Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki; Written by Cornelius Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon
At the crossroads of documentary filmmaking and fiction stands The Longest Day as a 3-hour epic devoted to arguably the most famous single day in modern warfare.
Informed by a small army of military consultants, put together by a platoon of writers and directors (and helmed by megaproducer Darryl F. Zanuck), and featuring a battalion of the biggest stars of the time, it has a singular purpose: to tell the most complete story of how the Allied powers gained a foothold in Normandy on June 6th, 1944.
It takes you through the ranks of not only the Allied forces, but the German occupiers as well. From lowly G.I.s to the top brass, across the army, navy and air force, thereby treating you to a variety of strategic musings and small personal perspectives meant to lend some sentiment in the carnage of what is essentially organized human wreckage.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, and the squad of directors and writers should tell one about the considerable effort it took to get this mastodon in the air. Credit is due for The Longest Day not becoming a lumbering mess, with most scenes distilled to their essence of describing how the invasion was possible: The rough weather the night of the invasion, the understaffed German air force, the strategists playing mind games, how miserable it is to be a foot soldier, and so on, ad nauseam.
Because of the sheer scale of the story that’s being told, there’s little in the way of personal narratives to get attached to, as few get to say lines that aren’t directly connected to battle plans or strategic priorities. As alluring it is to see John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery (who’s a lowly private here as Dr. No, his breakthrough, was released two weeks later) step into the shoes of famed war heroes, they’re for the most part just window dressing as Zanuck relies on their star status and inherent attributes of masculine authority to tell us all we need to know about these men as if written by shorthand.
Some performances, however, are essential representations of what made these actors great. Henry Fonda plays Ted Roosevelt Jr., the only general to lead his men onto the beach that day (using a cane, no less) and he’s as gentle and vulnerable as you’d expect an arthritis-ridden 56-year old to be, yet you have no doubt he enjoys endless loyalty from his men who sees him as one of them. Henry Fonda, the everyman who was extraordinary.
Similarly, Richard Burton stands out as a disillusioned fighter pilot who seems equally unconcerned with death, be it his own or that of the enemy, monologuing like a Shakespearian nihilist. The perfect man to frame how ludicrous war can be, a truth-telling sad clown, who’s only in the movie for a few scenes.
The Longest Day , which wants so badly to be seen as a definitive representation of that famed day, presents itself with a matter-of-factness and tells the events of D-Day with a somber importance while still allowing a couple of the small crazy moments that are inherent in any uncivilized conflict.
What’s essential for an audience to truly be swept up, however, is a deeply held appreciation for the gravity of this moment. Popularized as the turning point of the war, the inherent drama is how much is at stake here. Everything is riding on a successful invasion, and several smaller missions must succeed for that invasion to go forward.
The Longest Day hinges on you believing the future of the free world depends on John Wayne’s paratroopers taking this town, on Mitchum’s forces making it off Omaha Beach, on British commandos securing and holding a bridge behind enemy lines until relieved.
The dichotomy was in place for people to feel that way in 1962, where the Allied invasion and subsequent defeat of the Nazis was the pinnacle of heroic virtue beating out-and-out evil. Today, however, we don’t automatically buy into the brouhaha of armed conflict, seeing as they are far from the united efforts of World War 2 and instead more sinister geopolitical maneuvers masquerading as missions of freedom.
That means The Longest Day’s lasting legacy remains the filmmaking at scale. There are some truly spectacular long takes that show the sheer size of the endeavor, arranging and choreographing dozens, if not hundreds, of actors and extras, troves of props, and shooting in all with cranes, planes, and dollies. You see it in the beach landings and a scene in a French town, where they track the French forces running down a road, dodging gunfire and explosions all the while, only for the camera to go airborne and zoom out to show the entire town center from above, complete with swarming Germans taking up their positions on opposite street corners and rooftops.
In today’s CGI epics, where crowds are really just twenty people or so, The Longest Day is a perfect example of the physical craft of making film, and true epic filmmaking. Whether you find the subject compelling is another matter.