Tuesday, June 10, 2014
June 10, 2014: D-Day Stories: The Longest Day
[In honor of last week’s 70 anniversary of the D-Day invasion, in this series I’ll highlight different ways we’ve told the story of that fateful day and its aftermath. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and any stories you’d highlight or share, in comments!]
On war as big-budget blockbuster.
I was pretty hard on Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) in this post, and I stand by one of my central critiques of the film: that its hackneyed and uninteresting love triangle significantly detracts from its focus on the significant historical events that are its ostensible subject. But on the other hand, my objection to Bay’s turning real, tragic war stories into fodder for an over-the-top Hollywood blockbuster left out an important broader context: that there is a long history of such big-budget, blockbuster war films, perhaps especially about World War II. Indeed, for most of the 20th century the most expensive black and white film was precisely such a World War II blockbuster: The Longest Day (1962; Schindler’s List  was more expensive).
Based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 history of the D-Day invasion, The Longest Day was in its own era and remains in ours one of the most ambitious film productions ever mounted. It runs for nearly three hours, features extended sequences and plot threads in England, the Channel, and mainland France as well as the Normandy beaches and adjacent battlefields, utilized extensive international casts (including prominent stars) within each of those settings and communities, and required at least four directors (and probably its producer, Darryl Zanuck, as an uncredited fifth) tackling those different sections. Whether the film succeeds at bringing those disparate threads together into a cohesive whole is an open question, but through them—and through small but important details like the use of multiple actors who were also World War II veterans—it certainly captures many sides to the invasion, the war overall, and war stories and histories more generally.
Yet even if Longest Day focuses on its historical subjects more fully than does Pearl Harbor, I would argue that the two films raise similar questions of what it means to portray war as spectacle, a blockbuster in every sense. Wars, particularly world wars, do exist on that scale; and perhaps it would not be possible to portray an event like the D-Day invasion without an attempt to capture its many different theaters and settings. But no matter what it does, a feature film will never be a historical document of an event, will always remain a creative representation and interpretation. And as such, it seems to me that historical films succeed if they capture not just the broad histories (which, again, Longest Day does) but also the individual and intimate stories out of which history is comprised and with which creative works can (to my mind) better engage. Am I saying that Longest Day could have benefited from its own love triangle? I’m not—but I am saying that its characters don’t feel quite as individually developed as they might, a perhaps necessary but still limiting feature of the war blockbuster.
Next D-Day story tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other D-Day stories you’d highlight or share?