Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald and Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Cornelius Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and Jack Seddon
Based on the novel by Cornelius Ryan
Saving Private Ryan has one of the most memorable opening sequences in any movie, with its long D-Day sequence that easily shows the horrors of war. And that pretty much defines D-Day in most media: storming the beach. The Longest Day takes a lot (and I mean a lot) more time to meticulously show every piece of what happened during D-Day to, again, show the horrors of war, but also providing a fascinating document.
There is little focus on individual characters here. While there are certainly plenty of stars throughout (most notably, John Wayne), this is a true ensemble movie, showing the attack from multiple perspectives. Right from the start, we see the American and British allies preparing for the attack, the Germans believing that the Allies will have to delay things, and the French Resistance preparing things in secret. The first hour of the movie is nothing but setup for the attack, and it remains fascinating. Avoiding the trope that most American-made war movies use, the different sides actually speak in their language, which also means the Germans aren’t automatically portrayed as over-the-top Nazis. Instead, they’re textured tacticians just like the Allies, and the soldiers on both sides are shown as just soldiers doing their jobs.
And as mentioned, the idea was to show a “war is hell” mentality. The people who get gunned down on the way to an objective that isn’t there, the paratroopers who get stuck in trees and provided as an easy target, the German soldiers who plead “Bitte, bitte” to the Allies, but get mercilessly shot as a solider wonders what “Bitter bitter” means. But it falls into the one trap that any anti-war movie can encounter: if you show combat, no matter how hellish, people won’t get the message. And indeed, for the movie’s final 2 hours, there is plenty of exciting action. Maybe it’s because there’s no perspective character that it becomes harder to relate to the many soldiers getting shot. Maybe it’s just that, with the hundreds of extras storming the beaches and towns, it’s easy to get so swept up in the spectacle that the message can just be easily ignored. This isn’t necessarily a hit against the movie, since this is just a common problem, and the final scene hammers the point home well enough: a solider describing his gruesome injury to another soldier, as he wonders who actually won. But it’s worth remembering that plenty of people ended up recruiting after seeing this movie.
Plenty of great details, action, and a dark message hiding beneath means that, for The Longest Day’s 3 hours, it moves quickly enough to keep you enthralled.