20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck put $10 million of his own money into this movie. He thought it that important.
Of course, $10 million was probably chicken-feed to Zanuck. In a documentary accompanying this movie, he's shown in his office. And on the walls behind him are a major Picasso Harlequin painting, and a Monet as well. That's Monet. Pronounced M.O.N.E.Y.
Zanuck was right to take the gamble, which is why he was a movie-mogul and I'm not. This was a terrific subject - the first 24 hours of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 2004. This was the biggest invasion of any country at any time in history. It marked the beginning of the end of the Evil Empire.
The movie has a cast of thousands, including prodigal use of stars in cameo roles -- so many of the Hollywood, British, German and French acting greats that no order of precedence could be established -- they are all just listed in strict alphabetical order at the end. All, that is, except John Wayne, who had to show himself to be bigger than anyone else by having a special feature mention right at the end of the list. It figures.....
But forget the presence of the obnoxious John Wayne. There's some real talent here, including Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton and Kenneth More. And in one of the nicest touches, we meet the British actor Richard Todd, best remembered today as playing Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC in The Dam Busters, playing the role of a Paratrooper dropped way behind enemy lines ahead of the invasion. Very nice casting indeed, since that's exactly what Richard Todd did in real life.
The acting line-up is tremendous, and it would be a brave man who would pick out one member of the cast as its most impressive in this movie. So I'll be brave, and point to Robert Mitchum, in one of the greatest performances in a still sadly underrated career, as Brigadier-General Norman Cota, who led the assault on the bloodiest of all the Normandy beaches, in Operation Omaha.
Zanuck decided to shoot The Longest Day in widescreen black-and-white. I guess that decision was taken in the main to allow for seamless interpolation of actual newsreel footage from that time. Whatever the reason, it works. The black-and-white footage gives a remarkable feeling of gritty veracity. This is invasion-time all over again. Everything seems so incredibly real .... except of course for John Wayne.
The effects of artillery barrages, of thousands of people storming beaches, of general destruction and carnage, are amazingly realistic in this pre-digital movie, and a lot more convincing than more modern sagas starring Tom Hanks etc. Yes, I'm bagging Saving Private Ryan.
It's not quite up there with The Dam Busters but that's an unfair comparison. After all, we're talking there about the single greatest movie ever made about the Second World War. This does run it pretty close.
The only let-down is footage early on, around the four and five minute mark, when we see Field Marshall Rommell surveying the French coastline and deciding everything is quiet enough for him to take a holiday in Germany. What looks like hugely excessive edge-enhancement is in fact very bad blue-screen. The effect quickly passes.
Watch here too for a very odd special-effects blunder. Rommell totally disappears from screen for a few moments, while the background, and his voice remains. Keep watching, and he pops back again. It's become a classic flaw, rather like the famous surprise appearance of a motor-car in the background of Sherwood Forest, during Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood.
But forget the odd flaw. This is a wonderfully made and perfectly paced movie, which will repay repeated viewing.
The Longest Day is remarkable in how it manages to tell the tale of the first day of the invasion of France, through a dozen separate stories, involving individual soldiers and officers on both sides of the battle. The interweaving is immaculately done.
It's very impressive story-telling, both in the close-up personal stories, and in the immaculately choreographed set-pieces involving the cast of thousands. It is as relevant now as when Zanuck took the huge financial gamble to have it made. See it, and remember how freedom in Europe was won.
Oh yes.... forgot to mention. It's also tremendously exciting. Not quite as exciting perhaps as Where Eagles Dare, but this is the real thing!