Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Despite its battalion of Hollywood actors, the war is the real star of combat epic <i>The Longest Day</i>

Despite its battalion of Hollywood actors, the war is the real star of combat epic The Longest Day

Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

Norman Mailer used to tell a story about Darryl F. Zanuck, the cigar-chomping super-producer responsible for The Longest Day, the vast and impersonal war epic that became 1962’s highest-grossing movie. To hear Mailer tell it, Zanuck, at the wrap party for the film, announced that he was one of only three people in the world who could do a one-arm chin-up. He intended to demonstrate. So Zanuck stripped off his shirt, grabbed a chin-up bar, and got most of the way up. But he couldn’t finish. So Zanuck dropped to the ground, blasted a loud fart, and said, “Now there are only two people.”

Only a person with that kind of ridiculous, outsized confidence could’ve made The Longest Day. Zanuck, born in 1902, had gotten his start as a silent-film screenwriter. He’d gone on to become a studio head, a winner of three Best Picture Oscars, and an early adapter of the widescreen CinemaScope format. In making The Longest Day, Zanuck, then an independent producer, had to pull a whole lot of things together.

The Longest Day, as Zanuck himself admitted, was a movie with “no regular plot.” Instead, the movie attempted to tell the story of the Allied forces’ D-Day invasion of France from a ton of different perspectives: American, British, French, German. Zanuck used three different directors, a couple dozen big-name actors, and thousands of extras. To help cover the costs, he enlisted the cooperation of several different governments and militaries, and then he ignored the American government’s demands to change a few scenes. He spent $10 million—more than $80 million in 2019 dollars and more than anyone had ever spent on a black-and-white movie. And he did all this for a movie with no real hero, no real narrative, and a nebulous mission to show a version of D-Day that looked as much as possible like the real event.

The Longest Day came out only 18 years after D-Day, so it was as fresh in the public memory as 9/11 is to ours now. A bunch of the movie’s actors had served in World War II. The British actor Richard Todd played a paratrooper in Operation Overlord, and he’d been a paratrooper in Operation Overlord in real life. (Todd played Major John Howard, and another actor played Todd.) There’d been some talk of getting Dwight D. Eisenhower to play himself, and Eisenhower indicated that he was down to do it. But this was before digital de-aging, and the makeup artists couldn’t make him look enough like his younger self. (Instead, Zanuck cast a set decorator who looked just like the young Eisenhower.)

The cast is absolutely jammed with era-appropriate movie stars, some of whom are only in it for a scene or two and most of whom never interact with each other. John Wayne leads a battalion of paratroopers who attack a bridge; he breaks his ankle while parachuting but guts through the assault anyway. Robert Mitchum is the general who personally leads the troops storming the beach at Normandy. Henry Fonda is another general, the son of Teddy Roosevelt, whose pride won’t let him sit out the invasion even though he’s suffering from arthritis. Richard Burton is in there for one scene, as a mortally wounded British paratrooper who has time to share a cigarette with West Side Story star Richard Beymer before dying. Sal Mineo gets gunned up and killed quick.

All of them are stars, but none of them is the star. There is no star. The star is the war. Zanuck’s big innovation was to tell the story of D-Day from all sides of the war. German actors play German generals, arguing over how likely an Allied invasion might be. French actors play the fighters in the French resistance, planning for the imminent fight by running out to blow up supply trains. The actors all speak their own languages, with subtitles, which does a lot for the movie’s feeling of veracity. The standard Hollywood trick is still to have everyone speak English with slight accents; Zanuck knew how phony that would look in a movie like this. But there’s no point-of-view character—not even a finite set of point-of-view characters.

Weirdly, the Germans—faceless villains in so many war movies—are the movie’s most vivid characters. A few of them have ideas about when the invasion might come, but their superiors ignore them. Others convince themselves that they’re safe, at least for the time being: “Eisenhower would never take the gamble.” When the invasion starts, they all scramble around, trying to figure out what’s happening. One general wants Panzer divisions to be moved to the beach, but Hitler, who has to approve it, is asleep, and nobody will wake him up. Right away, that officer figures out what’s about to happen: “We are going to lose this war because our glorious führer has taken a sleeping pill and is not to be awakened.”

On the Allied side, the faces tend to blur into one another. Zanuck and his directors do a nice job of showing how miserable it was—rain pounding down, everyone wanting to hurry up and get going. But it’s hard to get invested in any of the characters. At the time, viewers were supposed to be wowed by the parade of recognizable faces. (Some critics even complained about how distracting it was.) But decades later, you probably won’t know most of those faces, at least outside the truly iconic John Wayne/Robert Mitchum types. Zanuck filmed the movie in black-and-white, wanting to give it more of a documentary feel. Again, that probably worked at the time; people would’ve been so used to seeing black-and-white footage of World War II that it might’ve even been how they imagined the war looking. But today, the choice just makes it harder remember who the characters are. There are a lot of them, too. Every time somebody new shows up on screen, there’s a chyron to identify him.

Even without a central narrative, the movie does have a structure. We spent the first half of the movie building up to the invasion, with generals studying maps and trying to figure out each other’s moves. And then the second half is the fight itself. That’s where we really get to see the scale of what’s happening. Zanuck had thousands of extras, most of them real soldiers, storming the actual Normandy locations. He had ships and tanks and planes and explosions. He had long tracking-shot scenes of soldiers surging over land and of buildings being obliterated. As spectacle, it’s impressive and chaotic, at least until it becomes numbingly and oppressively repetitive.

The battle scenes have a real sense of scale to them, but they haven’t aged well. That’s mostly because the war movies that came out in the decades since The Longest Day have changed our idea of how war looks. 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, a movie that’ll eventually show up in this column, depicts that same storming of the Normandy beaches, but it does it in cramped, visceral fashion. Steven Spielberg shows soldiers dying before touching the land, soldiers watching each other die, soldiers narrowly escaping death and then dying a couple of seconds later anyway. Zanuck couldn’t do that. The technology and filmmaking techniques didn’t exist yet, and anyway American censors never would’ve let him get away with turning the ocean water red with blood. He was working from a different rulebook.

When I saw Dunkirk in the theater a couple of years ago, I remember thinking Christopher Nolan’s structure—a bunch of barely interconnected stories, no single point-of-view character—was daring and experimental. I didn’t realize that Nolan was just doing something that Zanuck had done decades earlier. (Nolan even borrowed Zanuck’s trick of casting teen-idol pop stars in small roles. The Longest Day had Paul Anka, Fabian, and Tommy Sands; Dunkirk had Harry Styles.) But because the action in Dunkirk is so much more intense and jarring, Nolan makes that structure sing. Watching The Longest Day, I didn’t care about a single one of those characters.

There are things that I like about The Longest Day. The shot that’ll linger with me for the longest is the one of the Allied ships emerging suddenly and silently out of the fog—a whole line of them, all across the horizon, almost sending the German lookout into shock. The aerial scene of the German fighter strafing the Allied soldiers is a real technical marvel. John Wayne sounds slightly ridiculous when he’s spouting military jargon, but he sounds great when he’s telling his soldiers to “send ’em to hell.” And it’s fun to pick out some of the trivial details. A pre-James Bond Sean Connery is in there, for instance, and so are two future Bond villains, Goldfinger’s Gert Fröbe and The Spy Who Loved Me’s Curd Jürgens.

But The Longest Day is most interesting these days as a historical artifact rather than as a movie. To watch it is to be reminded that spectacle has always been a hugely important part of big-time moviemaking, and also that that spectacle once had to be achieved by borrowing naval vessels from governments, not by creating entire CGI armies. And we’ll probably never get another war movie like The Longest Day again for reasons that have as much to do with war as they do with movies.

In 1962, as The Longest Day came out, John F. Kennedy was ramping up the level of American involvement in Vietnam. At least in the popular imagination, the Vietnam War wouldn’t become an amoral clusterfuck for years. But even in the early days, you couldn’t tell a Vietnam story of majestic heroism. (John Wayne tried; he came out with The Green Berets six years after The Longest Day.) Vietnam was a war of claustrophobic skirmishes, not big-scale battles. And it changed the way movies looked at war. The scenes of soldiers charging straight across the beach—knowing exactly where they need to go—now look ridiculous.

It’s possible that The Longest Day is, at least on some level, about Communism. The German officers, no longer villains, are granted humanity. But nobody ever mentions the Russians, who were just as responsible for defeating Hitler. Zanuck made a big deal about how he’d use American, British, and German directors in making The Longest Day; it was a cooperative effort. By 1962, those countries were all allies, and they all had a common Cold War enemy. And maybe a movie like The Longest Day, a popular myth about American military supremacy, inadvertently helped convince Americans that a military adventure like Vietnam was a good idea.

In some ways, The Longest Day remains a forgotten blockbuster. It’s a lingering example of a kind of movie that can never exist again—one that probably never should exist again, either.

The contender: Another long and colossal war epic was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1962, and it’s one that’s aged a whole lot better. David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of The Longest Day. Where The Longest Day was shot in gritty and muddy black-and-white, Lawrence Of Arabia is in glorious, vivid, overwhelming color. Where The Longest Day covers one 24-hour period, Lawrence Of Arabia unfolds over years. And where The Longest Day has so many characters that it’s a chore to remember who is who, Lawrence Of Arabia is about one man. It’s a character study, albeit one set against a different world war. (By some estimates, Lawrence Of Arabia was actually the year’s biggest hit, but that’s only when you factor in the earnings of the theatrical reissues over the years.)

It’s rare to get to watch Lawrence Of Arabia in 70mm CinemaScope, as it was meant to be seen. But even on your TV, you can get some sense of its majesty. Lawrence Of Arabia has its problems. It has plenty of white actors darkening their skin to play Middle Eastern characters. It also fits pretty squarely into the whole white-savior trope, even if it tells that story with a lot more nuance than, say, Dances With Wolves. And yet the movie sweeps you away anyway. Peter O’Toole, playing T.E. Lawrence, comes off as a warrior poet, a man of both certainty and misty contemplation. The score is the kind of thing that can make walking your dog feel like an epic journey if you listen on headphones. And the imagery—tiny figures set against the bafflingly immense nothingness of the desert—resonates on any screen.

Next time: Cleopatra becomes a symbol for a different era of Hollywood excess.