Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review – The Longest Day

December 22, 2011

The Longest Day – U.S., 1962

War and comedy make odd bedfellows. When I say this I’m not talking about satirical war films like Dr. Strangelove that are about the insanity of war, but films that aim to depict war honesty, with all of its horrors exposed. When these films suddenly feel the need to stop being serious for a moment and let the audience take a breather and laugh before getting back to the battlefield, it comes across as pandering, as simply not having enough faith that the audience is mature enough to handle war without the occasional zany character disrupting the drama with his inane remarks. Picture this scene from Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day: a group of British troops fear that the enemy will attack at any moment, and there’s talk of them having to confront an enemy that is stronger and much better armed, when suddenly from an area shrouded in fog comes the sound of a lone bagpipe. Soon the bagpipe player becomes visible, and behind him proudly march a group of tired but determined reinforcements, surely a sight for sore eyes. Their appearance means that all is not lost, and those who were fearful are now joyous, for now at the very least they have a fighting chance of survival. It’s a powerful moment – that is, until some loud mouth makes a crack about hating the bagpipe and stuffs his ears with cloth to drown out the sound. The moment is meant to be lighthearted. However, it just comes across as dishonest.

Other moments also unwisely turn to humor: for example, a British soldier talks to a dummy called Rupert and extols it to do its duty for god, queen and country, a French man waves a flag as his house shakes from the blasts of bombs landing nearby, a priest repeatedly dives in a swamp surrounded by Germans and under heavy bombardment in search of a so-called “communion set,” and a British official brings a rather mangy looking mutt with him on a beach landing and then complains that the constant gunfire is disturbing him – all played for laughs and smiles. Now I have no idea whether incidents like this truly occurred during the Normandy landing in 1944, and I admit there is a chance that they did. However, these more jocular moments disrupt the film’s timing and slightly erode the overwhelming sense of dread and terror that so many scenes in the film create for viewers.

Take the scene in which American paratroopers land in the middle of enemy territory and are sitting ducks for the German army. In one of the film’s most haunting moments, a US soldier’s parachute gets stuck on a building fixture and for a stretch of time, he is powerless to act. All he can do is watch in dismay as other soldiers land and are overwhelmed instantly. Few scenes are as haunting as this one. There’s also a rather poignant moment in which members of the French army have to take a moment to come to terms with the fact that they are going to be firing on their own country in order to save it. It can’t be easy to wrap your head around a notion such as this one. It is during such moments as these that The Longest Day is truly at its most powerful.

And yet The Longest Day is not simply about the storming of Normandy or the military maneuvers that preceded it and made its success more probable. The film is also about the convergence of coincidences on the German side that helped ensure the Allies’ success. The film allows viewers to see events from the German point of view, and what we see is a picture of confusion, a lack of an effective command structure, a great deal of overconfidence, and a slight lack of backbone when it comes to communicating with Hitler. In the film, Germans are at first unsure what is going on, and when they finally comprehend it, the generals are powerless to act without the verbal authority of Hitler himself, who apparently took a sedative and was sleeping when the Normandy invasion began. Once he woke up, he was is a terrible mood, and therefore, not wanting to anger him more, no one told him about the invasion. As a result, German panzers sat idle during the attack.

The first forty minutes of the film are devoted to showing the run up to the invasion. We see the soldiers complaining about the food and the weather, high ranking officials spreading amongst themselves the rumor that today is the day when General Eisenhower will order the invasion, and last minute preparations and instructions before the troops and their commanders head off for France. I suppose showing this part of the Normandy invasion is understandable, yet to me this part of the film took too much time, and too many perspectives were included when one would have sufficed. For example, when Eisenhower decides the operation is a go, we get multiple reactions. We see a US colonel throw his cup of coffee on the ground and run out of a vacant mess hall, a US general silently say, “God help us now,” and a British lord announces that they are on their way. Just one of these would probably have sufficed.

The Longest Day has an incredible ensemble cast, even if many of the big stars are not in very much of the film. John Wayne plays Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, who leads a squadron of troops even though he can hardly walk; Robert Mitchum appears as Brig. Gen. Norman Coda, one of the last remaining soldiers from a pre-1940 squad; and Henry Fonda shows up all too briefly as General Theodore Roosevelt, who leads his troops into battle despite needing a cane to walk with. The cast also includes Sean Connery, Paul Anka, Sal Mineo, and Roddy McDowall just to name a few. Some of them appear in only one or two scenes; others you’ll miss completely if you blink.

The Longest Day remains a powerful and informative film. We see the Normandy landing as it truly was – chaotic, dangerous, and inspiring. The film does not sugarcoat the event, and those in charge of leading the invasion reflect often on the number of men who have been lost. And while later films may have been able to be more honest when it comes to the graphic nature of war, I suspect that few viewers will feel that the films more PG-depiction of war lessens the experience at all. In addition, there are no awkward bookends, and there is no sense of completion by the time the film’s ending credits hit the screen, for what is depicted in the film is one very long day in a struggle that continued for another ten months. Yes, the film could have been short, and yes, there are too many characters to keep track of. However, all of this helps viewers get a complete, albeit somewhat Hollywoodized, picture of the invasion. And who knows, maybe people really did all of those humorous things on the battlefield. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars

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