The Longest Day

by Mark D. Jackson

 

For almost three decades when people thought of a Great War movie it is likely that they immediately thought of Darryl F. Zanuck's, "The Longest Day". The film meticulously recreates the events preceding and during the invasion of Normandy. " 'The Longest Day' is more a film of tragedy, glory, and courage involving one very important day and the hundreds, even thousands of lives that were forever changed. And even though the filmmakers who produced the movie were mainly American and English, the movie portrays the Germans fairly. Without some of the stunning visuals that the five directors put in the film, it would have been impossible to comprehend the scale of the invasion."(The Longest Day- Book v. Movie p-1)

This excellent movie gives the big picture about the D-Day Invasion, "Operation Overlord" on June 6, 1944, a taskthat involved some 3.5 million men, 2/3 of whom were Americans. Unlike more recent pictures about D-Day, like "Saving Private Ryan", also excellent, which give a micro view of the largest invasion in history, "The Longest Day" gives a macro view, showing the massive preparations and logistical nightmares on both sides of the English Channel. Yet there is more: "The Longest Day" also shows the horror of the invasion from the point of view of the individual soldier, sailor, and airman, with great performances from a select group of world-class actors.

 One issue in this film involves the actual site of the invasion. "The Longest Day" makes clear how difficult it was for the Germans to determine that an actual invasion was taking place. The Allies had been threatening attack for months and filling the airwaves with coded messages aimed at the resistance. On the night of the attack, the German commanders of the fortification guarding the Normandy beaches and the sea were unaware that some 20,000 airborne troops had parachuted behind their lines in the early hours of the morning, nor did they know that the French Resistance had been mobilized and had begun to destroy their communications that same night. One of the fine ironies of the day was the fact that Hitler had taken a sleeping pill and left orders not to be awakened; however, his direct order was needed to free up the German reserves that were very necessary to fend off the allied attack. General Von Blumentritt, in a futile conversation with the commanding General of the German High Command, begged for tank reserves but was rebuffed with the insane excuse and found it very revealing, and of considerable historical importance. Rommel too, and a dozen other senior German commanders were away from their posts at the time of the attack.

 There are many very fine performances in this film. Many things remain in the viewer's memory: the brave female resistance fighter, who does not hesitate to attack an armed German soldier, or to use her "womanly wiles " in subterfuge, John Wayne's determined, irascible commander avenging his troops, the brave, down-to-earth British soldier who leads the first attack in the middle of the night to capture a soon-to-be demolished bridge, the UK beach commander who exhorts his fighters to get off the sands because the company mascot "Winston" is in danger ("It's very bad for the dog!") This scene features "Winston", the bulldog, the mascot and companion of the beach head commanding officer, and the hotheaded, cynical German Luftwaffe pilot, who is a constant headache for his frazzled superiors. All performances, in fact, are excellent.

 The film opens on the day before the invasion when some German high command officers wonder if the allies are going to attack the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. They are concerned and worried, and try without success to reach a sleeping Adolf Hitler. They make the mistaken choice to have the German troops under them remain on base. Unfortunately for the German High command in France, their mistaken assumption about the Allied plan of attack would be their doom. The first few scenes of the movie cover the military and political backgrounds of the leaders to the invasion. Such scenes cover the war from both the allied and the axis soldiers' perspective as well as that of civilians who were helping the Allies as well. There is also another civilian scene, in which a German soldier goes to a French dairy farmer and gets some of his just ready to drink milk and heads off on a mule. This is a daily routine that is resented by the farmer and illustrates the minor abuses imposed on the French people by the German army. A little later, when the same French dairy farmer hears the beginning of the battle and the artillery explosions, he opens up his window and shouts his blessings and praise on the Allies, much to the fears of his frantic wife, who is hiding in their house and trying to get her husband to go with her in an attempt to flee the certain beach invasion to come and the carnage that would result. There are also some rather wonderful moments among the many scenes with soldiers as well. In one scene, a US Ranger private (Fabian) who was one of thousands who had been on extremely crowded troop ships for hours and days and who had won a lot of money in craps purposely loses it due to his superstition that its loss will enhance his chances of survival. As the battle goes on, a lot of sacrifice is entailed and gains are made; the Allied side is victorious. The cast members who play roles in the film are excellent and they add depth and character to it as well. Outstanding performances are given by JohnWayne, Eddie Albert, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Red Buttons, Mel Ferrer, Steve Forrest, Roddy McDowell, Peter Lawford, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Paul Anka, Sal Mineo, George Segal and Fabian. Moreover, for a film shot in 1962; the special effects are great.

 The Germans and the French are admirably presented using the correct languages. This approach has the potential to be annoying; films that flip back and forth between languages are sometimes awkward and clunky but in this particular presentation the dialogue is well done and adds a degree of authenticity. The viewer does not really notice it here. In fact it is actually fun, instead of feeling like a listening comprehension test.

 While several German & French actors are involved in this film, and while even Rommel's widow is listed as an advisor, make no mistake about it this is a film heavily rooting for the Allies. There were a number of bizarre circumstances that crippled the Germans: they probably could have taken the day fairly easily had everything gone their way but General Jodi refused to awaken Hitler to authorize the move of the reserve Panzers, and all the aircraft but two had bizarrely been moved further into more firmly-held French territory. The two airplanes the Germans had managed to get airborne most likely strafed their own soldiers as much as the Allies. This is historically accurate, and shows that much of war is sheer luck. The Germans are caught making a mistake very similar to the one the American Navy and command staff had made just prior to Pearl Harbor.

 "The Longest Day", based in Cornelius Ryan's book of the same title, is a brilliant rendition of the famous D-Day invasion of Normandy. The film is accurate, depicting the perspectives of all sides of the war, and of those involved in the event: the American, British, French and the Germans. Multiple viewpoints give the film an objective feel, as opposed to the over-glorified subjective views of most other war films.

Although "The Longest Day" somewhat lacks character development and the typical movie plot that follows the "plight of the hero", it still manages to involve the viewer in the cataclysmic events that surrounded D-Day.

The directors of "The Longest Day" (Darryl Zanuck, Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Gerd Osawald, and Bernhard Wicki) went to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of the film. Many of the scenes were filmed on actual locations, the most notable being the beaches of Normandy and the French town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In fact, the filming was so realistic that it caused several French locals to throw stones at the actors in German uniforms. In addition to that, much of the movie was filmed in the precise weather conditions that characterized the events that took place more than a half of a century ago. Some of the actors were also actual veterans of the D-Day invasion, including Lt. Richard Todd, who portrayed Major John Howard in the movie.

 Overall, the film's accuracy is noteworthy. The facts and the events are precise, although some of the details are a bit sketchy. The most notable weakness is in the watered-down accounts of the beach landings. "The Longest Day "lacked the horrendous roar of artillery and machine gun fire that would have been both deafening and overwhelming. The film neglected to show the blood and gore and the horror that many soldiers experienced and that were an ever present distraction during the ever most minor of battles. "In the film, most of those who were shot had the privilege of dying instantly and painlessly; in reality, most soldiers died a slow, agonizing death, crying out to their mothers while at the same time trying to hold in their intestines with their hands. In reality, the soldiers had a much more difficult time during the landings."(Reviews on Longest Day at Epinions .com) "The Longest Day" gives the viewer the impression that the soldiers had a jolly good time stepping off the landing craft and walking knee deep to shore but that was clearly not the case. The brutality of the landing and the battle that resulted is an experience that the ordinary people back home can only begin to imagine. For the soldiers landing, the water was high enough for the men landing to drown; some did in fact drown because they were weighed down with equipment, and others were just too tired to run for cover by the time they reached the beach. The invasion had been on standby for several days, waiting for the order from General Dwight D. Eishowner, with most if not all the soldiers waiting endless and sleepless hours on crowded rocking ships and landing craft. The window of opportunity was very slim, having to take into account the weather and tides. A postponement would have meant another possible three months of delay. The very prospect of delay was calculated to be an unacceptable risk due to security and the continued efforts of the Germans to strengthen their many beach fortifications.

 One of the most notable figures in this film is Brigadier General Norman Cota, played by Robert Mitchum. He is portrayed as a charismatic leader amidst the frenzy of Omaha Beach. The Allies had suffered severe casualties, among them all the engineering officers. All seems to have been lost as men lay helplessly on the beach while others from scattered companies were pinned against the sea wall. Cota quickly motivated the soldiers with a brief speech, ending with, "I don't have to tell you the story, you all know it. Only two kinds of people are going to stay on this beach- those that are already dead and those that are going to die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the fighting 29th!" With that, the soldiers proceeded to collect weapons, and prepared to mount an attack.

 If one were to present this movie in the classroom, there are several clips that would be ideal to use. First, the film clip of Eisenhower's decision to execute the Normandy invasion shows the tremendous responsibility, the importance and gravity of what he had to weigh and face. The Germans were fully capable of stopping the Allies right on the beaches, but only if they knew where to expect them. Great resources had been expended to ensure that the Germans would not discover the location of the invasion. Operation Bodyguard and other top-secret operations were initiated. An army under General Patton that existed only on paper was strategically placed to fool the Germans into thinking that the main invasion force would be led in North Africa by the successful general. The decoy body of a British officer was painstakingly prepared , placed and floated to Spain as a decoy, carrying papers of invasion plans through Pas da Calais. Despite all of these precautions, generals like Erwin Rommel still remotely suspected an invasion through Normandy, but perhaps gave little credit to the possibility.

 Another interesting scene from the film was when General Blumentritt tried to call Hitler to request tank support. If the Panzers had started rolling into Normandy, there'd be a very small chance of the Allies surviving for long in coastal France. However, the request did not go through because the aide refused to wake Hitler. Several days later, the tank battalion still had not received the order to deploy due to the fact that some generals still considered the Normandy invasion as a diversionary attack. They believed that the main force would arrive at Pas de Calais. By the time the Germans released the tanks it was already too late.

 The disastrous landing of the 82nd Airborne was a very powerful scene. Due to poor weather conditions and high winds, many of the aircraft failed to find their exact drop zones. And when the paratroopers jumped, high winds scattered them all over town. Pvt. Steele (Red Buttons) was caught on the steeple of a church after he jumped. He hung there helplessly as he watched his comrades fall directly into German gunfire. The scattered paratroopers were lost and confused, but they also managed to confuse the Germans. Because the soldiers were spread so far apart, the Germans were unable to consolidate their forces to attack in a focused and specific way.

 Henry Fonda won a Bronze Star for his services in the American Navy. Leo Genn was a Lt. Colonel in the Royal Artillery, and still managed to appear in a couple of movies made while he was on leave. Originally a lawyer, Genn also took part as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial. Jeffrey Hunter served a couple of years in the Navy, and Curt Jurgens is another graduate of Hitler's Concentration Camps.

 Kenneth More was another Royal Navy man, and Rod Steiger was a torpedo man in the American navy. Richard Todd took part in the Normandy invasion as a Lieutenant in the Royal Paratroopers. Stuart Whitman was not only in the Army Corps of Engineers, but did some boxing while he was in .the army. On the British side, Christopher Lee (who appears in the movie without credit) also served in the RAF and the British Intelligence Service.

 These are just some of those who contributed to the making of this magnificent film. Ken Annakin is responsible for those incredible panoramic aerial combat views and did such an outstanding job that George Lucas named his Star Wars character, "Annakin Skywalker", after him.

 Some have criticized the dialogue of this film as being "old fashioned and wooden." But, much of the "old fashioned and wooden" dialogue draws on actual remarks recorded in correspondence and diaries of the time. The "clowning" of American troops, in comparison to the "dead earnest" German troops doesn't make our guys look any less professional. It just demonstrates that our men fought so fiercely because they were Free Men in uniform, while the Germans were as much captives as the nations they occupied.

 Hanging in a parachute on the steeple of the church at Ste. Mere Eglise wasn't a joke. Paratrooper Private John Steele (Red Buttons) was actually stuck in such a situation for 14 hours and had to watch helplessly while the Germans in town shot his buddies as they landed. Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoot (John Wayne) actually did continue to lead his troops in combat after breaking his ankle upon landing (though he did not suffer the compound fracture mentioned in the movie).

 These are not figments of a script writers' imagination; they are real. German General Blumentritt is actually recorded as saying, "This is history, we are living an historical moment. We are going to lose the war because our Glorious Fuhrer has taken a sleeping pill and is not to be awakened." Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was, in fact, the man who gave author Cornelius Ryan the idea for the title of the book when he said (of any invasion attempt from England) "Believe me, Gentleman, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as the Germans, it will be "The Longest Day… The Longest Day"!

 The film frequently focuses on the German side, and how they were preparing for the attack against. What makes this film so realistic is that it not only takes place on the shores of Omaha Beach, but also goes into the small rural towns of the French people. It does not take sides, but makes both sides look professional in some way. Directed by Darryl F. Zanuck, it is nearly three hours in length with an enormous ensemble of a cast, all playing supporting roles. The actors were always of the same nationality as their characters, and spoke in their native languages. Some of the actors included John Wayne as "Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoot", Red Buttons as Pvt. John Steele" and Paul Anka as "US Army Ranger.

 Among the hustle and bustle of big shot Hollywood actors, this film also posed key factual references and truthful realistic scenes, the most vivid being the D-Day invasion, in which we see troops storming Omaha Beach. Then there are the "not-so-vivid" scenes, which take place in the offices of German Generals. These scenes provide key information as to how prepared the Germans were before the U.S. even arrived. This imprints a sad thought in the minds of the viewers as they watch. It angers the viewers not only because the Germans are shown setting up to destroy other countries, but also because the viewers see how their own country may be falling into the German trap.

 "Beneath the strong, meticulous use of detail of the film, even "The Longest Day" can make a mistake here and there. If we first take a look at the D-Day invasion scene, we can see all of the vehicles driving up the beach. Yet, ifwe look closer we can see that among these vehicles are LCM-8s, which were not built until 1954. A minor slip up not noticeable by the average eye, but if you are looking at every detail, then this slip up may be a major one. In this very same scene, we can notice yet another mistake. A compound fracture of an ankle indicates blood and/or protruding bones, which Vandervoot's ankle had." It would have been impossible to put any weight on that ankle, but in the film the character got up and walked on with help of a friend. Then many scenes later, we see him walking as if nothing had happened at all. In a final scene of the film, when an American General is taken up to "Omaha Beach", it's actually Juno Beach where the Canadians landed! This suggests to the person who knows nothing about the war itself that Juno Beach was where the American General was taken. Of course, this mistake alters history itself. (Reviews on Longest Day at Epinions .com p-2)

I think perhaps the struggle and hardship that the French people endured over the course of the war after the fall of France to Germany were part of a situation that many had paid less attention to over the course of history and filmwatching on war related topics. This film is, without a doubt, one of the best War films ever made. The outstanding quality that shines out from the start is the real story line and how it is told. This film has the potential or ability to inform with a great deal of realism and truth for a person with little or no knowledge of the War. There are many quality films of this era that are focused on the War or a specific event during the War, and films of more recent years that are perhaps better in ways allowed by new film technology or production techniques. "The Longest Day" will forever be a favorite and is one film that will continue to reward viewers as they go back and watch it from time to time.