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The Longest Day

May 28, 2006


June 6 is traditionally considered the longest day of the year due to summer solstice. From a historical perspective, June 6,1944 is one of the most significant dates in world history. In military terms, its simply called the D-Day, but as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, tells his soldiers at the Atlantic Front, “This would be the longest day for Allies as well as the Germans”.

June 6,1944- To any one even remotely interested in war history, this is an unforgettable day. This is the day when the Allies launched one of the largest assault by sea, air and land on the German forces. The date which witnessed some of the bloodiest casualties in World War II both for Allies and Germans. An event in history marked by ego clashes, last minute decisions, a battle marked by two sides unwilling to concede an inch. Some of the greatest military persons Rommel, Eisenhower were part of this event.

And to make such a path breaking historical event into a 3 hour long movie, is no mean achievement. And that’s what makes the 1962 Movie, The Longest Day, one of the greatest war classics to ever hit silver screen. Mind you the movie is not a Saving Private Ryan which showed the futility of war, it’s a retelling of what happened on June 6,1944. 

4 directors, 4 screen writers, including Cornelius Ryan, the original author on whose book the movie was based and 42 top class stars came together to make this epic of a movie. The stars were all A Grade talents- John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Curt Jungens, Richard Burton, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger and Sean Connery. The movie is significant in that it narrates the events of June 6,1944 from 4 different view points, The Germans, the Americans , the French Resistance fighters and the British. It also helped that the military consultants for this movie were people who had actually seen first hand combat in D-Day.  The popular military tune was written by Paul Anka,  a popular Canadian singer who also acted in the movie.

The movie starts off with a French resistance squad receiving coded information about a likely Allied assault on the coast of Normandy. Codenamed as Operation Overlord, it was the largest sea borne invasion in history, with 3 million troops. The main divisions came from US, UK and Canada in the assault phase. And then the movie goes into the actual planning phase, with the senior officers planning out the assault. The French resistance job was to blow up train tracks, bridges to halt the German advance.

From the German view, we learn of how the senior brass takes it casually, inspite of Erwin Rommel’s warnings, as he says in the memorable quote:

“Just look at it, gentlemen. How calm… how peaceful it is. A strip of water between England and the continent… between the Allies and us. But beyond that peaceful horizon… a monster waits. A coiled spring of men, ships, and planes… straining to be released against us. But, gentlemen, not a single Allied soldier shall reach the shore. Whenever and wherever this invasion may come, gentlemen… I shall destroy the enemy there, at the water’s edge. Believe me, gentlemen, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as the Germans, it will be the longest day… The longest day.” 

But Field Marshal Gerd Von Runsteldt is unconvinced, and he feels that the Normandy invasion is just a diversionary tactic. The Germans were under the impression that as Pas-de-Calais was closer to England, the Allies were likely to attack there, and they neglected to fortify Normandy, inspite of Rommel’s warnings. Runsteldt feels that a landing at Normandy would be against all military logic. And this makes one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, when a German pair of guards, watch in shock as they see the large flotilla approaching, and they ring up HQ.

More memorable is one more scene, where a local French resident of Normandy, jumps about in joy as he hears the allied ships firing on the beach, unmindful of the artillery hitting his home also.
And yes the actual landings at Normandy, are depicted superbly, the Allies landing on the beach, the Germans fighting back fiercely, the casualties, and a touch of humor with a Scotsman playing bag pipes.
As also the scenes showing the hand to hand fighting between the Germans and Allies as they move inwards.
Another memorable scene is one where Pvt John Steele, lands on a church tower, and finds himself  caught on the clock.

One scene which is quite tragic is, when the American soldiers use a double click as a code, to identify themselves. Unfortunately one of them, walks into a German trap and is shot dead.

The movie has some top class actors 

Richard Burton as RAF Flying Officer David Campbell.Henry Fonda as Brig Gen Theodore Roosevelt Jr, the son of former US presiden Teddy Roosevelt, he lead the US 4th Infantry at Utah Beach.

Robert Mitchum as Brig Gen Norman Cota, he was against the concept of landing during daylight and believed pre dawn landings would be safer.

John Wayne as Benjamin Vandervoort, one of the toughest commanders famous for his quote “You cant give the enemy a break send him to hell”.

Curt Jungens as Maj Gen Gunther Blumentrit, who has to put up with the incompetence of his superiors.
Other important persona like Eisenhower, Gen Omar Bradley, Rommel, Montogomery are played by relatively lesser actors.

For a movie made in the 60’s when technology was not advanced, and that too filmed completely in black and white, the action sequences are thrilling and top class. Many of the battle sequences have a realistic touch to them.

For all war movie lovers, go do watch this movie to see what happened on one of the most momentous days in world history.

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