November 21, 2018
The Longest Day (1962)
Grade: 83/100

Director: Darryl F. Zanuck
Stars: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum

It's not a trick question. What movie has John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, Sean Connery, Edmond O'Brien, Roddy McDowall, Robert Ryan, Jeffrey Hunter, Peter Lawford, Eddie Albert, Red Buttons, George Segal, and Kenneth More? Not to mention teen idols Paul Anka, Fabian, Sal Mineo, and Tommy Sands, which demonstrates a decided lack of musical taste.

We are talking about, of course, The Longest Day, a costly 20th Century Fox movie that producer (and effective director) Darryl Zanuck poured his own money into to get it across the finish line. Fortunately for all concerned (20th Century Fox was in financial trouble due to the lavish budget for Cleopatra) The Longest Day was the top grossing film of the year, though Lawrence of Arabia eventually claimed that honor via reissues.

The Longest Day was Hollywood's belated depiction of D-Day, the June 6, 1944 invasion of Nazi-occupied France by the Allies, principally the U.S. and U.K. The film was unusual in that German characters were German, and spoke German, the French characters were French and spoke French, and so forth.

The degree of authenticity was diminished, though, by casting famous middle-aged Hollywood moviestars as front-line soldiers. As a rule, the more famous the actor, the more years older he was from his actual D-day counterpart.

Another problem the film faces it that it has been replaced as the D-Day movie by Saving Private Ryan (1998), which presented the Omaha Beach massacre in more grisly fashion. Here, the ocean doesn't turn red, injured soldiers don't scream in agony, surrendering Germans aren't summarily shot, and Robert Mitchum strolls across the machine-gunned beach almost as casually as if he was at Coney Island.

There is much angst, and some eye rolling conclusions. Had Hitler not taken a sleeping pill and instead dispatched his crack Panzer tanks to confront the invading Allies before they had established a beachhead, would the Germans have won the war, or at least held out indefinitely?

No, they would have lost anyway. Africa and Italy was lost, the Russians were advancing on the Eastern front, their Japanese allies were also ceding territory, and The Bomb was a year away. Hitler's sleeping pill was of less dramatic import than suggested here.

There is also the curious sight of a Normandy Frenchman rejoicing that Allies are shelling his house and likely to bury him in the rubble. Patriotism has its limits, except in the movies.

The Allied officers are professional in the boardroom, and heroic on the battlefield. The German soldiers are extras, and the German officers are cranky and ineffective. The Luftwaffe pilots (both of them) make only a single pass over the sitting-duck invaders on the beach.

But we like the movie anyway. In fact, it is better than Saving Private Ryan, which has supplanted it. The Longest Day won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for its black and white widescreen cinematography, and indeed the film is a treat to look at, especially the beach scenes in their scope and suspense.

The Academy Awards and Golden Globes also bestowed Best Picture nominations on The Longest Day, in a year in which Lawrence of Arabia commanded most of the top trophies. Zanuck's vision was thus confirmed by the critics as well as the general public.

The film gets many things right. Allied deaths were considerable, there was much confusion on both sides, and good planning mostly overcomes Murphy's Law. And we must not forget: the good guys won.