Tuesday, June 6, 2017

D-Day in Memorium

Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion which signaled the beginning of the end of WWII.

I was a history major when I attended college.  I found my most abiding interest in military history, especially in the major conflicts in what became known as World War II.  WWII was a direct result of the devastation, both economic and political, that resulted from the impositions made on the defeated countries of Germany and it's allies after what was then called "The Great War".  Without these harsh restrictions it is questionable whether the rise of Adolph Hitler would have been necessary, much less likely.

Be that as it may, Hitler did come to power, and the result was a conflict that involved almost every nation on the face of the Earth embroiled in a conflict that extended from September of 1939 until the surrender of Japan as the final combatant in August of 1945.  The war was fought on three fronts, the Japanese being the Eastern Axis power and Germany, along with Italy, fighting on the Western front.

The beginning of the end for Germany began with the invasion of the Normandy coast in France, then a part of Germany's conquests, on June 6, 1944.  Today marks the 73rd anniversary of that event.  Cornelius Ryan wrote the phenomenal book that inspired this movie (also titled The Longest Day) and it was immediately scarfed up by Darryl F. Zanuck who had dreams of making the big book into an even bigger movie.

In an effort to do that, not just one, not just two, but three directors had a hand in the movie.  Ken Annakin directed the British and French scenes, Andrew Marton directed the scenes invoplving the American soldiers, and Bernhard Wicki directed the scenes from the German point of view.  To add verisimilitude to the film, those scenes with either French or German characters were filmed with the characters actually speaking French or German.  (Not to worry, the movie provides subtitles so you can follow along...)

The film was helped along by many of the actual participants in the invasion and, on the side of the Germans, in the defense, as advisers to make sure the historical aspects were true to the actual events. Because of this, the action of the evens and the actions of the actors participating are more or less true to the real story. (In other words, you don't get a dramatic death scene of one of the main characters just because the director or the actor wanted one.  True, some of the headliner actors do die, but not any of the ones who portray real people who didn't actually die in the D-Day landing.)

The Longest Day (1962)

John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and a cast of thousands came together in the early sixties to create one of the most intriguing historical epics to ever come out of Hollywood.  The movie runs almost like a documentary.  Interchanging between the Allied front as the Allies prepare for the invasion of the Axis powers hold in France, and, on the other side, as the Axis powers prepare their defense against an invasion they are sure is imminent.

The movie is filmed almost documentary style.  Standout performances are too numerous to mention, but there are some that are memorable.  In the tradition of previous entries to this blog for ensemble cast movies, I have chosen to address specific characters instead of doing an encapsulation of the movie.  (For greater clarity, you should watch the movie, and even read the book. It's fascinating and imminently readable even for people who find history boring).

John Wayne as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort

Wayne has always been a favorite of mine, despite the fact that many of his characters are pretty much played the same way.  This one is not much different, even though he is cast as a real person.  Vandervoort was one of the instrumental characters in the landing.  The real Vandervoort survived the war and passed away in 1990 (at the age of 73), making him the longest lived American survivor of the main real participants that were portrayed in this filming.  Wayne does a pretty decent job of it.  I wonder how Vandervoort reacted to Wayne playing him.  However, my feeling is that the best performance by an actor playing one of the real participants was...

Robert Mitchum as Brigadier General Norman Cota

Mitchum plays a cigar chewing gung-ho soldierr, willing to do whatever it takes to make the landing successful.  Cota himself also survived long past the invasion, passing away in 1971 (he was 78).  I probably would rank Mitchum as my second favorite actor, behind Wayne.  The expanse and scope of this movie being what it is, Mitchum is on screen for far less time than I would like, but every time he does get the screen time, he dominates it.  There are other actors who play real characters.  One of them who stands out is...

Red Buttons as Private John Steele

The scene where Steele, as a parachutist, gets hung up in a church steeple and watches in horror as the rest of his comrades get slaughtered by the Germans during a parachute drop is a true event.  Buttons actually had a conversation with Steele prior to his playing the role.  On my DVD commentary he talks about how terrifying it was for Steele.  Steele lived through the was and died in 1969 (at age 56).  The city in France where this occured now has a tavern, the Auberge John Steele, named in his honor.  Buttons is one of the standout characters in the film.   But we can't leave out some of the "fictional" characters, especially...

Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell as Flying Officer David Campbell and Private Morris, respectively.

Burton and McDowell were in the middle of filming Cleopatra at the time, but if you know some of the history of that filming, it will come as no surprise that the two showed up on the set of The Longest Day, just itching to be productive, because the other film was bogged down in its own production.  Burton in particular, is memorable because he delivers the penultimate line in the movie:  "It's funny.  He's dead, I'm crippled, you're lost.  I wonder if it's always like that.  I mean war.  I wonder who won..."  This line is spoken to another of my favorite "fictional" characters...

Richard Beymer as Private Schultz

Beymer is well known to many as Tony in West Side Story, or from Twin Peaks (if you were into that).  Beymer excels as a happy-go-lucky character who seems lost in the actual fighting.  In the scene with Burton, Schultz claims he has not even had to fire his gun, but he still seems shell shocked by what he has witnessed.  But we can't forget there were some standout performances by the actors playing Germans, either.  One of my favorites is...

Heinz Reincke as Oberstleutnant Josef Priller

How Reincke did not receive a credit in the casting list at the end of this movie is a mystery to me.  I think Reincke's preformance as Priller is the most memorable.  Priller, by the way, was also a real combatant on the German side. passing away in 1961.  He is honored in Augsburg with a street named after him.  Two future James Bond villains also appear as chacters on the Germn side...

Curt Jurgens  and  Gert Frobe  as General Gunther Blumentritt and Unteroffizier "Kaffekanne"

Frobe's only scenes involve him as a fat officer deliver coffee to soldiers on the beach in Normandy, thus his character's name "Kaffekanne" ("coffee pot").  On the other hand, Jurgens plays the real Blumentritt, one of the officers frustrated by the lack of sufficient forces to combat the invasion which had been expected, but due to poor communications was not adequately addressed in its efforts.

This is only a smattering of the participants in the movie.  In honor of the D-Day invasion, which was the beginning of the end of World War II, I present this piece.  I hope you get a chance to take time out today to honor those who fought, and especially those who sacrificed their lives to ensure the freedom we have today.



  1. I love this movie :-) I got a minor in history in college, and WWII is one of my favorite eras to learn about. I first read Ryan's book when I was a teen, and I've read it at least twice since then -- it's soooooo good. And the movie is dear to my heart as well. I would add a couple characters to your list of stand-outs, especially Richard Todd as Maj. John Howard (the guy who thinks "Hold until relieved" over and over at the bridge -- I used to think that in his voice a lot when I had tiny kids and it was hours before Cowboy would be home from work). I also quote Sean Connery's Pvt. Flanagan a lot -- he only gets a teensy bit of screen time, but he's so funny! This is also one of the few movies I really, truly like Henry Fonda in.

  2. I really meant to add Connery. The problem is I was madly typing (actually hunting and pecking since I only type with one finger.) trying to get the article completed before I had to go to work. As far as Todd goes, the only part I really noticed was that "hold until relieved" bit. And there is nothing memorable, to me, of a guy who just stands there with a pensive look on his face while another character's voice echos in his head. Even the real Major Howard said in an interview in 1994 that it was "sentimental rubbish". Finally, I have to say Fonda almost put me to sleep in his scene...sorry.

  3. Still the best D-Day movie.

    Fun Fact: Richard Todd could have played himself! He was one of the paratroopers that captured the Pegasus Bridge in the very early morning on D-Day. But the makeup people couldn't take enough years off of him...

    Oh, and the scene with the shillelagh hitting a tank to get it started? Really happened. And that was the actual shillelagh....


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