Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki
Screenplay by Cornelius Ryan, based upon his book. Additional material by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and Jack Seddon
Starring Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Richard Beymer, Red Buttons, Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Jeffrey Hunter, Alexander Knox, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Edmond O’Brien, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Rod Steiger, Tom Tryon, Robert, Gert Fröbe and Curt Jürgens
I was out with a running group the other morning, doing our weekly long run in preparation for various spring races that are approaching. Some are training for 5ks – many for the first time, doing a version of couch-to-5k – while others are after longer distances. Me? I’m training for a 33-mile trail run in April, the Chicago Marathon in October, and am not at all ashamed to admit I went 17.5 miles, which might be the longest I’ve ever run at one time. Am I bragging? Sure, but when you run all that far in a row, you have a right.
Anyway, while out on the run, one of the group leaders started talking about how she believed people are generally wired to be addicts. Some turn their additions to drugs and alcohol, some to gambling, some to Beanie Babies. But us – there were three of us in our little sub-group at that time – have running. Her reason for having this thought? Why else would we enjoy running, if not as some kind of addiction?
Now, I don’t completely agree with this idea, that runners are essentially addicts. But I don’t completely disagree with it either. Still, this thought was in my head later in the day when I watched The Longest Day. Specifically, I had the thought that The Longest Day was the product of Daryl Zanuck’s addiction with movie-making in general, and this story in particular. How else to explain it? After all, he bought the book, produced the film at quite a cost – not quite Cleopatra-level costs, but enough it would have certainly destroyed his reputation and career if the movie failed – and even did some uncredited work as the director of a few scenes.
In all, this baby was his.
So, was the film explicitly the result of some sort of addictive tendency? I don’t know. But it certainly makes an interesting theory to think about.
What’s it about?
World War II is in full swing and everybody – both the goodies and the baddies – know an Allied invasion of France is imminent. The only real questions are (1) Where, and (2) When? The Longest Day tells the story of that invasion, covering a roughly thirty-hour period beginning the day before the assault is finally ordered and launched, culminating in the American breakthrough at Omaha Beach. In a way, then, the last 40 minutes or so of The Longest Day overlaps rather neatly with the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan, and if ran them back-to-back, you’d have yourself a nice double-feature.
Here’s a fact – even good movies can make me yawn and leave me a little bored. In the same way, bad movies can keep me consistently engaged with their sheer terribleness. With The Longest Day I neither yawned, nor was bored, and was consistently engaged by something other than terribleness. Which I suppose is my way of saying that at nearly three hours long, the movie held my attention throughout. Yes, there was a lot of story to keep straight – the film is told from British, American, German and French perspectives and has a cast of thousands – but it does the job without a lot of frills, and without any monkey-business. In the end, it’s greatest asset is it treats this part of the war almost the way a cop-show procedural would – methodically and logically. So, while the movie was hardly transformative, it was good.
Because of the particular battle depicted, The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan share one bond and one bond, while in most every other way they are dissimilar. The biggest dissimilarity? While Private Ryan seeks complete verisimilitude in everything it does, complete with all the blood and gore an FX house can produce, The Longest Day presents the battle as strangely bloodless, leaving one wondering how deadly the battle actually was. Sure, guns are fired and people fall down, but without the blood and gore to give us a visual signal – even in black and white, blood is blood – it’s hard to say whether anyone is actually injured or killed, or just merely scared or taking a nap.
While the battle depicted is seminal, the writing on the film hardly is, especially the dialog. Sure, the plotting of the film has a bit of a clockwork vibe to it, but the dialog is so unnatural as to be instantly off-putting. Nobody just ‘talks’ in this film – they Talk, with a capital-T. Every line of dialog seems designed to either 1) dumping information on us/exposition, or, 2) to make sure the audience understands the importance and gravity of what is going to happen. In this way the characters are not characters – they are merely information-relaying devices.
As for the visual style of the film, the best that can be said is it is workmanlike. It does not go for handheld and gritty, a la Private Ryan, nor does it go for super-stylized and controlled, as in Paths of Glory. No, it simply puts the camera down and lets things happen in front of it. To it’s credit, keeping this size of a production under control is a certain style itself, and better is that, despite three credited directors, and at least two uncredited directors, the film is cohesive where it easily could have been a jumbled mess. And to be fair, there is one marvelous, uncut tracking shot taken from the battle of Ouistereham, near the end, that seems to involve a drone, but because the film was made in 1961, might either have been accomplished with an insanely expensive crane, or some sort of hot-air balloon. Either way, the length of the shot, the ground it covers, the ballet of movement choreographed for it, as the camera rises high into the air and falls, and tracks across the city, is pretty damn amazing.
Look, it’s unfair to bag on a 55-year-old film for its antiquated qualities, or for lacking the technical innovations available to later films, but in the case of the effects in The Longest Day, it can’t be helped.
The biggest FX problem is with the use of matte shots. See, as much of this film as could be shot in a studio was shot in a studio. And this makes sense – it’s cheaper and easier to control for things like weather and lighting in a studio. The problem is that much of the movie takes place outside. To deal with this, the production merely shot most of the outdoor sequences that involved a lot of extras – such as landing on the beach at Normandy – without the leads, then later laid shots of the leads over it. In this way, they only needed to shoot the backgrounds and battles one time – or so – and therefore only needed to choreograph the big thing one time, cutting out the possibility of doing it multiple times as an actor flubs a line.
Now, making the film this way is fine and The Longest Day didn’t pioneer the technique, merely used it as others had. Although, when matte shots are used the photographic effects should be nearly seamless – see The Black Narcissus and Gone With The Wind, both of which made extensive use of process shots, and which made sure to hide them as much as possible. The Longest Day, on the other hand, fails, making the process shots so pitifully obvious by failing to make sure that something so critical as lighting conditions matched in each of the two combined elements. Doing so meant the film basically called out itself for its effects. Worse is that now, in HD, the effects are terrible.
Of course, the matte shots also locked in a certain static-ness to the film. In order to make sure things matched up well, the background plates were shot with a fixed camera and no movement, which is exactly the way the foreground plates were shot – doing it like this meant you didn’t have the foreground and background literally moving in some weird spatial plain in opposite of each other. But, this mean that every time there is a matte shot, the film becomes intensely de-energized and everything just stands still. It’s literally a war movie where many of the battle scenes happen with people just standing still.
Beyond the photographic effects, the physical effects are cheap to the extent they sap any hint of danger from the film. For instance, at one point Richard Beymer is to climb over a short stone wall to join up with some other fellas, but when he does, the wall moves as if made of papier-mache, like it was carted over special from the set of the latest Ed Wood extravaganza. Would the film have been markedly better had this effect, and others like it, landed? Maybe. But because it didn’t, we’ll never know.
To be fair, though, there was one spectacular special effect in the film, that actually seemed to be real. This was the train derailment later in the film. Was it as impressive as the train/bridge explosions in The General or Bridge on the River Kwai? No, but then again, what is?
Better Than Best?
Lawrence of Arabia won Best Picture 1962 and while it had the sweep and the spectacle, it lost focus the deeper it got into the film. In my mind it’s lesser-Lean. Still, as a whole it’s only marginally better than The Longest Day – of course, the first half of Lawrence of Arabia might be one of the best movies ever made.
So, if it’s not better than best, what is?
Well, in The Best Picture Project I chose Jules et Jim, which is a lovely and bittersweet Truffaut film about a love triangle that ends in heartbreak. It’s quite wonderful and only from a filmmaker like Truffaut could you argue it’s not even his third or fourth best film – I’m also partial to The Story of Adele H. and Day For Night. Others can make a case for The 400 Blows. But, as none of those are 1962 films, I don’t have to get into that debate.
More Stars Than In Heaven
This film, like others in it’s brother project, The Best Picture Project – particularly The Greatest Show on Earth and Around the World in 80 Days – operates in many ways less as a film, than as a way to have as many name actors as possible wander through for what’s basically a cameo. In some sense I get this – if you don’t want to bother with backstories, you cast an actor and let their persona, or type, fill in the backstory. In other words, it’s more efficient characterization. Plus, to mis-quote some B-movie producer from the 70s: “Tits and stars are the cheapest special effects in film.” At the same time, that notion can be a massive distraction, as it does here, where instead of emphasizing the seriousness of the film it’s nearly derailed by a dozen, “Hey, isn’t that…?” moments. The only thing that stops it being worse than it is? The film is 55 years old and we can only identify about half these people anymore.
The Zenith of Richard Beymer
In 1959 Richard Beymer had a role in The Diary of Anne Frank, which was nominated for Best Picture. In 1961, he was arguably the lead in West Side Story, which won Best Picture. In 1962, he was in The Longest Day, as arguably the lead in the film. Like those other movies, The Longest Day was a Best Picture nominee. Based on this hot streak, you’d think Beymer would become a classic film actor, still loved and revered today for the touch of Oscar gold he brought to everything he was in.
Alas, how the mighty fall. For after these films Beymer achieved no new heights and slowly slid down the Hollywood food chain instead, taking parts in such dreadful films as Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out. I can’t imagine what’s worse, being in a film in the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise after having starred in three Best Picture nominees, or being in that franchise and not even in the one that was super-controversial (Part 1), or the one with the epic “Garbage Day!” meme (Part 2). After that he would make a mini-comeback as Ben Horne in Twin Peaks, but that comeback basically didn’t take.
Daryl Zanuck produced three Best Picture winning films – How Green Was My Valley, Gentleman’s Agreement, and All About Eve – but because he did so in a time when the Oscar for Best Picture went to the studio, and not the producer, he got nothing more than the satisfaction of a job well-done. Whether he was given credit or not, he joins the list of other men who produced three Best Picture winning films: Saul Zaentz, Sam Spiegel and Irving Thalberg. However, he does have a distinction of having been awarded three Irving G. Thalberg Awards, whereas nobody else took it more than once.
Also of note, Zanuck’s son, Richard Zanuck, would win an Oscar for producing Driving Miss Daisy, which ties into a recent entry in this series, Tender Mercies, as both were directed by Bruce Beresford.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Another less-successful matte-shot-heavy film was The Greatest Show On Earth, which laid shots of the leads over the circus going on in the background, with the same sort of obvious results.