Seventy-four years ago as of June sixth, the largest amphibious invasion in history took place. Officially called D-day, and codenamed Operation Overlord, it goes without saying that it was a turning point in the Second World War. American and British troops, as well as those from occupied countries, landed on a string of beaches in the Normandy region of France. Along with Allied troops who had entered Europe via Italy the previous year, and Russian troops working through from the East, these invading forces were able to surround and route the Nazis. All over Europe and the world, people waited with bated breath to see if the invasion would succeed. It’s not spoiling anything to say that after a long and bitter struggle, the Allies won. Naturally, this day has been memorialized again and again in popular culture, one example being the next item on my Shame List–the 1962 film, The Longest Day. An Oscar-winning ensemble piece based on Cornelius Ryan’s book, the movie seeks to combine documentary realism with mega amounts of star wattage.
It’s very early June, and on both sides of the English Channel, people have invasion on their minds. It winds up in Sunday homilies. The Germans are busy adding more barbed wire to the beaches. Other German officers spend their time listening to the BBC, and hear this coded message for the Resistance: “The long songs of the violins of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor.” It’s a line from the Paul Verlaine poem, “Song of Autumn,” and for the life of them the Germans can’t figure out why it would be relevant to the invasion. It drives them crazy, but there’s nothing to do but wait and see what happens.
Field Marshall Erwin Rommel spends time looking out over the Channel and what he tells his men is partly prescient and mostly arrogant:
Just look at it, gentlemen. How calm… how peaceful it is. A strip of water between England and the continent… between the Allies and us. But beyond that peaceful horizon… a monster waits. A coiled spring of men, ships, and planes… straining to be released against us. But, gentlemen, not a single Allied soldier shall reach the shore. Whenever and wherever this invasion may come, gentlemen… I shall destroy the enemy there, at the water’s edge. Believe me, gentlemen, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as the Germans, it will be the longest day… The longest day.
Ironically, Rommel won’t be there when the strike does happen. He’s so sure he’s right that he goes to Germany for his wife’s birthday.
Meanwhile, in England, the Allied forces are bored stiff. The luckier ones are in the barracks shooting craps (or just the breeze), while the not-so-lucky ones are on ships waiting to go, and all of them have been waiting for three days. Not surprisingly, they’re restless. The reason for the delay is wet, murky weather, and the top brass debate whether to take a chance on things clearing up at least some, or waiting until July. Eisenhower, Montgomery, and several others decide to give the order to attack.
Brigadier General James Gavin (Robert Ryan) warns the Pathfinders, who light the way for the paratroopers, not to expect a warm welcome in France. “When you get to Normandy, you’ll only have one friend: God. And this,” he adds, holding up a rifle.
The next stage of the attack is to send in the paratroopers the night before the main surge begins, and in both the film and real life, this was a confusing business. Soldiers were landing farther away from each other than they had planned, and a lot of them came down in awkward places. One guy lands in a well. Several land on rooftops or in trees and either hang there helplessly or have to cut themselves down. One soldier even lands in a chicken coop. They also send down elaborate painted dummies that are supposed to explode on contact, which baffles the Nazis. Naturally, both they and the Normandy villagers know something’s up, and depending on who’s talking, they’re either angry or euphoric. And the attack hasn’t officially begun yet.
When it does, things aren’t any less confusing. Companies land in the wrong places, or find that signs are turned around, and many troops find themselves pinned down on the beaches. When the attack begins, the Nazi officers in charge are extremely frustrated because Der Führer has taken a sleeping pill and is not to be disturbed. Ergo, he can’t order them to retaliate. Major General Gunther Blumentritt (Curt Jurgens) says: “Sometimes I wonder if God is on our side.”
Even after Hitler does wake up, the Germans are frustrated because he won’t order a certain group of Panzers into action and their arrogance begins to dissapate ever so slightly. The Allies rally, moving up the beaches and taking villages like St. Mere Eglise. They also get help from the grateful people of France. One of my favorite parts is when a group of nuns (Carmelite, maybe?) stride across the battlefield, right through the gunfire, and begin taking care of the wounded.
The Longest Day is a compelling movie that tries to be a docudrama, but it’s slightly flawed. It has a few similarities to the 1972 film, Tora! Tora! Tora! in that whenever key figures appear, they are identified by quick flashing type on the bottom of the screen. While this is all very helpful, there are so many key figures in the film that it’s hard to keep track of everyone. Fortunately, most of them are also big stars, so the trick seems to be to follow the actors instead of the people they’re playing. The other trick is that a person has to be really invested in this movie–it’s not the sort of thing that can be watched with one eye on the smartphone. One eye on a bowl of popcorn is a different story, though. In fact, popcorn may be a must, as the pacing of this movie is a bit wobbly–there are spurts of action followed by lag. I suppose this is similar to what happens in combat, but The Longest Day could have easily stood a few trims here and there.
There are quite a number of historical inaccuracies in the film, such as the types of landing craft and aircraft used. The film also shows Nazis and the paratroopers fighting in the town square of St. Mere Eglise the night before the invasion, which definitely didn’t happen. The film also glosses over the fact that there were entire companies that were decimated within minutes of the landing barge ramps being lowered. In fact, one of the historical advisors to the film, Maurice Chauvet was apparently so disgusted with the way historical accuracy was tossed aside that he quit. Since then, plenty of World War Two history sites have chronicled everything that’s wrong with The Longest Day (See some of them here, here, and here.).
There are other flaws too, such as obvious matte lines and some not-so-hot special effects. One especially–in the scene where Rommel is talking about the Channel, he actually disappears for about five seconds and then reappears, although his voice is still audible. Considering that this movie was clearly supposed to be a prestige picture, it’s weird that a mistake like that was allowed to stay in.
The film does have some upsides, though. Also like Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day presents both points of view instead of just sticking to the Allies. The film definitely doesn’t glamorize the Nazis, but it makes the differences between them and the Allies clear. One of the major reasons the Nazis lost the war is that unlike the Allies, who fought in an objective-based fashion, the Nazis had to wait for orders from on high before they could make any changes to what they were doing, and this ultimately crippled them.
Overall, I felt that while The Longest Day is a sort of adequate representation of what happened on D-day, it doesn’t get across the enormity of the sacrifice made. If it’s there, it’s too hard to see under all the star power and uneven pacing. It also doesn’t impress on audiences any necessary humility or thankfulness, which is what an event such as this should inspire. In fact, during a visit to the American Cemetery in 1964, President Eisenhower himself said this about D-day:
“I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope and pray that humanity will learn more than we had learned up to that time. But these people gave us a chance,, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before.
“So every time I come back to these beaches, or any day when I think about that day 20 years ago now, I say once more we must find some way to work to peace, and really to gain an eternal peace for this world.”
God bless these men.
Tomorrow is Crystal’s Judy Garland Blogathon, and I’ve got some stuff lined up. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you next time…
This film is available on Amazon.