Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
In the annals of military history, there is probably no single day more important or meaningful, at least in the last 100 years, than June 6, 1944. For a modern movie watcher, Saving Private Ryan, or at least the opening of that film, is the quintessential cinematic depiction of D-Day. The Longest Day, from three decades earlier, though, is a true cinematic depiction of the invasion of Normandy by the Allied forces. There is no plot here beyond the invasion, no Private Ryan to rescue, just the story of getting a mass of soldiers onto a beach and getting them inland to start liberating Europe.
What makes The Longest Day particularly interesting is that it looks at both sides of the conflict and attempts to bringin as much as possible. We spend time on each of the five beaches, we spend time with the glider troops and paratroopers, and we also see some of the planning and defensive measures put in place by the German army. In other words, it’s more or less a comprehensive look at the buildup on both sides of the channel and then the invasion itself.
What this means is I’m not going to give you a plot breakdown. That’s because there really isn’t a plot here—there’s just history. More importantly, The Longest Day looks at this as a whole; the movie is the gestalt of the day and does this by offering specific glimpses and moments and minor parts of stories. We don’t really spend much time with any character, though, so we don’t really end up knowing much about anybody. For what the movie wants to be, that’s fine. This is about seeing the day as a whole, not about one person’s or a group’s experience with the day.
It’s almost a shame in that respect because this is a cast list to wet one’s pants over. Among the many, many known actors that appear here, we have Eddie Albert, Arletty, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Sean Connery, Mel Ferrer, Henry Fonda, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, George Segal, Rod Steiger, and John Wayne. Of all of them, Mitchum and Wayne leave the largest impression. In general though, it’s more or less an experience of “spot the star” and then wondering if you’re going to see them again before the film ends.
This, for me, is one of the weaknesses of the film. Because it casts such a broad net on the day, we are constantly moving from place to place, getting bits and pieces of the whole story. It’s not difficult to follow. In fact, the film as a whole is quite easy to understand. I just would like a character or two to latch onto to take me through the story. Without that, what we get is a compelling, but surface-only take on this day in history.
I get that, and I get why the film is done in this way. However, there is a serious issue with that as well: it’s completely cursory. Despite the film’s nearly three-hour running time, there is a vast amount of D-Day that we simply don’t see. It would be conceivable to put together a movie of this length and done in this style about the invasion of a single of the five beaches (Omaha, as the worst of the five would probably be the most interesting). There is simply so much to cover that in doing things this way, there is far more that is left unseen. Of course, that will always be the case, no matter how long the movie or how specific and sharp its focus.
Anyone with an interest in what is still the greatest single invasion in military history, and arguably the most important one in history, will find a great deal to like with The Longest Day. It is a film that manages to never get dull, even if we get lost among the characters.
Technically, there are some weird places. There are several moments in the film where the actors don’t so much look like they are standing in front of rear projection, but almost as if they are using rudimentary green screen technology. The actors in multiple places look like cut-outs standing in front of a moving background. However, there are also moments of pure brilliance. A group of French commandos move to take over an occupied town at one point, and the camera follows them from a distance, showing them moving through the town. As they advance, the camera pulls back and pans, showing us other aspects of the same battle. It genuinely looks like an actual battle taking place. It’s a beautiful sequence, and for the technical nerds, almost worth the watch just for itself.
I enjoyed this film quite a bit. It is, in my opinion at least, the best historical fact/fiction version of D-Day as an event on film, if only because D-Day encompasses the entire film. The opening of Saving Private Ryan is far more intense, but this is far more complete.
Why to watch The Longest Day: The best D-Day picture pre-Saving Private Ryan, and maybe still.
Why not to watch: No characters to get attached to.