Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki. Screenplay by Cornelius Ryan, with additional episodes written by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, Jack Seddon; based on the book by Cornelius Ryan. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Music by Maurice Jarre. Photographed by Jean Bourgoin, Walter Wottitz. Edited by Samuel E. Beetley. Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Eddie Albert, Curd Jürgens, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, Rod Steiger, Irina Demick, Gert Fröbe, Edmond O’Brien, Kenneth More.
The Longest Day is a war movie of both impressive scope and less-than-impressive humanity. That makes it completely of a piece with the time it was made, in which war movies were allowed to be earnest, straightforward and…forgive me, simplistic. At some point war epics were allowed complexity and rough edges, but The Longest Day is told in the classical mode, in which personalities give way to combat scenes that are impressively staged and distressingly anonymous. True, the movie contains a cavalcade of Hollywood stars and character actors (John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, etc), but that feels like a blatant attempt to use familiar faces to add false resonance to the happenings onscreen. By the time we get to the lengthy climax, many of the characters are so murky and undefined that we might as well be watching dots on a map.
The result is a war epic that feels impersonal. It throws a lot of facts at us, and we can appreciate the strategies involved, but rarely has a film of this size dealt with such shrunken emotions. To a certain extent, I think facts can bog down a motion picture, since films are most successful when they’re about emotional truths, not minutiae (there are exceptions). The Longest Day comes from a time when real life events needed no diagetic context; we’re expected to care for the soldiers who are thrown into battle simply because they are our countrymen, but today we are either more sophisticated in our appreciation of storytelling or more jaded in our empathy, take your pick.
The film is a retelling of the events of the Normandy invasion of June 5 & 6, 1944, but it’s more than a historical reenactment. It’s a detailed, perhaps even overly schematic overview of the entire operation. It tells the story from multiple perspectives: the U.S. Army (both ground troops and paratroopers), the British RAF, the German Army, Luftwaffe and generals, even the French resistance movement gets represented. It juggles a lot of characters and even goes so far as to provide subtitles to name many of them, although at some point we might be forgiven for not really paying attention to those too much. The movie opens by ping-ponging back and forth between scenes of the British and American forces (pensively waiting for an invasion order) the Germans in Vichy France (obsessively scanning for signs of imminent battle), and the French Resistance, (hiding in makeshift bunkers and praying for salvation). Then, the invasion begins, first with the paratroopers landing behind the lines, and then with the frontal assault on the beaches, in combat scenes of uneven effect.
The Americans, commanded by Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Henry Fonda) and led by Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort (John Wayne), Brigadier General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) and others, sit on the British isles and wait for an invasion order in the midst of dreadful weather that might derail the whole enterprise. The British do much the same, but with a more palpable sense of apprehension, best symbolized by Flying Officer David Campbell (Richard Burton). Campbell, who sits under a cloud of fatigue and depression, seems less like a person and more a handy emblem for the conflicted feelings of the Blitz-shaken Englishmen.
The Germans, meanwhile, do what they can to decode enemy transmissions. The higher-ups, led by General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt (Curd Jürgens), sitting in safe, cushy offices, are confident that even if an invasion occurs they have nothing to worry about, while their underlings furrow their brows, fret about defensive measures, and remain generally unconvinced. The French resistance remains shadowy, smuggling people out of enemy territory with easy tricks and organizing covert operations, but the face we latch onto most prominently is Janine (Irina Demick), who is quite capable, thank you very much.
The film pauses for little vignettes with these and other (many more) characters, but I’m not sure whether or not to describe them, because to do so is to essential spoil them, due to how thinly they are conceived. There are token references to girls back home, innocent childhood days long past, commanders who are proud of their men and make a show of being prouder, American paratroopers who contextualize their makeshift survival skills as a chance to meet women, you know, that sort of thing that they teach you in War Movies 101. Some characters exist simply to deliver single jokes, while others helpfully typify every sort of easy emotion the film is interested in signifying. In casting a wide net and establishing a vast cross-section of personalities, the movie assigns each one a single trait and uses that to define them. There’s not a character on screen who isn’t solely informed by a function of an overly figurative script.
In structure (not in tone), The Longest Day resembles one of those traffic-jammed romantic comedies with dozens of speaking roles, in the sense that no character in the film has a thought that is unspoken. They internalize nothing, so as not to confuse an audience far too busy keeping track of who’s who to manage some subtlety. So committed is The Longest Day to this style that at one point, an American starts to reminisce painfully in front of his buddy, and continues to do so after the guy leaves to go do something else. How helpful. Why, it’s as if he knows he’s in a movie, or something. At a certain point, criticizing this technique becomes less about this specific film and more about generally tackling the tropes of 1960’s Hollywood. Fair point. It’s just that here, in a drama about hundreds of people dying based on real events, my patience for old-school phoniness is notably thin.
The film admirably avoids some clichés, especially in its even-handed depiction of Nazis, who are depicted primarily as strategic adversaries of the Allies, rather than ideological opposites. That enhances the gamesmanship inherent in the numerous scenes of commanders trying to outmaneuver their opponents, but it creates a sterile, hermetically sealed version of World War II, where the stakes feel meaningless.
And it also creates an unfortunate imbalance. While the Germans are given a few extra dimensions, the Americans are one-note and scarcely credible. Most annoyingly, during the longish closing sequence during D-Day, very few of the American soldiers seem to be actually frightened. To compare this scene to the gritty and existential opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is probably unfair, but with 50 years of retrospect, one can’t help but notice that the American assault on Normandy in The Longest Day feels choreographed, especially the moments where soldiers pause for dialogue that feels exactly like dialogue, written by a screenwriter. The sequence is technically impressive, but emotionally hollow. It’s so disappointing.
If The Longest Day feels a little disjointed as it toggles between nationalities, perhaps there’s a reason for that. The British and French sequences were directed by Ken Annakin, while the German sequences were helmed by Bernhard Wicki. The American sequences were filmed by Andrew Marton, except for additional sequences Gerd Oswald and (reportedly) producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Lots of films split their efforts into “units,” directed by different people, but The Longest Day was downright splintered in its approach, and while existing as an interesting experiment it creates odd shifts in tone: the German sequences are flat but have some eerie touches, the British scenes sustain an weathered and eerie tone, while the American moments are frequently corny, with a touch of the jingoistic.
Essentially, the stars of the movie are tactics, not people. We see the Allies prepare for war, and we see the Germans respond. Codes are cracked, fortifications are attacked, and key pieces of real estate change hands. Even when things boil down to one-on-one combat (such as a sequence involving possession of a railroad bridge), it’s done at a remove, because the film values an unstated cause more than those who would die for it. The Longest Day, essentially, plays more like a field report than a story. Its closest contemporary is probably something like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), which is also more about a battle than about its participants. But that film is honest about its human characters even when it doesn’t dwell on them, while The Longest Day, on the rare occasions that it tries to give its characters color, paints with clichés that, today, I’m sorry to say, we see right through.
The actors do their best. My favorite is probably Richard Burton, who is the kind of presence who can hew out gravitas even within slim material. Wayne is Wayne, and we can enjoy him even though he feels brought onboard more for his symbolic import than what he can bring to his small role. Mitchum is hard-nosed, but not very interesting. The rest of the supporting cast is made up of many, many stars (Red Buttons, Sean Connery, Jeffrey Hunter, Kenneth More, Gert Frobe…) but sometimes these cameos are distracting, and other times they disappear into the faceless murk. For some of the appearances, I just don’t even see the point except to bolster a weak script.
There are effective moments in The Longest Day. I especially liked the bit when a German sentry peers into the murky morning fog, right before the Allied flotilla appears over the horizon. There’s a nice little pair of scenes involving a French couple who live in a house right by the beach, and have no love for the Germans; when the Allies arrive, the husband waves out the window in joy while the wife reasonably urges him to follow her into the basement. And there’s one great shot that almost forgives much of the weak American material, when a private wanders through the crowded American barracks, and the camera pulls back and back…and back…and back. For the most part, however, the photography (jointly by Jean Bourgoin and Walter Wottitz) is flat and workmanlike. Even the Normandy scenes, which should be a cinematographer’s slam dunk, seems to teeter between spectacle and intimacy, and ends up servicing neither.
The Longest Day is, in many ways, a relic of a gentler time, in which war films had a clearer sense of morality, and filmed combat was softened (the film is rated “G,” which is unthinkable today). We have evolved since then as filmgoers, and yet I don’t think The Longest Day does veterans a disservice, necessarily. But it does make unfortunate decisions that weaken the material. It’s about maps, not men. And perhaps the war was as well, to some. But what does it matter what they thought? The dead are still dead. And the deserve to be remembered. Whoever they were.