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Starring: Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Richard Beymer, Hans Christian Blech, Bourvil, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Pauline Carton, Sean Connery, Ray Danton, Irina Demick, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Steve Forrest, Gert Fröbe, Leo Genn, John Gregson, Donald Houston, Jeffrey Hunter, Curd Jürgens, Alexander Knox, Peter Lawford, Fernand Ledoux, Christian Marquand, Dewey Martin, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Kenneth More, Edmond O'Brien, Wolfgang Preiss, Ron Randell, Georges Rivière, Norman Rossington, Robert Ryan, Tommy Sands, George Segal, Jean Servais, Rod Steiger, Richard Todd, Tom Tryon, Peter van Eyck, Robert Wagner, Richard Wattis, Stuart Whitman, John Wayne
The granddaddy of epic WW2 movies, this enormous undertaking was Darryl Zanuck's bid to reclaim the Fox throne in the aftermath of the dud bankroll-buster Cleopatra. It shapes up as the best and worst in epic filmmaking yet pleased war veterans in 1962 with its generally accurate depiction of the scope and depth of what is still the largest sea-based invasion in history. The Longest Day won praise and endorsements sought but not given to later, highly-fictionalized megapix such as Battle of the Bulge -- which was helmed by one of Zanuck's three credited directors.
After losing control of Twentieth Century-Fox in the late 50s, Darryl F. Zanuck initiated a number of unsuccessful European co-productions, usually based from France and often starring his personal discoveries like Juliette Greco. The famous producer's future was in doubt when The Longest Day came along. Zanuck was perfectly positioned to mastermind this king-sized patriotic epic, filmed by several directors in B&W for speed and economy.
Zanuck's line producer Elmo Williams coordinated four separate filming units. Action specialist Andrew Marton (who would go on to direct a sizeable chunk of Nicholas Ray's 55 Days at Peking) collaborated with Gerd Oswald (Crime of Passion), British director Ken Annakin (Third Man on the Mountain, Across the Bridge) and German director Bernhard Wicki (The Visit, The Bridge). Zanuck assigned each director to language-appropriate material, although other episodes were covered by second unit directors, producer Williams and Zanuck himself. The Longest Day cemented the idea of using subtitles in a mainstream American film: The Germans speak real German.
There's plenty of action to go around when the invasion starts -- almost every scene is an action scene and many are monumentally complex. Hundreds of costumed extras are visible in the backgrounds of several episodes. The film's most famous shot is an aerial view of the beach at Normandy, swooping over several thousand scrambling invaders. An even more complicated scene is an exciting one-take helicopter shot tracking a massive French charge through a seaport waterfront. They swarm to the edge of town, only to be stopped by some well-manned German guns in a Casino commanding a clear view of the entire scene. Any 6 year-old can follow the logic of the attack and be drawn into it.
Romain Gary's script alludes to but does not depict the disaster that befell many airborne troops. Many dropped into flooded fields and were drowned, or were killed when their gliders crash-landed in the dark of the night. The tactic of using paratroops to seize bridges in advance is shown to function like clockwork. The same strategy failed in the later Market-Garden fiasco, the military tragedy depicted in A Bridge Too Far by the same author, Cornelius Ryan.
The cruel insanity of combat becomes emotionally wrenching in at least two scenes. At Omaha beach, a long string of soldiers sacrifice themselves in a desperate bid to reach high ground by blasting an exit with special demolition charges. Even more traumatic is the nighttime chaos at St. Mer Eglise, where an entire paratroop battalion is dropped into a German stronghold already awake and alert due to a fire. Dozens of parachutists are picked off before they can reach the ground. Some of The Longest Day has the "morbid spectacle" feel of a disaster movie.
With much more technical and strategic information to communicate than the average war movie, the script makes sure that key exposition is covered several times -- so thoroughly that some scenes sound more like a radio program. Thanks to John Wayne's demonstration, any kid born before 1954 or so still knows that the "secret signal" is always to answer one click with two clicks.
The Longest Day is a well-known extravaganza for movie star sightseeing, Around the World in 80 Days but with everybody in uniform. There are far too many stars to name. Zanuck's publicity whirlpool encouraged big names to compete for cameo duty, while the agent of every up-and-coming male actor was hot on getting his boy into the fray. Irina Demick (The Sicilian Clan) and Arletty (Children of Paradise) are two of the few female faces on view, while top names such as Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger and John Wayne all have fair-sized roles. Hollywood pretty boys abound (Fabian, Richard Beymer, Paul Anka, Sal Mineo, Tommy Sands) but they still leave plenty of room for war-movie stalwarts like Eddie Albert, Steve Forrest, Jeffrey Hunter, Dewey Martin, Edmond O'Brien, Robert Wagner and Robert Ryan. Savant can mentally picture John Wayne making phone calls to get his pals choice roles: By this time in his career Wayne behaved as if he owned WW2. Nervy Hollywood go-getter Red Buttons nails an especially good part, and ends up doing it justice.
It's just as much a free-for-all on the other side of the Atlantic, where only top names need apply. Arletty's Children of Paradise co-star Jean-Louis Barrault is present along with Leo Genn, Alexander Knox, Christian Marquand, Jean Servais and Richard Wattis. All get glorified bits, with Peter Lawford as a sort of mid-Atlantic switch hitter.
The German stars tend to be those already familiar in American war movies. One may not recognize Hans Christian Blech (Decision Before Dawn) on sight, but the faces of Gert Fröbe, Curd Jürgens, Wolfgang Preiss and Peter van Eyck are hard to miss. In the average American war picture we might see one or two of them cursing their bad luck or mumbling anti-Hitler sentiments. Director Wicki presents them as competent warriors having a particularly bad day.
Zanuck's all-star cast is a double-edged sword. Picking them out is an amusing pastime, but it's more than a little odd to see such a serious historical subject trivialized into a giant game of Hollywood Squares. Are the actors in bigger roles more patriotic? Does Henry Fonda, playing a meek relative of Teddy Roosevelt (wandering around as he did in King Vidor's War and Peace) wrap himself in the flag any less than John Wayne's gung-ho paratroop commander with a broken leg? A lot of screen time is allotted to giveaway Best Supporting Oscar 'audition' scenes with cherub-faced GIs like Richard Beymer. Was someone like Russ Tamblyn ix-nayed from the ast-kay because he didn't run with the right crowd?
The film runs a whopping three hours. Its big battle scenes are still impressive, while the dramatic vignettes are less so -- too many play like a stack of clichés. The Longest Day is an exhausting workout that will fulfill anybody's need to hear a lot of guns go off while the world is being saved in the biggest battle in history. Now over forty years old, it's still a solid, if somewhat dated, entertainment.
Fox's Cinema Classics Collection DVD of The Longest Day is a great improvement over their previous non-enhanced transfer of this very long picture. It's not in perfect condition -- some scenes look dull and lack sharpness. One positive note is that the subtitles are no longer lost when we watch on a widescreen television.
This new version has 4.0 and 3.0 Dolby Surround tracks as well as mono tracks in Spanish and French. When the disastrous Cleopatra bogged down in production, The Longest Day became Fox's bailout release of 1962 and in many venues was promoted to a full 70mm stereophonic release. That means we get to hear Mitch Miller's other rousing chorus title theme of the 1960s in full surround.
Fox has scoured the vaults for a 2-disc special edition that musters at least 9 hours of additional extras. Two audio commentaries account for six of the hours. Director Ken Annakin has a sharp memory for anecdotes. UCLA historian Mary Corey offers 1001 interesting thoughts on the historical/cultural side of the picture. She compares D-Day to Zanuck's filmed version and makes good observations about film history to analyze how our war movies express our ideas of patriotism, sacrifice and masculinity.
Five lengthy featurettes overlap in their coverage. At least one show appears to be an expanded version of another, so don't be surprised when the same interview bites are followed by the same feature clips on two different films. The newest production is called A Day to Remember. Two cable shows closely follow the same general outline, Longest Day: A Salute to Courage and AMC's Backstory: The Longest Day. All have their high points. In one a D-Day veteran expresses his disappointment that the movie presented the bloody "Point du Hoc" battle as a pointless failure, because the expected guns at the top of the tall cliff had never been installed. The Germans had mounted them a few hundred yards inland, and the Army Rangers soon knocked them out.
The most interesting long-form featurette is Darryl Zanuck's D-Day Revisited TV show, filmed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the invasion. Zanuck hosts in person, taking a color camera back to his big battle locations. He always wears dark glasses, even indoors, for awkwardly staged vignettes interacting with various French locals and his crew: "Five minutes, Mr. Zanuck" / "Okay but hurry up!" Ending in an enormous cemetery, Zanuck offers some odd words to the effect that he intended The Longest Day to be more anti-war in tone. Because of Vietnam, he says, he has to consider it a failure!
Zanuck's son and producer Richard Zanuck headlines a final new featurette. A still photo gallery and a "now at popular prices" trailer finish off the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Longest Day rates: