Today is June 6, the anniversary of the Allies’ invasion of Normandy, the audacious military strike that changed the course of history. I’ll be interested in seeing how it’s commemorated this year, 71 years later, especially by the news media. A lot of Americans under the age of 40 know almost nothing about it, or worse, the values it represents to the United States.
Fortunately, there is an easy and entertaining way to teach a young American about what happened on this day 71 years ago. That is to have him or her watch “The Longest Day,” producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s epic film based closely on historian (and sole credited screenwriter) Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 book. (You can get it at Amazon, here.)I usually find understanding military battles nearly impossible; written accounts completely confound me, and few movies about any battle make a serious effort to explain the tactics and strategy without reducing the facts to pablum. (I remember how much my father, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, detested the big budget movie of the same name, which he found outrageously sloppy, and which he summarized as “Henry Fonda won the war.”)
Not “The Longest Day,” however. Since seeing the movie with my father as a kid, I have learned a lot about what was left out, but the movie is remarkably clear and accurate about what happened and why without being either too detailed or too simplistic. It’s also just a great, inspiring movie.
That we have “The Longest Day” is entirely due to the courage of one of Hollywood’s most dynamic, flamboyant and successful studio moguls, Darryl F. Zanuck. The original producer of the adaptation of Ryan’s book (which is terrific ) gave up on the project when 20th Century Fox refused to allow him an adequate budget. Zanuck, who was still producing films but no longer ran the studio he had built, bought the rights, and was determined to do the story, the event, and the men who fought the battle justice by mounting a production almost as ambitious as the invasion itself.
Zanuck signed up an amazing cast of not only American movie stars but English, French and German stars as well. Almost all of them, in their respect for the project, agreed to a flat $25,000 fee. The sole exception was John Wayne, who was the archetypal Hollywood war hero of the era—and still, in fact—knew he was indispensable to the project. Zanuck had mocked Wayne for losing his own fortune in his film about a famous battle—“The Alamo”—and the irony did not escape the star. He insisted that Zanuck pay him ten times what the other stars got, pointing out that “poor John Wayne,” as Zanuck had called him, needed the money after his patriotic film’s box office flop. Zanuck paid him, and gave Wayne the only special billing in the movie.
As usual, the Duke was worth it.
“The Longest Day” was shot in France, including at some of the actual locations, like the Pegasus Bridge, Sainte-Mère-Église and Pointe du Hoc. Producer Frank McCarthy used his contacts with the United States Department of War to arrange full military cooperation from the US and the governments of France, West Germany, and the United Kingdom. To handle the many large battle scenes, Zanuck employed four directors, Germans Gerd Oswald and Bernhard Wicki, British director Ken Annakin, and Hollywood’s Andrew Marton. Zanuck also directed some sequences himself.
When the film was almost complete, Fox again showed little faith in its box office potential even with the all-star cast. The studio wanted it cut from its over three hour length, and would not give it a prestige release, even planning to place it on the back end of double features. Zanuck, who was already betting his personal fortune on the movie, bought back Fox and took over the studio. It was not a purely business decision. He was determined to make certain that the invasion of Normandy received a proper Hollywood memorial. His patriotic gamble paid off, for the film was a huge success. (Ironically, Zanuck lost control of Fox for good when he made a similar bet on “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” an ambitious, big budget movie about Pearl Harbor, and neither the movie, nor its reception, was what he had hoped.)
Yet today and for many years “The Longest Day” has been deemed old fashioned and politically incorrect because it glorifies and celebrates America’s participation in World War II. This is especially wrong because the film is remarkably unjingoistic or pro-U.S. in its account and character portrayals. The Allies are the heroes, with the French and British Commonwealth contributions prominently featured. Even the Germans are portrayed simply as competent and formidable adversaries without any villainous trappings. Indeed, many of the most memorable scenes in the film involve non-Americans. Unlike all British and American World War II films up until then, the French and German characters speak in their own languages, with subtitles in English.
The film is also often dismissed today because it is a pro-war rather than an anti-war film, even though World War II was a war that the United States had to fight, and that the nation has every reason to take pride in its sacrifice and role in winning it. The attitude is well-represented by the obnoxious and misleading essay on the film at the TCM site by film reviewer Paul Tatara. He writes in part,
Sometimes a great filmmaker’s best intentions can be swamped by the dictates of the marketplace. 20th-Century-Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck hoped that The Longest Day (1962), a blow-by-blow account of the Allied invasion on D-Day, would be an anti-Hollywood war movie, a picture that would, once and for all, show audiences what war is really like. But Zanuck, who may well have been viewing the picture as his swan song, knew that an undertaking of this size was a risky business proposition to say the least. So he hedged his bets by casting as many name stars as he could get his hands on, thus nixing any opportunity he may have had to fully immerse viewers in a realistic, documentary portrayal of the events and the ultimate price of victory…The final product, though often memorable, seems more like an exposition-laced military maneuver than an actual narrative. Regardless of what’s going on – and there’s always something going on — it’s not hard to imagine Zanuck standing beside the camera, heatedly chomping his cigar while he writes his Oscar acceptance speech. Well, he didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar though the film garnered five nominations, winning two (one for Best Cinematography and one for Best Special Effects). But Zanuck did produce one of the more insanely ambitious films in movie history, even if it doesn’t always succeed. Viewers who are looking for moments as visceral as Saving Private Ryan‘s (1998) Omaha Beach sequence will be disappointed. Despite Zanuck’s goal of showing us the real blood and guts of battle, the violence is as stylized and predictable as in any Hollywood war movie.
Ah, yes, “Saving Private Ryan,” the next big-budget Hollywood film about D-Day…sort of. That film, not “The Longest Day,” is what “war is really like,” and it’s the “cost of war,” not the world-saving results of that war, that should be emphasized. This is what the critic calls real. Zanuck’s dignified, documentary-style, impressively fair and accurate telling of the story—if Tatara is really as confused as he suggests, he’s an idiot—is Hollywood, not the contrived “Private Ryan,” with its antiwar spin.
This is approximately the opposite of the facts. Could you tell from that essay that almost every event, episode and figure portrayed in Zanuck’s movie is true? Or that the film had dozens of advisors, including some of the real people, American, English and German, who were prominently portrayed, checking the film for accuracy? The effect of the star-laden cast was to make the point that this was a big, world-shattering deal, that the Hollywood and world film community participation in the project mirrored the all-encompassing war effort itself. Most unfair of all is the critic’s characterization of Zanuck’s motives: later Tatara says that what mattered most to him was that the film made a profit. That’s despicable. Zanuck knew how to make money on films without gambling everything and taking risks that everyone around him said were insane. Whatever anyone wants to say about Zanuck, and like all of the Golden Age movie moguls, he was not a saint, he made this film for good reasons, and did it right.
I admire “Saving Private Ryan”, but it has little to do with D-Day. You can’t learn a thing about D-Day from the film, nor about the war, nor why we were fighting it. It contains only one real historical figure, General George Marshall, and portrays him as a sentimental fool, which he most certainly was not. Spielberg ladles on the gore and horror without giving any perspective on why the troops endured it, because, it seems, he either doesn’t know, doesn’t believe it was worth the sacrifice, or thinks it would interfere with the drama. The film is about an absurd imaginary mission in which the feelings of one mother are deemed more important that whatever it is the invasion is about—“Saving Private Ryan” doesn’t seem to think that’s very important, and barely touches on it.
My father, who fought longer in the war than most, having volunteered to fight the Nazis in Africa before Pearl Harbor, hated most war movies, but was offended by “Saving Private Ryan.” He would watch the film shouting at the screen and the characters. My dad wrote a 20 page brief against the film and its myriad inaccuracies that he sent to Spielberg and the film’s military advisors. One of the latter wrote back and said, in essence, “Don’t blame me, Major. I tried.”
“Saving Private Ryan” is great drama, and the direction, as usual, is excellent. Since the film is not about D-Day, and does not pretend to be history, it shouldn’t be judged on that basis. My father, however, as a wounded, decorated war hero who hated war but regarded his participation in World War II as the greatest achievement of his life, detested the film as an ignorant insult to veterans and the nation. “Private Ryan” is also, I think, the vision of war the current President has, a belief that war’s “true costs” necessarily make the enterprise itself unjustifiable. In the case of that war, certainly, and undoubtedly others to come, the position is as ignorant as it is dangerous. “Saving Private Ryan,” I think intentionally, promotes that belief.
In fact, my father argued persuasively, “The Longest Day” taught a more nuanced and important lesson about war, one which my father, whose foot was half blown off by a mentally challenged soldier using the pin of a live hand grenade to clean mud off his shoe–this injury kept Dad out of the invasion, so I may owe my existence to a moron—explained to me. “You can plan all you want, ” he said, “But battles are just chaos. Crazy, unpredictable things happen, everything, literally everything, gets screwed up, and the victors are the ones who improvise, adapt, keep going, and most of all, get lucky. And being right also helps.”
Those chaotic incidents were what Ryan’s book was about, as it is almost entirely made up of the personal accounts of soldiers on both sides. The movie makes the same case, just more vividly. There is a funny scene in which German and US troops march right by each other at night on opposite sides of a stone wall. I assumed that was made up. “It happened,” my father said. “And not just once. Sometimes the troops were so exhausted they just didn’t notice each other, and sometimes they just kept marching, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t have to fight any more that day. That’s war.”
Spielberg’s film slanders Marshall by portraying him as a leader who would make his highest priority in the midst of a literally world-altering, life and death battle for freedom the rescue of a single soldier—at the sacrifice of several others—so one family didn’t have to deal with the grief of having all of its sons killed. Zanuck’s film, in contrast, records for posterity the heroism of real life ordinary combatants—the French resistance, the incredible British glider pilots who launched the invasion, the paratroopers who dropped at night, in enemy territory, in high winds, some of whose horrible fates are shown (a U.S. paratrooper blowing up as he lands in a burning church is plenty visceral for me, thanks), the Rangers who scaled the cliffs at Omaha Beach—and many of the individual heroes, like General Norman Cota, who rallied his men on that beach when all seemed lost, Gen. Teddy Roosevelt, Jr, whom I wrote about here, and the man played by Wayne, Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, Commander, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who broke his ankle when he landed in France and continued to lead his men, sometimes walking on it using his rifle as a cane, for the next month. Yes, I thought this was Hollywood nonsense too, when the Duke said, “Strap it up.” No, like almost everything else in the movie, it really happened.
As dramatic and entertaining as Spielberg’s anti-war fiction is at times, nothing in the film comes close to the best moments–again, all factual—of “The Longest Day.” The most memorable, particularly the first time I saw the film on a wide screen in a movie theater, is the moment when Maj. Werner Pluskat, peering out from a bunker with binoculars, scanning the sea at Normandy, has just told his superior on the phone that there is nothing amiss…and the entire Allied armada comes over the horizon through the mist, filling his view and the length of the screen, as the sound track booms the four note theme from Beethovan’s Fifth–da-da-da-DUM, or dot dot dot dash, V, for Victory, in Morse Code, at the exact moment the ships come into view. Another is the touching scene, also true, when the mayor of Colleville, tears of joy streaming down his face, greets the British forces trying to free his country, offering them champagne, thanking and welcoming them, and generally acting like a madman in his ecstatic gratitude.
There are many more wonderful moments. One regret I have about the film is that it didn’t take former Allied Supreme Commander and recently retired President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower up on his offer to play himself in the pivotal scene where Ike has to give the go ahead for the invasion under the worst conditions imaginable. I also am sorry that it didn’t include a scene showing Ike writing the now-famous letter he prepared in case the invasion failed, in which he took full responsibility for the defeat. In this Eisenhower was consciously emulating Robert E. Lee, like him a West Point grad, who greeted his beaten troops returning from the catastrophic Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (where Eisenhower was living in 1962), telling them, “It is all my fault.” Ike’s letter was every bit as noble, courageous and ethical as Lee’s act; the only difference is moral luck.
Moral luck—that’s what often distinguishes heroes from scapegoats, defeat from victory, and triumph from disaster. That’s what “what war is really like,” and no war film makes that clearer than “The Longest Day,” all while making sure that we admire and honor the many heroes of many nationalities who rescued civilization at its darkest hour.
When that challenge comes again, will the heroes be there? I wonder. I know this: I’ll be more optimistic knowing that Americans have seen “The Longest Day,’ and understand its message, which, like the events it portrays, is noble and true.