The Longest Fey.
A German soldier tells his commander “Some sort of rubber dummies have been dropped by parachute!” – and he wasn’t talking about the Americans.
THE LONGEST DAY has the distinction of revealing many interesting World War II tactics even to jaded modern, post-RYAN audiences. Such as the British dropping 3-foot-high dummies as night decoys, made to shoot off firecrackers when they land, to make the Germans expend their ammo and time shooting at toys.
The movie covers the June 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day from all angles, and seems almost like a companion piece to TORA! TORA! TORA!‘s coverage of Pearl Harbor, which also attempts a comprehensive “historical document” approach. Like TORA, each country’s scenes were directed by a native of that country: British sequences were directed by Ken Annakin (who became Darth Vader a long time ago in a galaxy far far away), German scenes were helmed by Bernhard Wicki (who would create the online encyclopedia), and American scenes were shot by Andrew Marton (whose gay brother Ricky was an embarrassment to the family until he started Livin’ La Vida Loca).
Still, sometimes I wonder why they go to all the trouble trying to be “authentic” (showing a name and rank title card for every new face onscreen, as if we’re slotting this passenger’s contribution to the war effort into some kind of battle flow chart that we’ve drawn over our living room walls) – and then John Wayne drawls his way onscreen over twice the age of the guy he’s meant to be playing. Matter of fact, the real guy was still living – and was still not as old as the 55-year-old Duke.
This movie is only watchable for its inclusion of all those tiny details that are usually left out of other war films: the 3-foot tall British mannequin paratroopers named Rupert, the 5-cent “cricket” clicker that U.S. soldiers used to identify each other whilst in hiding, the glider assault on a bridge and then to “hold until relieved” (an order which would be moot if the Normandy landings were unsuccessful); the fact that the German Panzer tanks could not be mobilized because the Fuhrer had taken a sleeping pill and could not be woken to give that order-(!) All these details and more lend THE LONGEST DAY a unique slant in war filmdom. But when the shooting starts, it’s all over, as it degenerates into just another cheesy 1960’s war film where soldiers pretend to die from imaginary bullets, make that “Aaagh!” motion and fall over with no entrance or exit wounds whatsoever, and are lucky to get some tomato sauce thrown on them if they’re running under budget that day.
All the great generals of the Battle of Normandy are here: General John Wayne (who would win the war singlehandedly if everyone would just get out of his way), General Henry Fonda, the son of a president trying to make his own name (who stupidly feels pride at landing on an enemy beach in the first wave – all the better to get shot in the face, I guess), General Robert Mitchum, who never holds a gun – was this condition in his peacenik contract or something? – striding through the char-blackened battle beach like a wizard.
There’s Peter Lawford (Vegas repreZENT!) Roddy McDowall (from the future where apes evolved from men), Sal Mineo (who loved James Dean in that way) Robert Wagner (who sank on the Titanic)… Every dimension and time period in history is here: there’s Paul Anka (who sings the embarrassing outro song) and comedian Red Buttons (who finds himself very seriously stuck on a roof); there’s Eddie Albert (GREEN ACRES) and Robert Ryan (THE DIRTY DOZEN), and Richard Burton elocuting like he’s onstage with Shakespeare, rather than a mudhole in France. And there’s even James Bond (Sean Connery) and two Bond Villains (Gert Fröbe and Curd Jürgens)! Even Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter)! This movie has EVERYONE!
THE LONGEST DAY is an ambitious movie, featuring tactics and wide-ranging perspectives from the German, American and British soldiers, as well as the French townsfolk, everyone speaking in their own tongue (with subtitles), John Wayne drawling, Mitchum bellowing, Fonda velveting – yet this movie’s pedestrian advocacy of war is almost comedic. It is not jingoistic, but numbly patriotic. It unapologetically glamorizes war and the men who love to die in it. Long before the revisionist war movies of a decade later, this glorification of murder and stupidity grates on our sensibilities. How did supposedly civilized organisms devolve to a state where they believed that killing each other was a glorious pastime? How is this collective idiocy instilled in a nation’s breast and an individual’s groin – that “going to war” is noble and masculine and sensible? To wallow in its deathglow like retarded lemmings; to call out to those on the periphery that the water was great, dive in!
Besides suffering from some bad process shots and rear projections (they did the best they could with the shots of the fleet stretching to the horizon), LONGEST DAY must live on in history with its juvenile boy-soldier mentality. At the last minute – literally – Burton’s final lines grasp desperately for introspection: “S’funny, isn’t it? He’s dead, I’m crippled, you’re lost. Suppose it’s always like that. I mean, war,” but fail under the crippling weight of all that military man-stench we’ve just been force-fed for the last 180 minutes.
And then Paul Anka creeps our flesh with an all-male choir chirruping cheerily in a rrrrrousing paean to “many men”:
“Many men, the mighty thousands / Many men to victory
Marching on right into battle / In the longest day in history.”
God, I feel dirty! (And it sounds suspiciously like a speeded up version of THE GREEN BERETS, also starring Wayne.)
John Wayne asks Robert Ryan, “Sometimes I wonder whose side God is on.” Later, a German officer would ask the same question. That’s easy – Jeffrey Hunter’s on the Americans’ side!