Judge Ryan Keefer observes that for all the talk of the recent 6/6/06 omens, he wonders if anyone can guess why June 6th is a day to remember.
"Believe me, gentlemen, 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."
Say you're producer Darryl Zanuck. You've produced films like Young Mr. Lincoln and you helped start 20th Century Fox. Even though you might have lost some power, producing a string of box office disappointments, you've optioned this little book by a guy named Cornelius Ryan who documented a slew of facts and items about D-Day and the Normandy invasion from the Allied and German sides of battle. You think that this film will be great, and you call all the good actors you can think of—Wayne, Fonda, Burton, Mitchum, Steiger, the list goes on and on. So how good is The Longest Day?
Facts of the Case
The following summation of events is from the film only, it's in no way conveying (or intending to convey) events on June 6, 1944, as they exactly occurred. There's the disclaimer; proceed onward dear reader.
The Longest Day covers an approximate 24 hour period starting the night before the Normandy invasion as many high ranking officers question whether the invasion should take place because of poor weather conditions. As the invasion was postponed once before (and if postponed again, could possibly not be done for another month), the go command is given. Dummy paratroopers designed to explode on impact were created and deployed as a diversion so real paratroopers could land in France. British and French forces were also used to help secure French towns and bridges. And all of this before the Normandy beaches were stormed…
On the opposing side, the Germans were aware of a possible invasion, but did not know when it would occur or the scope of it. It was only when they could intercept a French resistance message that would help put the final piece in the puzzle. Even as paratroopers landed in France, there were numerous German calls for tank support that went unreceived, as the order (which had to be approved by Hitler himself) never came. Many German officers felt the invasion (and possibly the war) was over before soldiers ever set foot on Omaha or Utah beaches as a result, despite the heavy American casualties that were inflicted.
What The Longest Day managed to do that other films before it may not have done as effectively was that it showed both sides of a war without making any emotional judgment in either area. Any opinions appear to come from any tactical or strategic decisions that are made. The Germans felt a Normandy-centered invasion would be counter to conventional combat logic, and even as there were reports of Allied force movement into France, many officers appeared to dismiss them.
Directed in several segments by Ken Annakin (Battle of the Bulge), Andrew Marton (King Solomon's Mines) and Bernhard Wicki (The Visit), the film really shows you the scope of the production in a lot of scenes, particularly Annakin's. There are a couple of sweeping shots, one of the troops storming the beaches under German aircraft fire and another as some French forces try to take a German post at Ouisterham that show just how much effort and choreography was involved to make sure things worked the way they should.
As far as the stars (or the proverbial galaxy in this case) go, The Longest Day features a cast rivaled by few films. Even though he's only in it for minutes, Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond) speaks volumes as a General who is also the son of President Theodore Roosevelt, who wants to be part of the invasion, despite his profile and pedigree. Others like Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night) go almost unnoticed, while you recognize the ones that went on to become huge stars, like a pre-James Bond Sean Connery. Richard Burton's (Cleopatra) scenes as a flight officer mildly ruminate on the madness of killing and war. A couple of performances do stand out from this film. The first is Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear), who boldly stands on Omaha beach with a cigar sticking out of his mouth like a Sergeant York figure that barks out orders when necessary. Considering what a lot of people have relayed about Omaha, to say that this may be an exaggeration may be a little generous. The heart of the film (or closest thing to it) arguably may be with John Wayne (The Searchers) as the Airborne Division Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort. He shows some reservations about a nighttime jump with his commander (played by Robert Ryan, The Wild Bunch), but has no hesitation when he finds out the mission is a go. He breaks his ankle when landing but presses on, and when he finds a company of his soldiers hanging from their parachutes dead, suspended along some phone lines, he is clearly shaken by the visual, as we are. All in all, megastars aside, The Longest Day is an ode to those who fought in the war, and, more importantly, is reverential to those that didn't make it back.
Fox has decided to put a second disc of extras on here to further enhance the value. Things start with a 20-minute recollection on the production by Annakin. Despite coming up on his 92nd birthday, Annakin has quite a few details on the making of the film and his working relationship with Zanuck, and how he wanted to keep to historical accuracy as much as possible. He also contributes a commentary track that has more of this info as well. Along with this is a History Channel look at the film called "History Through the Lens," but retitled "The Longest Day: A Salute to Courage." Narrated by Burt Reynolds, this piece talks about Zanuck and his desire to keep things real, and it includes biographical information on the producer and some coverage on his service in both World Wars. This contains interviews with Zanuck's surviving family, along with some of the cast and crew, and is contrasted by interviews with paratroopers and Rangers. Some of the fact vs. fiction looks at key scenes like the Omaha Invasion, St. Mere Eglise and Pointe du Hoc are discussed, and the film was originally going to be a little bit more implicitly anti-war in its original concept. These concepts however, were utilized by Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan and done to great emotional effect, so their inclusion four decades prior would have been very interesting. The AMC "Backstory" series did a look at the film that was a little redundant in its material (to the point of using the same interview with Red Buttons), but concentrated a little more on the film's realization to the screen. "D-Day Revisited" is a look at Normandy hosted by Zanuck as the quarter century anniversary of D-Day approached. He is upfront in the beginning about the piece, as it's a lot of helicopter shots or stationary shots of various parts of Normandy, and interspersed with clips from the film. At an hour, it's way too long and at times, I wondered who this documentary was made for? When I watched Zanuck discuss D-Day to a 22-year-old blonde French girl, I started to feel a little creeped out. At the end of the day, I got the impression that it was a really boring vacation film shown to a class of high school kids, but I later realized what Zanuck was trying to do in showing how things looked at that time, so I wasn't completely bitter.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In recent years (or at least since Spielberg's film came out), The Longest Day has been at the short end of some cynical jabs and even a little bit of vitriol when it came to its portrayal of events at Omaha beach. The lack of blood, the gung-ho soldiers charging the beach in ankle-high water, that's not what happened, a lot of vets said. On the "Salute to Courage" piece, it appears that the intent did exist for accuracy, but was rejected by the studio because of the possible issue of people not being able to handle it. So let's take things with that eye and understand that context, especially the next time someone screams "Too soon!" when watching a film about Sept. 11.
While perhaps not completely accurate in its historical events (and still suffering from the overdramatic death by bullets), The Longest Day has remained a powerful and lasting document on perhaps the most historical event in the 20th century.
Zanuck's film remains great to this (and any other) remotely long day. Not guilty.
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