Movie Review: The Longest Day

Movie Review: The Longest Day

I cannot recall how many times I have seen the movie ‘The Longest Day’. I grew up loving watching movies about World War 2 and this was one of my favorites. I also read the book innumerable times. While I think I like ‘The Great Escape’ a little bit more, The Longest Day was perhaps more historically accurate.

I will not belabor what D-Day was since 99% of the people who are reading this review will already be aware of what happened there, and for the few who still do not know, I recommend they read about it before watching this film. The film does not waste time on unnecessary explanations either.

Stuart Whitman The Longest Day

The Longest Day Production

The movie The Longest Day was a star-studded retelling of the D-Day invasion, this ambitious war movie was Darryl Zanuck’s pet project, one of the most ambitious war films of all time. Zanuck spared no expense in producing THE LONGEST DAY and even insisted that the shooting take place in weather conditions that matched those of the actual event. 

Based on Cornelius Ryan’s collection of interviews with D-Day survivors, the film is divided into three segments. The first is concerned with the Allied and German invasion preparation and the waiting for the weather to improve. The second recreated the movement of the massive armada across the English Channel accompanied by paratroopers and glider-planes transporting commandos.The last section depicts the assault on the beaches of Normandy. Intercut with the film’s depiction of the Allied invasion is the German’s (subtitled) response. 

The work of three directors, including Zanuck who reportedly supervised most of the U.S. and British interiors himself, and the work of over eight cameramen. The Longest Day is visually stunning due to its extraordinary camera movement and Cinemascope photography, which enhances intricately reenacted battle scenes which probably weren’t surpassed until Saving Private Ryan was filmed. The actors are the only thing bigger than the film’s scope, including John Wayne (who received $250,000 for four days’ work) as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort of the 82nd Paratroop Division; Henry Fonda as Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.; Robert Mitchum as Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, who led his hard-pressed men off of Omaha Beach, where they were being slaughtered by German crossfire; Red Buttons as  paratrooper John Steele; Rod Steiger as the skipper of one of the armada ships; Peter Lawford as the flamboyant commando leader Lord Lovat (who was present at the shoot); Richard Burton as a wounded pilot; and Curt Jurgens as German General Blumentritt. This masterpiece, made for $10 million, was the most expensive black-and-white film made to date.

All of the hardships and bloodshed of World War II’s most salient invasion, organized and carried out by massive military forces, the courage displayed by the soldiers as well as the sacrifices they made, is well and truly depicted in this film. While there were many D-Day’s during World War II only one is remembered as “The D-Day’. 

From the climactic Allied invasion force concentration on the English coast in early June 1944. The monumentality and sweeping power of the battle that ultimately ended World War II are depicted in scenes from the evening of D-Day, June 6, 1944. One of the most suspenseful moments occurred when General Eisenhower was faced with the fateful decision as to whether the invasion would proceed or have to be postponed. There is the nervousness and impatience of officers waiting for the ‘go’ order; as well as the restlessness and time-killing activities of soldiers on the edge of the decision. First there is the airborne excitement of the Pathfinders being sent by air to parachute into Normandy at midnight so as to light the way for the following paratroopers. The tension, the dramatic fighting and the humor of the airborne raid by Commandos on the Orne River bridge; the violence and confusion of the experiences of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions before dawn around Ste. Mere-Eglise. 

As daylight comes, there is the thunder of the first landing craft piling in on the fortress-fringed Normandy beaches, the bloody battles along the fire-raked strands of the Utah and Omaha sectors, fought by the Americans, and the assaults upon Gold, Sword and Juneau by the British and Canadians, as dawn breaks. There’s the epic battle of French commandos to capture Ouistreham and the terrifying climb of American Rangers up the sheer cliffs of Point-du-Hôc. The French Resistance is even covered with their sabotage efforts. The Germans are not neglected either. The movie begins with the cameras catching glimpses of their activities behind the Atlantic Wall. The presence of Field Marshal Rommel binds the picture’s main title and emphasizes the German worry about the day being “the longest day.” for both sides. While it is unknown if Rommel actually said those words or not it makes for a great script.  From the very beginning to the very end, the bickering and mismanagement of the German generals, from Von Rundstedt down, is deeply intertwined, historically and dramatically. 

John Wayne The Longest Day

The multiple people involved with the script, including Mr. Zanuck, and the fellows involved in the directing, resisted the temptation to only present one side of the story.  They kept a firmly defined distance from the back story, did not engage in flashbacks, or established characters with perhaps just a tad embellishment on John Wayne’s character’s actual role in the battle.  Thus all we see in the three hours of the film are the fighting men (and a few women), doing the things they do in the course of one deadly, terrifying, and momentous day. No one character stands out as more significant or heroic than any other with the exception of John Wayne as notably rugged as Colonel Vandervoort, the dogged officer of the 82d who hobbled through D-Day on a broken ankle, using a rifle as a crutch. Robert Mitchum plays General Cota, who led his men of the 29th Division onto Omaha Beach, then turned them toward Victory by forcing the Vierville roadblock to be breached. Red Buttons is quite effective as paratrooper John Steele, who watched in awe as many of his buddies were slaughtered in the church steeple at Ste-Mère-Eglise while hanging from the harness of his parachute. If you visit Ste-Mère-Eglise today you can still see him depicted as hanging from the very steeple in the town square.  Richard Beymer makes a convincing impression as a young soldier who wanders around without really understanding his role and without firing a shot. Moreover, there are dozens of other actors convincing (and recognizable) in roles that do not often appear in the film (or are only seen in the first few frames). Richard Todd’s real life D-Day action on the Orne River Bridge is shown in one seen where he is shown as a young unknown actor who is reporting to his commander Major John Howard portrayed in the movie by Todd. Using black-and-white photography, the picture creates a newsreel feel to the vivid, detailed battle scenes. Aside from the illusory aspect of reality, it has been achieved in other ways, such as in the use of their own languages by the Germans and the French, with English subtitles appended to translate what they say. The overall effect of the composition is one of a massive documentary, embellished and colored with personal details that are fascinating, funny, ironic, and sad. 

Rod Steiger The Longest Day


In my opinion, the film is intended to honor the men who fought that day, winners and losers alike. That is commendable. The film had excellent cinematography and an exceptional camerawork, which was a winner of the Best Black-and-White Cinematography Oscar that year. Additionally, the special effects and visual effects are impressive as well, and were recognized with a Best Special Effects Award. The film has an excellent set and costume design, as well as an excellent post-production work that displays the commitment of all involved parties. There is no scene or sequence that seems incongruent or out of place. Everything flows naturally. The film is rather long, it is in fact three hours long, but there is so much of a story to be told that if they redid it today it would likely be a mini-series and not a movie. 

There are no conclusive conclusions in this film other than the basic one that war is hell and that D-Day was an Allied victory, not the result of a single man. It is difficult to think of a picture, constructed and aimed in such a manner as this one was, doing any more or leaving one feeling any more exposed to the horrors of war until Saving Private Ryan was filmed. The film is very much a semi-fictionalized documentary detailing the logistics of an incredible invasion.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Anna Waldherr

    I, too, think highly of this film as well as the book on which it was based.

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