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Longest Day, The Print E-mail
Friday, 08 August 2008
ImageThis Blu-ray disc of the epic “The Longest Day” is that rarity: a high definition version of a black-and-white movie.  The process, however, greatly benefits the movie, made on a huge scale with dozens of top-name stars.  Richard Zanuck, whose father Darryl F. Zanuck masterminded this production, reveals that some actors virtually begged to be in the movie.  One of these was Rod Steiger, who has literally one scene as a U.S. destroyer commander crossing the English channel for the landing on the beaches of Normandy.  Other actors are in and out very quickly; Roddy McDowell has only two short scenes, rock stars Fabian, Tommy Sands and Paul Anka have little more (though Anka did also contribute to the score).  A few French stars also appear, some little known to Americans, but three of whom starred in the great “Children of Paradise,” almost secretly filmed in Paris during the Nazi occupation. 

Cornelius Ryan adapted his best-selling non-fiction book, a detailed report on the events of June 6, 1944, The Longest Day of the title.  The movie uses the same anecdotal approach Ryan used for his book: we move from German officers who know an Allied invasion is coming, but aren’t prepared for when and where it occurs, to the Allies themselves, waiting in rainy England for the order to cross the channel, to the French, both the Underground and ordinary people, eager for their beloved homeland to be set free from Germany.  (The mayor of a Normandy town is so giddy with joy when word comes that the Allies have landed that he rides a bicycle to the beaches, to present a puzzled Lord Lovat [Peter Lawford[ with a bottle of champagne.)

The great strength of “The Longest Day” lies precisely in all these little anecdotes; it gives the movie a sense of sweep, scale and historicity that make it very nearly the masterful, timeless tale Darryl F. Zanuck hoped it would be.  It was an expensive film, but not immensely so (unlike the disaster-plagued “Cleopatra,” whose failure resulted in Zanuck’s dismissal from 20th Century-Fox, the studio he created).  Well-timed logistics allowed the film to be studded with stars, from the huge—John Wayne—to the small—France’s Bourvil.  We follow a few of these stars through about the 24 hours that the title promises.  Wayne, as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoot, is seen a great deal, possibly mostly because he was more available than other stars.  Unfortunately, the sometimes clichéd script puts a bogus-sounding rah-rah-for-our-side speech into Wayne’s mouth early on, and sometimes he’s required to behave in an unconvincing manner.  Furthermore, he’s such a war movie icon that his very presence tends to make this look like just another Hollywood war movie, only three hours long.

But Wayne also delivers the goods once he and his paratroopers land behind enemy lines in advance of the landings on the Normandy beaches.  His ankle is broken, and he has to be hauled around in a cart, still barking out Wayne-like orders, but he’s the very picture of the dedicated professional soldier.  So is Robert Mitchum as Brigadier General Norman Cota, among those who actually do make the landing on the beaches—in his case, on Omaha Beach, the hardest-won front of the invasion.  Mitchum, usually clenching a cigar in his teeth, is even more convincing than Wayne, and because he’s a better actor, more welcome.

Two German actors are also standouts, Hans Christian Blech and Heinz Reincke.  Blech is Major Werner Pluskat, the center of the movie’s most unforgettable scene.  He’s at a pillbox on the Normandy coast, casually sure that the Allies will cross the Channel at its shortest point, from Dover to Calais, rather than at its longest point, where he is.  He occasionally checks the horizon—and then Is stunned to see hundreds, even thousands, of boats appearing out of the Channel mists.  Reincke is one of only two Luftwaffe pilots left to defend the entire coast; he gives a funny, lively, very human performance, a character we like even as he’s strafing Allied troops, in what he knows will be his last flight.

“The Longest Day” was popular enough that it resulted in a flurry of other star-laden, World War II movies—“The Battle of Britain,” “The Great Escape,” “A Bridge Too Far,” the unfortunate “Battle of the Bulge”—but it was by far the best and most realistic of all of them, partly because it was doggedly made in black and white, in a period when virtually all big-scale movies were in wide screen color.  (And this is wide screen.)  It also followed Ryan’s outline, never putting too much emphasis on any one star; we’re always moving off to another moment somewhere on this longest day, sometimes returning to people we’d seen earlier.  A few of the stars die, but not many—was their invulnerability in their contracts?

Mitchum is given the last line as he mounts a Jeep to leave Omaha Beach, and the music swells into a jolly march.  Most war movies have a jaunty march; too bad someone didn’t resist the temptation to add one here.  The movie begins and ends with a simple but indelible image: a U.S. Army helmet, upside down on a beach, the waves gently lapping behind it.  The finish would have had more dignity and impact if all we had seen was that helmet again, all we heard was the sounds of the empty beach.

The film deserves better extras than it gets.  There’s a reasonably interesting featurette on the making of “The Longest Day,” and an American Movie Classics retrospective.  Ken Annakin directed the scenes with American participants, Andrew Marton those with British characters, and Bernhard Wicki those in the German language.  There was also a director for the Frech scenes, but he clashed with Zanuck early on and was replaced by Annakin—who, as the only survivor of the directors, does a commentary track for the film.  Unfortunately, he comments almost exclusively on the scenes he directed himself, so often there’s no narration at all.  Surely someone else could have filled in the gaps?

The most regrettable extra is the “historical” commentary by Mary Corey, uf UCLA.  I was hoping for historical information backing up what we see on screen.  Many of those we see are identified by name and position (alas, the German military officers’s positions are listed in German, not English), but we don’t really know who they are otherwise.  (Eisenhower and Montgomery appear only briefly.)  Surely the commentary track would explain a bit about each of these figures, if only whether or not they survived the war, surely we’d learn which scenes were based on reality, which invented for the film, and what the consequences were of the actions we see.  Instead, Corey talks like a star-struck movie fan, cooing over her favorites as they appear, then tossing in a few offhand remarks about social aspects of the story.  It’s a simply terrible commentary track, probably the worst since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s boring “Conan the Barbarian” track.  “The Longest Day” deserved a great deal more than this tripe.

This Blu-Ray disc is in high definition, and it does give the film a great, crisp immediacy.  It was never intended to look like a newsreel, but always to be a somewhat stylized but basically realistic Hollywood movie of the events of June 6, 1944.  At that, it succeeds admirably.  The landing scenes are so strong and well-photographed that they have not been supplanted by the brutally realistic similar scenes of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”  This is probably the best of all Hollywood-made war epics.

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