The Longest Day picks up when the Normandy beach invasion starts. It happens maybe ninety minutes into the three-hour film. There are the overnight paratrooper drops, which have such dull action scenes it seems like the film will never improve, but then it turns out the large-scale battle choreography is exceptional and could potentially make up for the rest. It doesn’t, however, because Robert Mitchum turns out to be terrible once he gets more to do—he’s playing the rah-rah American general who chews on stogies—and is the one who motivates the men to get off Omaha Beach, the only unsuccessful D-Day landing point. In the film, anyway. It’s been way too long since my World War II class in undergrad. I mean, I aced the blue book, but not a-plussed it. Not that one.
The actual history doesn’t matter. It should because Longest Day is an exhausting exposition dump through the first hour as actor after actor churns through facts and figures, but no one ever thinks to describe the plan. Even though it’s a war movie with a mission and working a plan description into it is literally the easiest thing in the world (Longest Day is great to see how subsequent war films succeeded its narrative failings). Instead, it’s just a variety of guest stars mugging through endless dialogue. The worst performances—for the dialogue dumps—Robert Ryan and Rod Steiger. John Wayne’s not good at them either, but he’s nowhere near as bad as those two. And Steiger’s just in it for a scene. Ryan’s at least got a briefing. There really aren’t many dialogue dumps from the Germans, except maybe Richard Münch. He gets to describe the D-Day invasion before it happens because it’s what he would do if he were Eisenhower, but Eisenhower’s got no stones.
According to The Longest Day, D-Day succeeded for a handful of simple reasons. First, Eisenhower manned up and acted recklessly with the invasion location and launching in lousy weather. Second, Adolf Hitler was a silly yelly milksop who needed his nap (his generals dismiss him as a “Bohemian corporal,” though that quote is from somewhere else). Third, a bunch of the German generals were just lazy or intentionally distracted. Again, I can’t remember my D-Day history, but it seems like if you’re doing a three-hour Army recruitment commercial, you should at least make the good guys deserve to win for something other than dumb luck. Because if it is just dumb luck….
There’s a nod to the futility of war, right at the very end, with Richard Burton acting opposite Richard Beymer. Burton’s bad in the movie but not risible. Beymer’s middling in the film but never better. Get them together, however, and they’re just godawful together. Especially with the dialogue. Especially since it takes place at sunset on June 6, after the film’s skipped ahead not a few hours, but something like ten. Because ten p.m. sunset on June 6, 1944. Thanks, Google. I’d have used military time, except the movie doesn’t for the first hour, so I kept wondering how Eisenhower was going to hold a meeting at 9:30 in the morning on June 6 when the invasion boats left already.
The invasion boat arrival scene with Hans Christian Blech is one of the best, not large-scale scenes. The film’s never good with its composite shots, from the second or third scene, and you think it’ll somehow not matter because of the gravitas, but it matters every single time, especially with Mitchum, who doesn’t need any more excuses to be checked out. At least Wayne’s engaged. Wayne’s not good, not at all, but he’s engaged in the film. Mitchum is phoning it in. Eddie Albert holds up their scenes together, which is concerning.
The film’s got three credited directors, but there are at least two more uncredited contributors, and then whoever orchestrated the battle sequences, which were shot from helicopters, it looks like. Those sequences are about the only time the lousy sound effects are okay. Otherwise, Longest Day’s editing, visually and aurally, is never impressive. Some of it's obvious lack of coverage and continuity—neither Annakin nor Marton establish their battle scenes well. Wicki doesn’t get any battle scenes. Maybe the marching scene, which ends up being better than the paratrooper stuff. And then the landing. Okay, so for actual action, Wicki does best. Then whoever did the French commando scene, which has some of the film’s best-acting courtesy Georges Rivière.
Longest Day has over a hundred speaking parts. It’s got a big name American, British, French, and German movie stars. It’s got like six good performances, a whole bunch of middling ones, then a dozen terrible ones. Best performances are—in alphabetical order—Blech, Münch, Edmond O'Brien, Wolfgang Preiss, Rivière, Robert Wagner. I’m not going through the worst, but Peter Lawford and Nicholas Stuart are on the list; Stuart doesn’t even have any lines. There are a handful of senseless cameos—Steiger, O’Brien, Henry Fonda—because no one can really figure out how to write the characters. They’re just star cameos, not people, not even caricatures. Jeffrey Hunter gets a big part in the last hour, but Marton directs him poorly. Red Buttons is better than most of the other guys he’s around. Mel Ferrer’s fine in his brief appearances. Sean Connery’s dull but better than some of the other Scots, particularly Kenneth More, who seems to have been churned out by the War Office.
If Mitchum or Wayne were good, Day’d have something. Or if Beymer were good. Or Sal Mineo. Burton’s not in it enough to matter. But the direction would still be wanting. The script—only five screenwriters—is a mess. The helicopter sequences are fantastic, though. Shame it’s profoundly shallow.
Even before you get to the Paul Anka theme song.