Off-List: The Longest Day
”The Longest Day” is the third off-list film I have chosen to review for 1962. I recall watching “The Longest Day” ages ago and I was surprised to see that it had not been included on the List. Now after having watched it again I got confirmed the grandeur of the spectacle as I remember it, but I also got some understanding for why it is not on the List.
“The Longest Day” is a movie about D-Day, the Allied invasion in Normandy in 1944, no more and no less. The only concession is that it actually starts the previous evening, which therefore serves as backstory, but otherwise it is strictly a single day. While limited in time, there is hardly any limit in scope. We see, or are supposed to see everything. We see the American parachuters land, we see the British gliders near Caen. We follow the landing on every one of the five beaches including the scaling of the cliffs on Omaha beach. We listen the generals back in England, meteorologists, sailors, officers and privates. We follow English, American and French troops as well as resistance saboteurs. We even follow the battle on the German side, in the bunkers, the operation centers and the airfields. This is not only the Longest Day, but probably also the longest cast list.
It is clear that the picture intends to portray what really happened on D-Day and therefore the events of the day is both the plot and the topic. The reproduction is impressive, and it works. It feels very authentic and it is difficult to let go of the movie. It is intense and captures well the intensity of the events. As it often happens the desire to be accurate means that inaccuracies are that much more glaring. The compromises necessary to make the movie work are so much more in your face because the movie claims to portray reality.
I can live with that, though. Countless war movies have inured me to vagaries of moviemaking. There are other problems that are much worse. With so wide a scope we lose focus. We do not see the individuals enough to invest in them and they remain very one-dimensional. We also lose track of event. Shooting here, shooting there, tons of people dying, what is the big picture, how does it all fit in? I know enough about the invasion to fill in many of the gaps, but for most viewers this must be a confusing experience, a bit like watching “Dunkirk”.
There are literally a ton of stars on the roster for this movie. It is a who is who in Hollywood and elsewhere on the male side. Wayne, Fonda, Mitchum and Connery to mention a few. They all need a few minutes of glory, but that is all we really see. These are not roles, they are cameos and it rarely works to cram so much stardom into a single movie. What they do is nice enough, but each of their stories warrant an entire movie on their own, something later D-Day movies have done. Limit the scope and you get a much better movie.
The coverage of the battles looks very modern and I do like that they got all sides of the affair covered. This is not a simple glorification of American soldiers, but it actually portrays the Germans as human beings. They are soldiers, not (necessarily) Nazis. On the other hand, there is something very dated about the presentation. The movie is packed with inspirational speeches, the kind of talk that befits propaganda films, but not something that can claim to be realistic. They weigh the movie down and give it a pathos that it does not need. The pictures and the topic lend it enough of that.
Another problematic limitation is to stick to just one day. Nothing is resolved in a day. A lot of storylines start but practically none are brought to a conclusion. It would be weeks before the beachheads were consolidated and of course all the personal stories went far beyond that. I cannot shake the feeling that I have been watching the first episode of an excellent tv series, an early “Band of Brothers”, and is waiting for the next episode. Alas, there is no more and so it feels unfinished.
Still for all my criticism this was an easy watch. It may be three hours long, but it flew by in a rush and that is a quality sign. It falls into a number of traps and feels dated and so I get why it is not on the List. On the other hand, it is also a very impressive achievement and in many ways a landmark. If “The Ten Commandments” could by on the List, why not “The Longest Day”?