Monday 27 May 2013

The Longest Day (1962)

The British invasion
This is a film about D-Day.  In fact, this is the film about D-Day, and covers the day itself in great detail, and from all angles.  British and American stars (Sean Connery and Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall and Rod Steiger and John Wayne and many more) play the British and American forces, German notables (all famous, though Bond villain Gert Fröbe is the only one I knew) play the Germans, and French celebutantes (including Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault From 1945's 'Les Enfants du Paradis') play the resistance.  It's like a war version of 'Love Actually' (2003), as myriad plot-lines are played out discretely; concise stories told economically, each with its international superstars, building into the larger story of the movie.

Watching this film, it became suddenly apparent to me that I didn't really know anything about D-Day at all. Indeed, I'd confused it in my mind with the Dunkirk evacuation, and couldn't have told you where or when it was, except that it involved British boats and continental Europe, and was a big deal for the second world war.  The film, then, was a revelation.

He got up so quickly that he put his boots on the wrong feet
I don't generally care for war-films, as too often they tend to be about our goodies against inherently evil foreigners, and play on the audience's xenophobia.  Now, I won't claim that the forces of Nazi Germany weren't the aggressors here, but the individuals in the German army probably didn't think of themselves as fighting for the cause of evil.  Indeed, one German officer, seeing the British progress rhetorically exclaims 'you know, sometimes I wonder which side God is on'.  Here, as in 'Das Boot' (1981) and 'Downfall' (2004), we get to see the German forces played as real characters, not as insane pantomime villains.

It helps, I think, that the four nationalities' stories - the French, British, German and American parts of the film - were all made separately, with each part assigned a director from the relevant country.  This, then, is four films, weaved into one.  Such a thing could be an appalling mess, but the style and flavour, the drama and humour, is consistent enough that it all comes together properly.  Among the film's advisors were the generals who plotted the invasion and those who masterminded the defence, meaning that the film has historical merit, and takes all the sides seriously.

John Wayne, who I usually can't abide, is actually very good in this.
The whole thing looks and sounds like a forties war-movie, albeit a very expensive one - in monochrome with dialogue spoken very clearly, and a big war song at the end - but is framed in the super-widescreen of the late fifties, the Cinemascope usually reserved for productions in extremely full colour.

It's an exciting and interesting film, as the large number of small storylines means we get all of the highlights and skip past the padding.  The ridiculous cast of the famous and the soon-to-be-famous is one that's rarely been matched, and all do what they do best.  There's a lot of fun had, with soldiers on all sides seen as plucky, good humoured and occasionally very eccentric.  It's all the more alarming, then, when they come to fight against one another, and we see vast numbers mown down with machine guns in almost every location.

Hey, it's that mime from 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945).  That was a great movie.
I'm very glad to have seen it, since it gave gave me a much clearer idea what D-Day was about, and what happened.  Frustratingly, despite a hefty duration, it seemed to end just as things were getting going.  Things had clearly swung in the allies' favour, but I'll need to do some further research to find out quite what happened next, and how we got from this great surge, with all its unlikely good fortune, to the ultimate victory in Europe and end of the war.  We won, or so I'm told, but I don't yet know how.  Thinking about it, that's a fairly substantial gap in my general knowledge.

P.S. Tune in next time for 'Stalker' (1979), a Russian film that I still don't really understand.

...and here it is, if you'd care to watch it.  You might well find it as excitingly educational as I did.

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