The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Longest Day

When you look back through history, certain dates hold a higher place in the history books. It can be someone's birth, someone's death, or just have an amazing historical significance in terms of impact on the world. High up on that list is June 6, 1944, the day Allied forces invaded Normandy, better known as D-Day. In the age of gigantic, sprawling epics, one of the best movies of the 1960s tackles the immense subject, 1962's The Longest Day.

A plot description wouldn't do this flick justice. It's just infeasible. The history will serve as a big enough jumping off point. After four-plus years of war, Allied forces had massed for months, all prepping for the invasion of Europe, hopefully taking back the continent from Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Third Reich. The invasion was months and years in planning, millions of men, millions of tons of equipment, thousands and thousands of ships, trucks, jeeps and tanks waiting to be unleashed at Normandy and in the French countryside. What was the mystery? The Allies tried desperately to keep the location of the invasion -- Normandy -- secret to help save lives and make the invasion smoother. The Germans similarly tried desperately to discover where the attack was coming. The war hung in the balance along with millions of lives, not just those taking part in the attack but all over the world. Not bad for historical significance, huh?

So tackling that premise in movie form seems a rather daunting task if you ask me. In the age of the epic, this one doesn't disappoint. At 178 minutes, 'Longest' covers a ridiculous amount of ground in a story that takes place over about a 36-hour time span. We see the Allies deciding the time is finally right after days of wavering while the Germans decide if this is the actual invasion or just a feint, a distraction to throw them off. Based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, it is told in docu-drama style as we meet all the participants from the high command to the soldiers, paratroopers to resistance fighters, townspeople to priests and everything and everyone in between. This isn't a movie about characters, but instead about the spectacle and immensity of what happened. If the Allied invasion on D-Day didn't work, who knows how the world would have changed?

Just a huge movie but one that never feels rushed or forced. The three-hour running time absolutely flies by. It was filmed in black and white, giving it an appropriately dated look. Maybe color takes away from what's on-screen, but the decision to film in black and white simply put, works. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki combine to direct this behemoth epic and to handle it well. Technically speaking, it is a virtually flawless film. Some stock footage is sprinkled here and there, but many of the locations where the actual events took place were used as filming locations. Talk about authenticity, it can be downright eerie watching some of the scenes knowing the locations' history. The score from Maurice Jarre is used in appropriate doses with the main theme (listen HERE) a memorable piece of music that's always stuck with me.

As an epic though, one thing was required more than just about anything else. That requirement? A cast of seemingly thousands. Literally everyone in Hollywood and stars internationally were required to star in this movie. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but you get my point. Most of these parts were nothing more than cameos, but just as a taste of the ridiculous star power on display, we get John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Edmond O'Brien, Rod Steiger, even a pre-James Bond Sean Connery. Many of those parts only required an on-screen appearance of a minute or two -- some for much more -- but their presence alone...just wowza. The scary part? That's only a somewhat small taste of the depth of the cast that truly brings an international flavor to the D-Day proceedings with German, French, British, American and many more brought together.

The Longest Day is an epic, plain and simple, but for every scene where the scope and scale impresses, I loved the quieter, personal and often times, terrifyingly real scenes just as effective and memorable. I loved Richard Todd as a paratrooper commander tasked with landing in France via glider and taking a key bridge and holding until reinforcements arrive...if they can. The scene where American paratroopers, including strung-up Red Buttons, overshoot their landing zone and land in a German town is tragic and moving. One paratrooper (Sal Mineo) making a tragic decision is surprising and intensely real. I especially liked the simplicity of a late scene between Burton's RAF pilot and Richard Beymer's American paratrooper discussing the necessary evil of the day but also the lunacy of it. I think the best, most iconic moment has Hans Christian Blech's German officer finally spotting the invasion force in the English Channel when the fog clears. His face drops and he mumbles 'Die invasion,' all set to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Just a ton of great moments like this.

The other counter to those scenes are the BIG moments, and that's where the technical comes into play. One tremendous scene has a German fighter strafing the beaches, all of which we see from the perspective of the plane. Hundreds and thousands of extras scramble for cover underneath in a remarkable visual scene. The same later in 'Longest' when French commandos fight their way up a street in a French town, a helicopter (I think) filming all the action. As well, the scene of the paratroopers coming down on the German-held Sainte-Mere-Eglise is a horrifying scene that utilizes some very cool camerawork. Also look for a cool scene where American Rangers -- including Robert Wagner, George Segal, Paul Anka, Fabian, Tommy Sands -- scale the cliffs of Pointe de Huc, all trying to knock out a key German emplacement. Some especially memorable moments, not all of them action scenes.

Because I don't want to forget anyone but don't want to overdo it describing EVERY character, also look for Eddie Albert, Irina Demick, Mel Ferrer, Steve Forest, Gert Frobe, Leo Genn, Jeffrey Hunter, Curd Jurgens, Peter Lawford, Christian MarquandRoddy McDowall, Kenneth More, Wolfgang Preiss, Ron Randell, Jean Servais, Norman Rossington, Tom Tryon, Peter van Eyck and Stuart Whitman. Okay, I'll take a breath now.

The Longest Day isn't the best war movie around, but it's one of my favorites. It tries to accomplish a ton and succeeds on just about every level. The history, the scale, the spectacle, the gigantic cast, the moments that resonate amongst all the epic qualities. It also serves as an excellent companion piece to the more recent Saving Private Ryan. Nowhere near as violent, but a more far-reaching story. A gem from the age of epics.

The Longest Day (1962): ****/****

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