Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Longest Day (1962) -

Based on Cornelius Ryan's gripping international best-seller, the film presents a factual account of one of history's greatest battles, D-Day, June 6, 1994, when Allied forces under the command of Dwight D. Eisenhower stormed the beaches of Normandy and secured a foothold in Europe. One of the turning points of WWII, the film is a sweeping drama shown from the perspective of both sides, and features both common soldiers and commanding officers. It begins a few days before the assault and takes the audience through the nerve-racking run-up to the battle and through the first day. The International cast of 42 actors includes John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, and Henry Fonda.

The Opening Shot of the film.

This is still one of the best war films ever made and a monumental undertaking by producer Darryl Zanuck. A labor of love for Zanuck, it effectively honors the brave men and women who fought, and conveys the horror of battle. I first saw the film in 1969, the 25th anniversary of the actual invasion. 

Shot in large part on location (in some cases at or near the actual battleground), the film is packed with large and small details that made up the mosaic of the battle. One of the best sequences involves an attack by French commandos on a German stronghold in the town of Ouistreham. Shot from a helicopter, it shows Allied troops negotiating debris strewn streets as they approach a casino. They are under heavy fire the whole way, and like the beach scenes, explosions and machine gun fire burst all around them. Another memorable scene is the night paratroop drop by the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions on St. Mere-Eglise, where Red Buttons' chute lines get hung up on a church steeple. He dangles helpless, forced to watch the bloody slaughter below. And German Spitfires strafe the beaches in a long high camera shot, scattering the soldiers in panic as smoke billows upward. If not as realistic as Saving Private Ryan, the battle scenes here are still exciting and look mighty dangerous, and not reliant on CGI effects.   

The film's most dramatic moment comes with Major Werner Pluskat in his bunker. Odd happenings have alerted the Germans that something might be up. As a consequence, the German officer has been watching the sea all morning, but there is no sign of an invasion in his sector. About to retire, he takes one final look through the pillbox view slot. Suddenly the mist clears, and like ghosts, thousands of ships fill the horizon. It is shocking. The Navy's big guns unleash and the air is ripped by shells, showering Pluskat with dust and shaking the bunker to its foundation. It is a marvelous sequence.    

There are quiet moments too, such as Resistance fighters anxiously listening to radios, waiting for code words to cue their efforts, and Eisenhower's staff deliberations on the eve of the battle. Henry Grace plays Eisenhower. Bearing a remarkable likeness to the real man, Grace does a wonderful job capturing the immense pressure weighing on the Allied commander. His forehead is furrowed with deep worry as he consults his staff before making the decision to launch the invasion. It is a small window of good weather, but he knows that waiting is taking a heavy toll on the men and their morale. The scene effectively portrays the loneliness of high command.  

Wayne as Vandervoot, hobbled by a broken ankle.
Of course many of the actors are too old for their parts--Wayne was 27 years older than Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort and Robert Ryan 15 years older than Brigadier General James Gavin at the time of the battle--but these casting choices are easy to forgive. Newer generations of movie fans might not enjoy picking out the many cameos of by-gone stars, but this is great fun for older viewers.  

Robert Mitchum. 
This is the type of film that doesn't require a lot from its actors; action is paramount. But two performances that stand out are Mitchum's and Burton's. Mitchum looks authentically rugged chomping on a cigar as he urges the men off Omaha Beach, and Burton has a nice closing scene with Richard Beymer, who's been following the sound of gunfire all day, but always arriving too late. Burton points out a dead German he has killed--the man has his boots on the wrong feet. Beymer has the last word: "I wonder who won." Somehow, the scene perfectly captures the chaos and confusion of battle.  

Paul Anka wrote the rousing theme score and Maurice Jarre the original score. A nine-time Oscar nominee, Jarre was a long-time collaborator with director David Lean. He would win the award for next year's Lawrence of Arabia, and twice more for Lean films: Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1985.)

What Makes The Longest Day Special:

Zanuck painstakingly made the film as authentic as possible. Germans and French speak their own language with English subtitles, and it was filmed in black and white to give it the feel of a newsreel. Three directors were used on the production: Ken Annakin for the British exterior episodes, Andrew Marton for the American exterior episodes, and Bernhard Wicki for the German episodes. This no doubt gave the film balance.

And because Zanuck never dawdles too long on any one episode or any one actor, you get a better understanding of the immensity of the area contested and the staggering planning and execution that went into the real operation. This approach helps the film move along, making it seem shorter than it's three-hour running length. 

The Inside Story:

A few real battle participants acted in the film, including Richard Todd.

At $10 million it was the most expensive B&W film until Schindler's List in 1993.

Major Awards

Won Oscars for Best Cinematography (black and white) and for Best Effects. It was nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Editing, and Best Picture.

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