Thursday, June 19, 2014

D-Day movies

A friend's Facebook last week linked to this article by David Denby, the New Yorker's movie critic, about the 1962 movie The Longest Day, a telling of the events of 5 and 6 June 1944. I get the impression Denby is a respected critic, but I find this article wrongheaded on a number of levels. For a start, there's a xenophobic dig at the cowardice of the French. The piece has a number of errors (John Wayne plays an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, not the 101st, and Kenneth More plays a British naval Commander, not an Irish general). Also, two of the points on which he criticises The Longest Day (the depiction of the sea-wall at Omaha Beach, and the lack of portrayal of Canadians) appear to be lifted from the Wikipedia article on the movie. All in all, I get the impression that it is quite a long time since Denby actually saw The Longest Day.

For Denby, The Longest Day is a forgotten movie, and rightly so. It is aimless, because it attempts to present the story from all perspectives. It is not a movie for our time. And it falls far short of Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. This is not an uncommon comparison (and one now invited by the Blu-ray packaging of The Longest Day, which deliberately evokes the poster for Ryan). The Longest Day is often used as a whipping boy for those who want to show what a great movie Ryan  is. They often, like Denby, give the impression that that they haven't seen The Longest Day recently, and, indeed, that they are not particular familiar with, nor like very much, war movies as a genre. Very often, as Denby does, critics will note the way that the older movie fakes for dramatic effect, whilst overlooking the way in which Ryan does this as well, at least as much. And they always note how the deaths are more realistic in Ryan, as if the use of gory effects inherently renders a character death more meaningful.

Obviously, I disagree with a lot of this. True, the mass of characters in the 1962 movie, generally dressed alike, means that it can often be hard to follow who is who, especially amongst the American front-line troops. But there are plenty of deaths in The Longest Day that unsettle the viewer. You don't need to show someone's head being blown up by a 20mm shell - a parachute slowly disappearing into a well can be just as disturbing. At the time, this was a very significant movie. It marked the point at which war movies became more epic and multi-stranded than they had generally been in the 1950s. And allowing the French and German characters to speak in their own languages was a notable innovation. If The Longest Day is forgotten today, it has as much to do with it being made in black and white - an aesthetic decision rather than a commercial one - as it does with any other qualities of the movie.

This is not the first time I've dealt with this sort of material. I wrote a fanzine article back in 2004 about Saving Private Ryan and the related television series Band of Brothers (which I rate very highly). I tidied that up a little, corrected a few points, and uploaded it to I got the following response from my old friend Derek Macleod:

I think the references to previous war films in Ryan won't bug me now that I can think of it as an homage (albeit partly unintentional) to classic war movies, rather than a new take on the war film.
I agree with that. I think it's hard for anyone with a familiarity with the 1960s war movie not to see how much Ryan draws from them - I deduce therefore that those who praised it (and continue to praise it, as Denby does) as a "new" sort of war movie simply weren't familiar with the genre.

On one point I do agree with Denby: Saving Private Ryan is more of a movie for our times than The Longest Day - but not in the way that Denby wants it to be. He sees it as a post-Vietnam movie, imbued with cynicism about war and the military. I see it as much more of a flag-waver, a return to pre-Vietnam values. Where The Longest Day is a movie about the collaborative fight, Saving Private Ryan appeals to American exceptionalism. It is D-Day how the Americans want to remember it; The Longest Day is closer to how it was.

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