Darryl Zanuck’s multi-national epic occasionally plays like an academic lecture on the events of June 5 and 6, 1944, albeit an interesting lecture with some really cool film. The Longest Day covers the first twenty-four hours of the invasion of France from American, British, French and German perspectives, employing separate directors for each nationality and shooting in the native languages of those involved. This gives the film a level of authenticity that was fairly atypical of war movies of the time.
On the downside, there is an unfortunate tendency to stop the action in its tracks to allow time for some character or another to wax philosophical about the staggering importance about what is about to transpire. To be fair, this is most prevalent during the American sequences, suggesting that it was more the fault of Andrew Marton’s directorial style, but it doesn’t help when it starts to sound like John Wayne is reading straight from Cornelius Ryan’s book. Scenes like these creak like Robert Shaw’s boat in Jaws.
Speaking of Robert Shaw, he may be about the only English-speaking actor not to appear in his film. I take that back. Christopher Lee was rejected for not looking military enough (despite serving in the RAF during World War II) and Charleton Heston was beaten out by John Wayne.
But other than that, the cast credits read like a directory of the Screen Actors Guild. Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Peter Lawford, Eddie Albert, Red Buttons, Paul Anka, Roddy McDowell, Fabian and Sal Mineo are just a portion of the recognizable names appearing on screen, sometimes just as brief cameos.
The use of stars helps a film with such a large cast and wide canvas. With little time to establish vivid characters, the A-list actors bring familiar personalities that help the audience easily identify with their characters. Henry Fonda may be playing General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the first President Roosevelt, but his role seems to lean heavily on people’s familiarity with films like Mister Roberts. Likewise, John Wayne’s Lt. Col. Vandervoort shares a lot of DNA with Sgt. Stryker from Sands of Iwo Jima.
Some performances are allowed to have more nuanced performances. Richard Burton is memorable in two scenes as a fatalistic RAF veteran of the Battle of Britain. Sean Connery is also memorable as the taller half of a comic duo of British soldiers. Coincidentally, the German side features two future Bond villains, Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger) as a bumbling sergeant and Curt Jürgens (The Spy Who Loved Me) as a general disillusioned with Hitler’s incompetent leadership.
The film is also notable for its even-handed portrayal of the Germans. They are shown as largely competent and honorable men at the mercy of “that bohemian corporal,” as one of the generals calls Hitler. There is not one Nazi fanatic in the whole bunch or a single “Heil Hitler!” in the entire movie. Compare this to another film that’s a contemporary with The Longest Day, that being Sink the Bismarck!, which portrayed Admiral Lutjens as a diehard Nazi, when in fact he had protested the treatment of Jews on Kristallnacht in writing.
This movie is also famous for several memorable set pieces, especially the long, elaborate overhead tracking shot following the French assault on a German held hotel and casino in the town of Ouistreham.
For all its accuracy, however, the film contains two curious omissions. Most notably, early in the invasion the Germans are still convinced that the Normandy landings are a diversion and the real invasion will still happen at the Pas-de-Calais. No mention is made, however, of the success of Operation Fortitude, the “bodyguard of lies” involving a phony army under the command of George S. Patton, which helped convince the Germans that this was true.
Also, when the Army Rangers storm Pointe du Hoc to destroy some German gun emplacements, they find the bunkers empty and it’s implied that the dangerous, costly assault was ultimately pointless. The film fails to mention that the bunkers were being used as observation posts and that the Rangers did ultimately find and destroy the guns, which had been moved further inland.
Minor inaccuracies aside, The Longest Day stands as a remarkably complete document of one of the most important days in modern history. It may lack the graphic realism of a later film like Saving Private Ryan, but it still manages to do service to the courage and resourcefulness of the men involved in those momentous events.