Why did I choose to watch The Longest Day? I had a hankering for a classic Hollywood military movie. So I consulted a list of the best war movies. As is often the case in our age of streaming services, the ones I wanted to watch were not available. Numbers five (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)), six (The Red and the White (1967)), and seven (Paths of Glory (1957)) were all not on Netflix. Numbers nine (The Grand Illusion (1937)) and eighteen (The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)) both looked great, but alas, also could not be found in modernity’s digital Library of Alexandria. I scrolled up and skipped a lot of choices until I landed upon number forty-nine, The Longest Day (1962), and this indeed was on Netflix.
That is how I ended up watching The Longest Day. And it turned out to be a good choice. The Longest Day is a huge piece of historical fluff, but it manages to be more interesting than most historical fluff. Military epics are often prone to excess, and The Longest Way avoids this vice better most. Unlike many movies in this genre, The Longest Day never condescends, and never resorts to empty platitudes. But what makes what would otherwise be a three-hour slog an entertaining experience is the cinematography. The entire film is shot in a gorgeous high-contrast black-and-white, and the black tones layered upon black tones make the photographer in me giddy. Beautiful contrasts are set up between the airy French villas occupied by the Germans and the cold, dark, and frankly depressing encampments of the Allies. The long, sweeping shots, which deemphasize the individual soldier in favor of the total ebb and flow of war, make a powerful impression. The Longest Day’s “zoomed-out,” impersonal perspective on war has been compared unfavorably to Saving Private Ryan’s dedication to telling the personal stories of those in combat. But fleshing out the individuals involved in war is hardly a radical move, even if Saving Private Ryan does it better than most. And a shot showing a group of soldiers defending a bridge sometimes reveals more about how war devalues the individual than any personal story of war. Even though The Longest Day never completes the circle and scrutinizes the forces, institutions, and mechanics that sent so many to die, the movie does push back against the Hollywood tendency to make everything about the will of the individual. What’s more, the spectacles in The Longest Day never feel like they are for spectacle’s sake. It is quite an accomplishment to make such huge outlays of capital feel respectful and measured.
What The Longest Day gains in scope, it loses in coherence. The tone of this movie is all over the place. The movie cannot decide if war is heroic and purposeful, or brutal and random. The directors and writers settle on an odd compromise where most scenes display war as large, heroic, and linked to specific objectives, but a select few scenes illustrate the violent arbitrariness of battle. The Longest Day’s cognitive dissonance is no doubt because of the movie’s commitment to showing war from every possible angle. The incoherence is a conscious choice; war is both heroic and arbitrary, both an impersonal series of larger strategic objectives and a set of smaller individual stories. One perspective does not negate the other. The Longest Day does not succeed in balancing these competing perspectives, but this failure is at least the result of a deliberate attempt to portray the totality of war.