The Longest Day SE Review

In 1962 the fate of one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, 20th Century Fox, rested on two very different epics. One was the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor monstrosity Cleopatra, a film with a budget spiralling so far out of control it was single-handedly pushing Fox to the brink of liquidation, and the other was an independent feature being shot in France by Darryl F. Zanuck. The legendary producer had turned his back on Hollywood five years earlier following a sex scandal but now, following a frustrating series of mediocre productions made in Europe, had decided to have a go at something big again. The Longest Day was a dream project for him, an adaptation of a bestseller by Cornelius Ryan which gathered together some of the greatest stars of the day (many who owed their big breaks to Zanuck) to try and make the definite film concerning the events of one of the most crucial days in the twentieth century. To do it was a massive gamble and he knew that the result would either be to propel him back into the spotlight or consign him forever into movie wilderness, never to return. It was a risk that paid dividends - The Longest Day became, until Schlinder's List, the biggest grossing black and white film ever and with its success Zanuck was able to take control of Fox and help it recover from the crippling financial blow Cleopatra inflicted on it. Rather fittingly, given its subject matter, Zanuck took the ultimate risk, and it paid off handsomely. But was it worth all the kudos that was lavished on it, or were people just responding to the 42 International Stars! that the poster so proudly proclaimed?

The Longest Day takes place on 6th June, 1944, D-Day, the day when the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy. The film follows the invasion from both the Allies and the Nazis' perspectives, showing events on both sides of the English Channel both before and during the invasion. We see the final moments of indecision on the Allies' side – the weather was bad, the men were tired from being on constant alert, and everyone was on tenterhooks – and the Germans' misplaced confidence that the invasion would neither happen in the next few days (who would invade in weather such as this?) nor in the location it did (strategically it would have been much more sensible to invade further up the coast where the distance between the United Kingdom and France was far less). Then the decision is taken, the alarm is sounded, and the planes take off, leading the vanguard of the Allied invasion. Therein follows a continuous unrelenting depiction of the battle, moving between the various geographical targets as the soldiers attempted to gain a decisive foothold on French soil.

Of course, as the film was released in 1962, the actual minutiae of the battle scenes is not as authentic as we would expect nowadays. There are no downed troops screaming in agony as their guts spill out, no rivers of blood making their sombre way down to the sea, no prolonged deaths. When a trooper is shot he goes down instantly, and stays down. During the beach landings some of the soldiers almost stroll off the boats, and a couple don’t seem to make much effort to duck behind available shelter. There’s one point where Robert Mitchum marches up and down the beach giving his men a stirring speech to keep their spirits up, with nary a hair on his head touched by sniper fire. The good thing is that this doesn’t really matter. The film’s aim is not to rub your face in the gritty horror of the battle so much as to paint a more emotional picture of what these men went through and pay tribute to their courage, as well as to show the complex planning that went into the invasion. The fact we're not shown the nastiness takes nothing away from seeing how brave these men were and what a monumental struggle it was they had to go through. The film works as an emotional record of the landings, a paean to the fortitude they had to show.

Most notably it does this through the cinematography of the film, the direction of which is amongst the best I have ever seen for a war film. There are some moments so beautifully choreographed and executed that it takes the breath away, acting as a reminder of what cinema is capable of on a large scale (and even more impressive with the knowledge that the term CGI was another thirty years away from being born). Although there are three directors named on the credits – Ken Annakin (British exteriors), Andrew Marton (American exteriors) and Bernhard Wicki (German exteriors) – it is really Zanuck’s show, and there are abundant tales of him bounding around in helicopters telling everyone how things were going to be done. It pays off. There are many memorable shots - examples include a side tracking shot following the soldiers running up the beach towards the enemy and the scene a couple of minutes later of a German plane’s point-of-view as it swoops overhead reining fire down on the Allied troops – which are easily the equal of anything that later films (CoughSaving Private Ryan) have given us. For me, though, the most impressive comes during the troops’ entry into the town of Ouistreham. From a bird’s eye view, we follow in a single shot the troops entering the town, running along the quayside, crossing a bridge and then running the other side before being ambushed by the enemy behind some buildings. Marvellously executed and perfectly timed, it was so good that when I first saw it I had to reverse and watch it again. This is war cinema as it’s meant to be – exciting, fast paced, capturing both the flow and momentum of battle. Absolutely first rate.

And it’s not just in the big battles where the camerawork tells the story, it’s in the little details too. We are often given striking vignettes, showing the different horrible situations that soldiers faced, most notably the painful scene where a parachutist coming into St Mere Eglise gets ensnared on the church tower. As he dangles there helplessly he watches as his colleagues one by one drop down into the square below, sitting ducks to be massacred before they even get a chance to stand up, and knowing that before long his turn will come. The musical motif of Beethoven’s Fifth (the opening four notes being the morse code for V) is also well used in a memorable moment when a German officer first spots the ominous sight of the Allies coming over the horizon. There are some great stunts too, notably a shot of a train derailing and hurtling towards the camera and another of a bridge collapsing, that are as thrilling to watch as they must have been to execute.

However, the key shot comes much earlier on, a shot that sets up one of the major themes of the film. It starts with a tight close up of a group of soldiers playing a craps game before pulling out slowly to reveal that they are in the middle of a huge hanger, filled to bursting with bunks and soldiers all crammed in, waiting for the word go. Their fate is no longer in their own hands, and whether they lived or died is down to lady luck, all hanging on a toss of a coin or the fall of a die. They are no longer masters of their own destiny. The film illustrates this point time and again throughout, highlighting the little ironies and happenstances that are all that stand between a soldier making it back home or dying on a foreign soil. There are both triumphs and disasters, moments of seeming despair turning to unexpected joy (a group of parachutists apparently lost during the fall of a key bridge turn up again), and of cruel fate pulling the rug from under the feet of the best laid plans – watch the ironic moment when a soldier, using a predesignated code, believes he has heard the correct response, only to be gunned down by the very rifle making that response. There are also flashes of wry humour – several parachutists land in amusing, rather than dangerous, places, for example a chicken coop - which help to balance the relentless onslaught (although I found Sean Connery's mouthy private rather ill-judged). It all adds up to show that sometimes, no matter how much planning you do, how much you attempt to control the situation, you have to raise your hands and admit that there’s nothing you can do.

Of course, it’s not helped when you are run by incompetents. One of the big selling points of this film was that it showed the invasion from both the Allies and the Germans point of view, but I found the portrayal of the German officers the one really unsatisfying element of the production. There is no doubt that there were mistakes made along the way, but the Nazi officers are portrayed as being so stubborn and so sure of themselves that it grows tiresome. No, they declare time after time, there will be no invasion today. Look at the weather! Now it is my wife’s birthday and I must get back as I’m giving her a rather special pair of shoes. Only one officer, Marcks (Richard Munch) realises there is a real possibility of trouble ahead, but this isn’t played too much and in the end these sequences are less effective than they should be. To show the enemy as these obstinate fools is rather derogatory to our efforts – why couldn’t we have defeated them years before if they’re all like this? I’m sure some of it is historically accurate (although not all – one officer, Pluskat (Hans Christian Blech) was in actuality in a completely different location to the one shown in the film) but in the end the unsubtle approach rather nullifies any point these scenes were hoping to make.

The poster for the film proudly announced that it had 42 international stars and, even though a fair number of these were French and German actors who will be less familiar to us, there is still an impressive role call of American and British actors involved. John Wayne as Lt Colonel Vandervoort, leading one of the initial parachute regiments in the pre-dawn raids, is the most prominent from beginning to end and even gets a vague character arc – “how the Colonel has changed,” muses a soldier in their final scene. In contrast Henry Fonda, playing son of former President Roosevelt, only pops up an hour and a half into the film as the invasion starts, and doesn’t get that much to do. Robert Mitchum and Richard Burton fare rather better, although the latter rather disappears in the second half of the film, only popping up in the final scene to muse on the meaning of it all – his “I wonder who won?” being the apt last line of the film. Often in multi-star films such as this the presence of so many headliners causes the film to topple under its own weight, but here the story is big enough to avoid being swamped. There is simply too much going on and too much interest in the proceedings to be distracted by the fact nearly every major face is a recognisable one. (It’s also interesting to note future stars amongst them – as well as Connery you can spot both Gert Goldfinger Frobe and Curt Karl Stromberg Jurgens appropriately among the enemies).

The film takes place in accelerated real time and even though it clocks in at nearly three hours long, not for one minute drags. The pace is fantastic, from the final decision to launch the attack through to the initial sorties by the parachutists, through to the storming of the beaches and the final climatic battles inland. It invites you to take a part of this journey and gives insight into how multi-faceted the movement actually was. It is sometimes easy to forget that D-Day wasn’t just about running up a beach and shooting at Jerry in his bunkers, but was a carefully planned and orchestrated assault that relied on the individual efforts of thousands of different soldiers, each bringing their own expertise to bear on the final outcome. Not only does the film show this, but it never gets bogged down, and despite its huge cast, it is impossible to get lost in what’s happening or why it’s happening. This alone would be impressive enough, but couple it with the great filmmaking on display here and the sheer amount of star wattage on display and you have that rare thing: an epic that works on just about every conceivable level. One of the great war films.

The Disk
This Special Edition release comes on two disks, the first containing the film and the second the extras. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and comes with optional English subtitles, for both the feature and the documentaries (although not the trailers). There is a further option to have subtitles for the foreign language scenes only but I could only access this via my PC and PowerDVD. This is a little frustrating as it is unwieldy to be turning subtitles on and off manually when watching from a normal player. The film has scene select but the documentaries do not.

A nice transfer that is clear and handles everything that is thrown at it. Blacks in the pre-dawn sequences are delineated well and the open shots of the beaches come across extremely clearly. The print is only let down by the odd spasm of small artefacts in a couple of scenes, some edge enhancement and on the actual footage from WWII itself there is an expected drop in quality with grain.

Rather good actually, with impressively bassy explosions, gunfire all over the place and voices coming across clearly. Very nice.


Hollywood Backstory: The Longest Day
Twenty five minute documentary on the making of the picture, focusing quite rightly on Zanuck. It is an interesting story marred only by a silly montage mixing scenes from The Longest Day and Cleopatra together to symbolise the clash between them.

D-Day Revisited
A fifty minute documentary made some years after the film was released, presented by Zanuck himself, touring the principle locations of the D-Day landing and interspersing his historical commentary with clips from the film. Nice to see the man himself in action, and also to see the locations as they are now, this is only let down by the over-reliance on the film footage and a couple of stilted scenes in which Darryl meets someone and starts to tell them about D-Day.

Four trailers are included: one for The Longest Day itself, naturally, one for the similarly themed Tora! Tora! Tora! (interestingly, both trailers proclaim their films “one of the most important ever made”), one for Patton and one for The Thin Red Line which, compared to the other three, feels a little anachronistic.

The Longest Day is one of the finest WWII pictures ever made, and is a great example of old-fashioned movie making in general. Packed with stars and dedicated to telling the story in the best way it can, it makes a great tribute to what the soldiers went through on that fateful day and is a thrilling piece of cinema in its own right. The print on the disk is generally excellent, and only the limited extras (nice as they are to have) are a slight disappointment. It would have been nice to have a commentary by a war historian or, given the stars involved, a film historian (or both!) as well as a more general documentary about the day itself, one that didn’t rely so heavily on the film and perhaps had some testimony from veterans. Don’t be put off, however, as the film itself is worth the money. Superb.

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Last updated: 04/05/2018 11:04:22

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