Last Veteran’s Day, I wanted to watching something appropriate to the holiday. Actually, if I wanted to view something specific to the date, I would have put on a World War I film. For those of you who do not know it, the reason we celebrate our service men and women on November 11th each year is because on that day in 1918, the slaughter that was referred to as the “Great War” before World War II came along ended. Unfortunately, there are not too many good movies out there about that conflict, and that includes 1917 (2019). In any case, it is also a celebration not unique to this country, and others have taken it as an opportunity to pay respect to the men and women who have died over the years for their respective nations. This opens up all the World War II cinema, and there is a vast number of titles from which to choose. Somewhat complicating the selection process is the fact that I have reviewed many of the familiar titles, like Saving Private Ryan (1998). Speaking of that one, the first part of it covers the Normandy Invasion, or D-Day, on June 6th, 1944. It is not the only cinematic example that speaks to that event. In thinking about what to put on that day, I remembered a film I saw as a kid that was instrumental in getting me into history, The Longest Day (1962).
It is virtually impossible to describe the plot of The Longest Day. It does not have a plot. Almost the only proof you need for this is the fact that it had three different directors, one for seemingly each ethnic group (if you combine Americans and British). Take a look some time at the cast. It reads like a “who’s who” of A-List celebrities in 1962. It is as if they decided to empty out Beverly Hills and put them all in this movie. This may sound like an exaggeration, though that is not my intention. There really are so many stars in it that it is impossible to name one as the main protagonist. John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, to truly name but a few, and none of them are what drive the story. Normally, this would be a complete and utter disaster, and it nearly earns this dubious description. The film’s goal is to give as complete a rendering of the events of June 6th, 1944, as well as those that immediately led to it, as three hours’ worth of celluloid would allow. This meant giving each of the belligerent nations a significant part in the proceedings. With so many different days, peoples, and places, how can any one of them shine? The answer to that question, plainly, is that they all remain side characters. Take John Wayne, for example, who plays Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoot. He was arguably the most recognizable Hollywood celebrity of his day. Yet, in such a long film, he clocks in maybe about fifteen minutes of screen time. The reason they all there is to tell the story of D-Day. What it does well is, instead of giving any one actor the opportunity to have a stand-out performance, it makes up for it with exceptional cinematography for its day. Many of the main battle scenes, like the storming of Omaha Beach and the French taking of Ouistreham, feature sweeping helicopter shots with thousands of extras moving at once. These are not easy moments to pull off on a film set, especially not in 1962. Today, much of this would be accomplished with computer generated images (CGI). The effort it took to make those shots a reality should be appreciated. They also take money, and it seems that most of the actors, except John Wayne, took considerable pay cuts to appear in the movie. With this in mind, you can see where the rest of the budget went in its development.
There are also some great Catholic moments in The Longest Day. The first is Private Arthur “Dutch” Schultz (Richard Beymer) of the 82nd Airborne Division. While awaiting the orders to jump into France, he gets up to what so many soldiers over the centuries have traditionally done: gambling. After a protracted lucky streak, he is counting his newly won money when one of his comrades reminds him that the last time this happened, he broke his leg in a training accident. Shortly thereafter, he opens an envelope from home containing a Rosary, a clear signal of his family’s Faith. With this reminder in his head, and the beads in his hand, he decides to give his money away before he goes into combat in order to make a “clean jump.” One can make a case for this simply being a matter of superstition, and there are few more superstitious people than soldiers before a battle. Alternatively, he did make a selfless, Christ-like decision to freely hand over his winnings to others while looking upon a Christian symbol, so I like to think that God had a role. Another awesome Catholic moment is during the struggle for Ouistreham, when a group of Catholic nuns stroll calmly through the most intense action on their way to help wounded French soldiers. Wars throughout Western history have attracted female religious as nurses. Many films have rightly shown them doing their part, and I always enjoy seeing them. As such, the ones who served in this capacity should be honored alongside anyone else during Veteran’s Day.
That is about the extent of what I can logically review with The Longest Day. It is a movie about one of the most well-known historical events in human history. If you do not know much about it, I would not suggest relying on a film review to fill in the gaps. For those who know every detail of the battle, what more do I really need to say? In either case, it is a bit of a tough movie to get through. It is quite episodic, and you will feel its length at times. The Longest Day? More like the longest movie. I suppose because they already made a Band of Brothers series, that there is no real need for another World War II series, but I feel this would work better in that format. Hence, I would recommend this only to the most dedicated of history enthusiasts.