Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Longest Day

One of my proudest achievements as a father was introducing The Sole Heir to The Longest Day. It was Memorial Day weekend, 2003. She was twelve and I’d decided she needed to know a little more of what the holiday was about. She might like it, might not, but I thought it was important.

A year later was the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings, and the American Film Institute Silver Theater showed The Longest Day on a big screen, one show only, Sunday afternoon, June 6. There were fewer than thirty people there. We were two of them; she’d asked me to take her. The ticket taker, an elderly gentleman of probably Korean War vintage, motioned me over when TSH went to the ladies’ room.

“This is a good thing you’re doing, bringing your daughter like this.”

“It’s better than you know, buddy,” I said. “She asked to come.”

HDNet movies is showing The Longest Day in February, so I watched it again. A bittersweet viewing, as I made the mistake of watching it a few days after The Beloved Spouse and I binge watched Band of brothers over the previous weekend. As powerful as it is, The Longest Day doesn’t hold up to a comparison.

Leave aside the special effects, bloodless violence, and sanitary language. Those are the state of what moviemakers could do, and get away with, in 1962, and aren’t the problem, anyway. What doesn’t hold up are the things that could have been done better and had been done better at the time.

The first hour is basically an exposition dump, characters talking to other characters about things both of them already know, or pretending to speak to another character when they’re really speaking to the audience to make damn sure we get it. I could almost understand it today, nearly seventy years after the event, but almost everyone who saw the movie when it came out would have been familiar with the circumstances. It had happened only eighteen years in the past, well within their personal experience. Several of the key characters worked on the filming. This was not ancient history. Even if it had been, it could have been handled in a less ham-handed fashion than to have John Wayne tell a junior officer, “I don't think I have to remind you that this war has been going on for almost 5 years. Over half of Europe has been overrun and occupied. We're comparative newcomers. England's gone through a blitz with a knife at her throat since 1940. I'm quite sure that they, too, are impatient and itching to go. Do I make myself clear?” followed by, “Three million men penned up on this island all over England in staging areas like this. We're on the threshold of the most crucial day of our times. Three million men out there, keyed up, just waiting for that big step-off. We aren't exactly alone.” Please.

The other issue should probably qualify as forgivable under the caveat two paragraphs above—sign of the times—but it’s still jarring to see the upbeat music and spirit at the end. Deaths are shown, but glossed over, forgotten as soon as the camera moves away. Yes, it’s only one day and time is of the essence, but the only sign anyone feels something for a dead comrade is when Robert Mitchum sees Jeffrey Hunter shot while trying to blow up a roadblock. Even then he moves directly on to encouraging the next man. He has to, it’s not a big deal, but at least Mitchum does it with a little melancholy. One can sense his eyes wanting to drift back in the direction of Hunter’s body.

Maybe I would not have noticed these things so much had we not seen Band of Brothers so recently. Next time we’ll examine the differences.


Charlieopera said...

Man, I LOVED this movie when I was a kid. LOVED it ... probably saw it 5 x's at the Canarsie theatre back in the day ... when a Mattel Sargeant Saunders machine gun was $3.50 and we'd play war in the backyard lot all day Saturday ... of course we also couldn't wait to get there and help fight the Nazi's (none of us were very bright and completely clueless the war had been fought already) ... and I think it's the only movie I ever saw the guy who played Tony in West Side Story ... good memories ...

John McFetridge said...

Oh, I don't know, I think maybe John Wayne did need to remind people (er, Americans) that the war had been going on long before Pearl Harbor. Outside of those lines in that movie, I don't think Hollywood ever really noticed anything before they got there ;).

It was a good idea to show the movie to your daughter, and great that she appreciated it. I had an odd experience going to see the movie, Das Boot with my father - he spent five years in the North Atlantic with the Canadian navy dropping depth charges onto German U Boats and it was really something for him to see it from the other side. It was a good starting point for talking, as good movies often are.

Dana King said...

DAS BOOT was a great movie and even better book. Thinking back, it may well have started me on the way to re-evaluating how I looked at war and its fictional depictions.

You're right abut the parochial American perspective of the war, I took a World War II class in college, and read the first volume of Churchill's history. The early goings on and the Phony War are fascinating, watching how things shook out, which seems inevitable when your idea is the war started December 7, 1941 but was, in fact, anything but.