Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The longest day (1962)

There were lots of elderly Russian chaps out on Carlisle Street on the weekend, their chests dazzling with medals. March 8/9 is Victory Day, marking the surrender of Germany in World War II. (I give the two dates because the Baltic and former Soviet countries celebrate it on different days.) We celebrate this as VE Day (Victory Europe). And to honour the occasion I thought I'd watch a classic war movie. Which turned out to be a particularly bad idea.

I'll be honest - I had been warned. But of course I went ahead anyway and boy did I wish I hadn't. The longest day (1962) is very very long film about the D Day invasion, the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied France on June 6 1944, which marked the 'beginning of the end' of Nazi dominance in Europe. So first up, the historical perspective: this was a HUGE undertaking involving massive amounts of people, planes and ships; huge co-ordination; complicated plotting with feints, counter-attacks and decoys - everything had to go according to plan. One of the things that makes this film appear unusual is its almost exclusive focus on strategy. There's none of this 'getting to know your characters' or the human face of war. What we have are the decision makers making decisions (and no, you won't get to know their anguish) with very little time for the average soldier, who, if portrayed at all, is portrayed as deeply, deeply stupid.

The movie posters boast '42 stars!' Which actually turns out to be a failing. Everyone is doing a star cameo so over acting is the norm. Again, not something I'd quibble about but this is SIXTIES over acting: stream of consciousness, vocalisation of thoughts etc. So it goes without saying that the script is simply rotten. Cornelius Ryan also wrote A bridge too far and The last battle so he clearly knew his stuff about war. He just didn't know too much about movie making. Dialogue is stilted, characterisation minimal (Germans = decadent fools, Americans = macho, British = eccentric). There's lots of speech making while actors stare off into the distance. (Annoyingly, all shots are framed in the same way, with the star actor facing us the audience while they have the back to other characters, their audience - just like in the soap opera!)

And another problem: John Wayne. Now don't talk to me about him bringing a resonance of the American western spirit to the film, and don't you dare even mention Academy Awards to me. John Wayne, you are dreadful. You are a ham actor in a ham film and I for one am sad your character survived. Robert Michum may have momentarily won me over as an American commander on the beaches of Normandy but the scriptwriter didn't see fit to furnish him with anyone to command so he does start to look as though he's shirking his share of the fighting. Richard Burton, you get a special prize! Not because you play your character well but because I simply don't care what you do as long as you do it in that gorgeous, gorgeous voice. Oh, and Sean Connery, you get a special award for the worst cameo of the film. Absolutely awful.

Now I have to say that I have a fairly high tolerance for rubbish films. I don't mind if my Nazis speak English - indeed, I view this as a feature of the war film that is somehow endearing. I'm a fan of musicals so implausibility isn't usually a hurdle for me - I don't need blood for a war movie. I'm also very forgiving of melodrama (Douglas Sirk and Ida Lupino I salute you!) So you see, there's a lot I can really put up with. But once a rubbish film starts masquerading as a high rent product and I can become very, very nasty indeed.

There are lots and lots of things here that I can grumble about so I'm just going to say this: it's filmed in black and white - a technique typically used to simulate veracity. Our understanding of WWII is primarily through film, and that largely black and white. It also means that they can sneak in actual war footage. I was initially seduced by the cinematography, for which it won an Oscar. But really. Pompous.

I'm sorry to say that I spent three hours of my weekend watching this bloated, over wrought nonsense. Consistently voted one of the best war films EVER and you know what film it reminded me most of in tone? Westside Story. So there you go. The sixties, my most hated era. And a happy VE Day to you too.

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