Monday, 23 January 2017
The Longest Day (1962)
They don't make war movies like this any more.
I don't mean this as a subjective remark about quality. I mean that they quite literally don't make war movies in this manner any more: sprawling, strategy-level epics that focus down on individual characters only to the extent necessary to give recognisable faces to the various vignettes. And a great many recognisable faces there are, too: Paul Anka, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum and John Wayne, to name just a few. There's even a just-about-to-become-James-Bond Sean Connery in a minor role.
None of these big names - or soon to be big names - get more than 15-20 minutes on screen, however, which is only a small fraction of a near three hour film. The movie's focus is very much on the grand strategic sweep of June 6th, 1944: D-Day. It covers the preparatory work undertaken by both sides prior to the Allied invasion, and then the progress on all five landing beaches, the assault on Point du Hoc, and the various airborne attacks.
Modern war films tend to have a narrower but deeper scope: the grand battle scenes tend to play as a supporting act to the experiences of a small group of individual characters. In this film, the exact opposite is true. For instance, Mitchum plays General Norman Cota, who rallied the demoralised troops on Omaha Beach and spearheaded the breakout into the interior. In a modern film we'd learn about Cota in detail: his opposition to a dawn attack for D-Day (he favoured an attack at night), his relationship with his subordinates, and so forth. He'd also be central to a majority of the scenes in the movie. In this film, he's a guy who gives orders that we then watch other men carry out.
I can definitely see why the change has happened: it's much easier to get the audience invested in characters whom they know well. And easier to structure a single, coherent narrative, which is something that this film somewhat lacks except in the broadest of terms. Still, I do miss seeing movies with this kind of sweep and scope, and this one is a fine example of the now-neglected form.