Very likely the best of all the WWII movies, The Longest Day is a masterful account of the preparation for and execution of the largest land and sea military action in history: D-Day. Starring practically every available movie star of its day and directed by a crew of directors including an unaccredited Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s a logistical achievement worthy of the momentous day it’s chronicling. All the major elements of Allied invasion are represented with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the roles of the commanders of the front line divisions, the former of the airborne, the latter of the marines. Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Richard Todd also feature but more peripherally, the latter excelling as leader of a British commando unit. The Germans are represented in force too (with Curd Jürgens doing particularly well) as the action constantly switches back and forth between both sides.
Needless to say the acting is first rate with Mitchum especially standing out as the beleaguered general of those who were always going to be the hardest hit as they stormed the beaches. The battle sequences involving him and his men are by far the most thrilling and rightly so given how relevant they were to the entire invasion. That said, there isn’t a single battle sequence in The Longest Day which won’t have you on the edge of your seat and what’s more, they are all entirely different to each other in both logistics and execution. However, during all the back and forth shifting between battle sequences, it still finds the time for moments of quiet reflection and the tone which it sets during these moments is deeply affecting.
The most impressive feature of the film is without a doubt the fact that at all times, The Longest Day never fails to intertwine the role and perspective of the individual soldiers with the broader strategic advancements of their respective units. The later A Bridge Too Far did this too when chronicling Market Garden but not as well as it’s done here. The Longest Day puts us right in the middle of the action so that we feel intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the advance and it’s thrilling stuff. The film is shot magnificently and even though the US, British, and German episodes are all helmed by different directors, there’s a seamless look and feel to the whole thing. Overall, The Longest Day is a captivating piece of cinema which shows great deference to the momentous events of that day. There are some fine movies which focus on the same events but none are as comprehensively great as this.
Rating: The Good – 92.5 Genre: Western Duration: 119 mins Director: John Ford Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles
Bookended by perhaps the greatest opening and closing shots of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece who they kidnapped instead and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.
Rating: The Good – 85.3 Genre: Western Duration: 123 mins Director: John Ford Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin
John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!).
The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice.
As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.
Rating: The Good – 85.6 Genre: Western Duration: 96 mins Director: John Ford Stars: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine
The film that blew moviegoers away when it was released was the first Hollywood picture to effectively employ those deeply staged interior and exterior shots that became the trademark of John Ford’s filmography. It certainly raised the quality of the movie experience as hard and square angles were replaced by angled shots that ran along the lines of the rooms or off forever into the distance of the exterior shots. The story is thoroughly gripping as a varied collection of characters are huddled together on a stagecoach that must ride through Apache held territory to find the shelter of a union fort. Stagecoach is the film that turned John Wayne into a megastar and it’s not hard to see why given that excellent introduction and the way he carries himself throughout. There are many great support acts on show all embodying the various personalities and professions which were typical of Ford’s movies. In fact, there’s a blustery banker present whose opinions on Federal intervention in the banks’ business will leave modern viewers with some cold chills. However, Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the most memorable member of the stagecoach’s complement and it’s his backstory that threads through to the end to make for one of the great western showdowns.
Rating: The Good – 93.2 Genre: Western Duration: 141 mins Director: Howard Hawks Stars: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson
The film that inspired some of the best directors of the last 50 years tells the tale of a sheriff (Wayne) and three deputies who after arresting a man for murder find themselves under siege by his wealthy brother and his hired guns. With great acting, original characters, insightful writing, and Hawks patient directing, this film is damn near perfect. Wayne is as usual outstanding but he happily hands over many of the scenes to the likes of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson who shine in their own inimitable ways. Angie Dickinson also features strongly an adds a well integrated emotional counter-point to the tenser standoff scenes. However, the true strengths of Rio Bravo lie in how the themes of friendship, heroism, and cowardice are characterised, in the timeless wisdom and perceptiveness of its writing, and in how the atmosphere which Hawks masterfully manipulates throughout is adapted so effortlessly to the tension of each scene. As an example of the latter, just check out those scenes in which Burdette attempts to psych out Wayne with the Deguello guitar tune, a scene which more than any other from that time heralded the beginning of the more stylistic and gritty western. Magic.