Every year on D-Day, my husband and I watch The Longest Day, one of my all-time favorite war movies. This year, because we were going to be in Chicago for the Nebula Awards Weekend, we watched it the week before–on two nights since it’s so long (and we are so old.) When we originally saw the movie in the theater way back in 1962, it had an intermission, but our current DVD doesn’t, and Courtney and I had a fight over where it should be, the particulars of which I can’t tell you without giving you spoilers.
I know, I know, what spoilers can there be? We landed on Normandy beaches, lost gazillions of soldiers, won the war–all of which I assume aren’t spoilers, although you never know. When I was writing Lincoln’s Dreams, which is set in the Civil War, a member of my writers’ group said, “You need to explain more. I mean, who’s this Lee person? And Grant? And you don’t even tell us who won!” I am not making this up.
But how we did it is an amazing story most people don’t know the particulars of, and that’s what The Longest Day is about. It’s an impossible story to tell because the invasion isn’t just about the landings on Omaha Beach, but also about the French Resistance who cut the lines and blew up railroad tracks, about the paratroopers and gliders who went in the night before, about the game plans and diversions and disasters–the plan hadn’t been going five minutes before everything went completely to hell, but it didn’t matter. They had backups. And backups to the backups. It’s about the codebreakers and the generals and the soldiers and the intelligence officers and even the meteorologists, who gave the forecast that made Ike say, “Go.”
And that’s just on our side. There’s also the German response to the invasion, composed of over-confident generals and bad decisions and unlucky coincidences, which has to be shown, and the local farmers and housewives and nuns and… The D-Day invasion involved hundreds of thousands of people scattered all over France and Germany and much of England, and they’re all in this movie. (It stars virtually every major actor and teen idol in Hollywood in 1962, from John Wayne and Henry Fonda to Fabian and an impossibly young-looking pre-Bond Sean Connery. Plus there’s a bulldog.)
I have no idea how they came up with the script for this movie. It must have been a nightmare to keep all these people and events straight, let alone make a coherent movie out of it, especially with no centralized locations, no characters who saw the whole thing, and dozens of small and scattered plots to follow.
Yet they somehow manage not only to pull it off, but to do a spectacular job. The Longest Day not only shows you the invasion in all of its sprawling and deadly complexity, but it also shows you the small, intimate, improbable details that make history so much more fascinating than fiction could ever be, from the soldier who gets a “Dear John” letter right before the invasion to General Rommel’s going to Berlin for his wife’s birthday at the worst possible moment, from an airman’s wound being safety-pinned together by a medic who’d lost his kit on landing to officers on both sides muttering disgustedly, “I wonder whose side God is on.” Which they actually said. Many of the lines spoken by characters are straight out of the history books.
The sort of World War II movie I usually like is the “keyhole movie,” a story which deals with one small part of the war. Hope and Glory is like that, showing you the Blitz from a little boy’s point of view, and so is Father Goose, which involves a plane-spotter in the South Pacific, a stranded schoolteacher, her charges, and a Japanese cruiser.
Both show just one small aspect of the war, but by getting involved with their story, you glimpse the wider war. It’s like looking through a keyhole, and it’s usually far more effective (and emotional) than trying to portray the whole thing.
It’s what I write, too, and why I chose to show you World War II through the eyes of a handful of time travelers, a small group of Londoners sheltering in the Tube, and a couple of kids, rather than, say, writing The Winds of War.
Panoramic views of the war are rarely successful (I include The Winds of War in the unsuccessful category) because World War II was just too big, and I can only think of a couple that work: Tora, Tora, Tora (which is great) and Midway.
And, of course, The Longest Day. It’s got everything, sweeping battle scenes, cruel tricks of fate, acts of astonishing courage, humor, tragedy, horrific moments, and stuff you could never make up. It’s great watched on D-Day, but I wouldn’t wait. I’d watch it now.
NOTE: I said The Longest Day was one of my favorite war movies. Here’s a list of the others, in no particular order:
- Hope and Glory
- The Big Red One
- Tora, Tora, Tora
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Father Goose
- Paradise Road
- Mister Roberts
- The Imitation Game
- Mrs. Henderson Presents
I also love Hanover Street and Force 10 From Navarone, even though they’re bad movies–Hanover Street has a plot hole you could drive a bus through right in the middle of it, and Christopher Plummer is not a boring, middle-aged British bureaucrat, and I know I’ll only be accused of liking them because Harrison Ford is in them, which is probably true. But I still like them, and Force 10 has a great ending. Plus, of course, Harrison Ford is really cute.
It’s got it all.
The only thing missing is the letter Eisenhower wrote the night before the invasion to the American public telling them why it had failed.