schindler’s List”.  It won Oscars for Cinematography and Special Effects.  It was nominated for 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 fiance 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”.
"Look at these, not at that hay"

SUMMARY: TLD 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.
"This place seems familiar"  (Richard Todd)

                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.
"Nobody touch my parachute on the steeple - it's iconic"

                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.  (Director: “every fourth man needs to die”.)  No bullet wounds or blood.  It’s the opposite of SPR, but if Zanuck had used that style, the 1962 audiences would have needed paramedics.  Its 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 wing man strafe Gold and Juno beaches.

"Every fourth man - die" - the director
                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.
Paul Anka - action hero

                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 commandoes 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.
"I don't care if there isn't supposed to be a
casino there, blow it up."

                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 SPR.
"Why do I have to be the last star to die?"
-  Jeffrey Hunter

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.     
"Anytime I see a Jerry with his boots on the wrong feet, I shoot him."
-  Campbell (with Breymer)

RATINGS: 

Acting -  A
Action -  8/10
Accuracy -  A
Realism -  A-
Plot -  A+
Cliches -  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 ten technical advisers, but entertainment and logistics trumped them in some cases.  For instance, Rupert was a lot less photogenic in real pseudo-life.  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.  He 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 is 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 “The Alamo”.)
"What do you mean no one can walk on a compound fracture?
Did you notice I'm John Wayne, you dumbass Pilgrim?!"

                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.  The 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, TLD 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 it 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.  As far as its placement at #16, I’m fairly sure it is superior to some of the higher ranked movies and could have a shot at the top ten on my eventual 100 Best War Movies list.

Once again I would like to thank the wonderful Internet Movie Firearms Database for the fantastic pictures.

 

7 comments:

  1. 1-The Longest Day is not the 'reflet'of the truth.
    2-Sirs,

    We would so like to show to you so many proofs that

    The true History is not in the so called ‘Memorial’

    Here it is : www.pegasusbridge.fr

    The private heritage of Aspeg, Musée de Pegasus Bridge as been

    Stolen by a complexe politico-militaro-touristique called ‘comité du débarquement’ with the

    Connivance of the Prefect and of the Justice ‘aux ordres’. France as become a Dictature !

    Proceedings in law are still going on.

    Please inform your public of this that they pay their entrance to thieves in order to see our
    Usurpated ownership.

    Of course, we can give to you all document you would like to see.

    Thanks in advance.

    Françoise Gondrée
    Fondatrice, Présidente
    Conseil d’Administration
    0033(0)6 67 24 03 50
    www.pegasusbridge.fr



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  2. Very intriguing comment. I do not speak French and have a limited memory of my high school and college French classes, but I think I understand there is some controversy involving the Gondree Café which was across the road from the bridge and is credited with being the first building liberated on D-Day. I could not quite figure out what the controversy was, although I spent some time researching it. The link is in French, unfortunately. I believe the family is upset about something. Can someone fill me and my readers in on what this is all about (in English please)?

    What I did discover is that the original bridge was replaced in 1993 with a wider bridge of the same style. The original was dumped in a field nearby. In 2000 a museum was opened nearby and the original bridge was incorporated into it by being moved to the grounds.

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  3. It's a grea movie and deserves to be among the Top 20. It wouldn't make my Top 20 but only because I prefer a few much newer movies. It's a bit too long but the cast is stellar.
    Sorry, I can't say much about the link, it's too much information for me to read and the way it is presented is a bit messy, tbh.

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  4. Hello, warmoviebuff. My name is Gary Cahall and I am a site administrator for MovieFanFare.com, a video collector’s blog run by video retailer Movies Unlimited which specializes in classic films and TV shows. I 'm working on our guest writer line-up for June, and I felt your The Longest Day review would be of interest to our readers. Would it be possible to reprint the article on our site on Friday, June 6 for the 70th anniversary? We would, naturally, provide a link back to your blog and run a short bio/promo if you supply it. Please get back to me at your earliest convenience at gary@moviesunlimited.com , and I look forward to hearing from you.

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  5. First of all, I do agree that The Longest Day is one of the great war movies of all time. Mostly because it tells the whole story of the D-Day in a way that is accurate at least on the larger scale. So by watching the movie you get mostly the correct idea of what happened.

    However, it is definitely done in the 60s style which means you don't get the real feel of combat. The overall attitude is almost cheery. The terror of war is not present. There are of course casualties, but most of them are just some nameless guys slaughtered in dozens, so you don't feel anything. Also the portrayal of combat tactics is at some points a bit unrealistic so you have soldiers making weird decisions.

    Also, while the movies does I good job of showing the German side from the commanders' perspective, it does not cover operations of the German troops. The combat is shown exclusive from the allied point of view.

    And yes, I am seriously arguing that John Wayne should have been left out or cast to a different role. Big stars are expensive and not needed in an epic war movie with countless characters. They can also be a burden to the director since big stars usually know their value and have demands. Satisfying those demands does usually not improve the overall quality of the movie. This might of course be in part because I'm not too fond of John Wayne. Especially later in his career he seemed to be acting John Wayne, not the character he was supposed to be acting.

    So personally I find it hard to compare movies like The Longest Day to newer efforts. They are products of their time and can be given A+ rating only when keeping that in mind.

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    Replies
    1. To make a war movie at that time and not have included Wayne among the multitude of stars would have confused the public and become an issue taking away from the movie. I found he was perfect for the role. I agree his later movies sometimes were caricatures of his screen persona, but I believe he was a great actor in his prime.

      I agree the movie is too anti-septic, but it was made in 1960. Graphic combat was a few years away. It does have some deaths among the main characters, but given the nature of Ryan's book (based on interviews after the war), it is not surprising most of the characters come through unscathed. As far as the German foot soldier perspective, the movie was already long enough. 3 out of 4 ain't bad.

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Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.