I am a sucker for the big budget Hollywood spectacle film, particularly when Steven Soderbergh is afforded the chance to direct some of the biggest stars in a crime heist movie on three different occasions. It is not every day, however, that I can actually sit down and enjoy these works, particularly since many of them are rather lengthy endeavors, necessitating a fair amount of screen time for the various performers. When I do though the rewards are rather clear, the last example being How the West Was Won, a film so absolutely engaging and expansive, both narratively and literally in its use of Cinerama a work so captivating that it catapulted directly to the top of my favorite westerns of all time in the process. To achieve the same sort of feat with a war film would seem a bit more daunting, particularly since it is predicated on depicting rather graphic elements, particularly when said film is set in and around the storming of the beaches of Normandy. While my theory can really never be tested, I would like to formally posit that the deciding factor in the success of such grand Hollywood narratives, rife with all-star casts might be the figure of John Wayne, present in the aforementioned How the West Was Won, he too is featured prominently in 1962's The Longest Day, a work that is also made possible by the directorial efforts. While the film seems to sell Wayne as the major figure, it also consists of a variety of other notable Hollywood leading men, such as Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda and even features Sean Connery, who was then just becoming a star for his role as James Bond. These cameos were all absolutely delightful, but the absolute piéce-de-résitence comes in the form of a rather brief appearance by Rod Steiger, who is by far one of my most adored of actors, mostly for his sleezy and slimy roles, although he plays it straight here. This is a tangent I know, but it is worth noting. The Longest Day at a runtime of just under three hours succeeds at telling a story of the scale of the days leading up to and immediate aftermath of D-Day, looking at all person involved, both allied and enemy, never forgetting to accept that such a depiction can only succeed if it is capable of showing both the higher up strategy and the on-the-ground grit. The Longest Day is what a war film should aim to achieve and it is all the more successful if you happen to have Mitchum and Wayne in your corner.
The Longest Day focuses on the invasion of Normandy, agreed by most historians to be the big moment of change in a lengthy and hard fought war. As such, narrative plot would seem rather redundant as it is a well-known historical event, particularly in regards to its tragedy. Yet, what The Longest Day does is not provide viewers with an absolutely linear narrative of the events, but three interlocking experiences of American, British and German forces during the events. The American experiences focuses specifically on the planning of the beach storming, with figures like Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoot (John Wayne) and Brigadier General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) prepping their men for what will, undoubtedly, be a very grueling and life threatening mission. Vandervoot takes a very technological approach, whereas Cota seems quite ready to dig his feet in and push alongside his men. Meanwhile other figures emerge from the American forces, whether it be the waxing poetics of a wary Destroyer Commander (Rod Steiger) or the adamant demands of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Henry Fonda) that he live up to his father's reputation. The British forces center on their own technological endeavors, particularly creating dummies to airdrop and distract German soldiers, their key figures include the somewhat existential Flying Officer David Campbell (Richard Burton) and the wise cracking Scottish soldier Private Flanagan (Sean Connery). Indeed, this is all juxtaposed with the frantic worrying of the German soldiers whose own insistence on their superior status is put into question when they realize that they are not only incapable of verifying when the American storming might happen, but that they are equally ill-equipped to stifle the French Resistance occurring in the areas with which they have occupied. This is not to say that they do not fight with poise, indeed, they kill many Allied troops, some before they even land on the ground, causing much frustration for Vandervoot and while it is certainly a hard-won victory, the Allied forces do secure Normandy, the closing moments depicting Cota as he drives off in a moment of celebration, the camera panning out to the various soldiers working away at rebuilding the area, however, suggests that this victory is only a minimal achievement.
War films are all about depicting the emotional toil and physical strain of the endeavor. For some directors this means a venue to explore the futility and fragility of the human psyche in such a space, perhaps most evident in Kubrick's war films, certainly Full Metal Jacket and Paths of Glory (and to a lesser extent Fear and Desire). Other directors see it as a moment to praise those who take their burden with great dignity and pride, most obvious in Saving Private Ryan, but it could be argued that it works this way in Oliver Stone's Platoon as well. The Longest Day manages to traipse, ever so carefully, between both worlds, noting that it is not simply a matter of depicting valiant individuals, because during war it is a matter of destroying the enemy and many individuals on both sides of the fight are merely there out of forced necessity. This was certainly true for Nazi inscription of soldiers, but the zeitgeist at play in World War II America caused such a fervent patriotism that to not join the war effort was tantamount to treason. As such, The Longest Day captures the humanity of war for all those involved, save for a few sly and ill-willed Nazi officers. Accepting the death that is necessary in such a narrative, The Longest Day manages to both deal with images of the dead in a very stoic and dignified manner while also not overselling the image in any degree of exploitative nature. It is a careful navigating between both worlds, but one that pays off successfully when it is later referenced if only in very indirect terms in the closing moments of the film as the soldiers, fresh off of their storming of the beach, drag themselves up the hills working in a near zombie-like fashion never allowed a moments rest. Furthermore, while the film does situate the narrative around central figures like Wayne's Vandervoot and Mitchum's Cota, it does not glorify their presence as anything more or less important than the lowly ranking cooks and infantrymen. Indeed, this film paints the picture of the barracks with such a loving stroke as to capture both the glee in the homosocial bond and the constant threat of death that leads to an anxious dialogue and bonding between each member of the crew. Despite its decidedly masculine orientation, this film depicts World War II with poise and dignity in a way only twenty years detachment from its occurrence could ever hope to achieve.
Key Scene: The soldiers hanging from power lines is about as stark a war image as you can get without actually encountering actual footage. What makes the scene work, however, is Wayne's reaction, one that is so sincere as to suggest he is looking at the real thing.
I snagged this bluray up as a result of the downfall of Blockbuster. Considering that others, undoubtedly, invaded the store and did the same it should show up on Amazon in the coming days. I suggest you grab a copy immediately!