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.
Richard Burton leads a unit of commandos behind enemy lines to infiltrate the Alpine headquarters of the Wehrmacht located in an inaccessible fortress perched atop of a snow covered mountain. WWII based men-on-a-mission movies are very a different animal to the more mainstream WWII treatments. Emerging in the 1960’s & 70’s as a less cynical tonic to the earnestness (forced or otherwise) of the propaganda films of the 40’s and dramatised retrospectives of the 50’s, they were the first action extravaganzas of the genre – not to be taken too seriously but a pleasant distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And Brian G. Hutton’s 1968 classic is arguably the best of the bunch as Burton and Clint Eastwood sidewind their way through a series of double crosses as labyrinthine as the formidable fortress amid gunfire, TNT, and showers of grenades, and all along to Ron Goodwin’s mighty soundtrack. The brilliant action becomes a cathartic backdrop to the intelligently constructed plot, and mirroring those dual tones are Burton and Eastwood at their most enigmatic. The former’s character with that mellifluously accented English being the very embodiment of intrigue and deception while the latter, Eastwood’s serial Nazi slayer, Lt. Schaffer, being the coolest and baddest assassin to ever grace a war movie. While classics such as The Dirty Dozen and Guns of the Navarone (also penned by this movie’s writer Alistair MacLean) mixed personality with an edge of moral commentary, Where Eagles Dare substituted any such sentiment for immense style and a callous bodycount making the whole thing a treat to the the baser depths of our brains. Given the more carefree vibe of the sub-genre, such stylish entertainment is perhaps its most critical quality and so Hutton’s movie rises to the top of the pot.
Rating: The Good – 87.1 Genre: War Duration: 138 mins Director: Cy Endfield Stars: Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson
Cy Endfield’s hugely impressive account of the battle of Rorke’s Drift where 100 British soldiers stood up against thousands of Zulu warriors and held their position. Among a top cast of wonderfully fleshed out characters, a debuting Michael Caine is excellent as the privileged and somewhat effete Lt. Bromhead who must cede authority to Stanley Baker’s more dynamic Lt. Chard. Baker for his part is tremendously stoic as the film’s centre of reason, a man caught between the rougher side of life’s tracks and the first world’s notions of civilisation. The movie sits philosophically on that divide and steadily chips away at the latter by asserting the former. An early sequence in which the young Zulu men and women are mass-married in front of the a religious missionary and his daughter capture this one-sided primal dissonance rather elegantly and the film, not to mention the nature of the actual battle, continue to tease it out until its inevitable conclusion.
Zulu is, thus, defined by the steadily built tension of the battle scenes and the desperate interludes of waiting that came between them. The execution of the battle sequences is simply sublime and out-muscles anything the modern CGI battle can offer. No flashy cuts or ridiculously close close-ups either. Just plain old-fashioned choreography and steel-handed camerawork. Speaking of the latter, Stephen Dade’s glorious cinematography works a treat and is amongst the most spectacular ever to grace a war movie. Moreover, when combined with the foreboding sound of the unseen Zulu forces it becomes truly captivating. In the end, it’s the sound of this movie that lingers longest, a piece of inspired production that fits hand-in-glove with John Barry’s seminal and rousing score and guarantees Zulu’s place in the echelons of classic cinema.
Rating: The Good – 87.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 112mins Director: Martin Ritt Stars: Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom
This superb adaptation of John le Carré’s novel ranks as one of the great spy thrillers if not the best of the lot. It also gave Richard Burton perhaps his finest ever role as Alec Leamas, a British spy charged with bringing down the chief of East Germany’s spy network during the height of the cold war. To say more about the plot would take away from the effect its intricate construction has on the audience. Suffice to say the story favours intelligence, intrigue, and psychology over the type of action and explosions which the majority of spy features have unfortunately placed a premium on.
Opening with a languid tracking shot which poignantly mirrors the tiring strain of the cold war and the machinations of its soldiers, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold sets its stall out as a slow burning examination of the loneliness of a life in the shadows of Cold War Europe. The earlier parts of the film are set in London and infused as they are with the distinctive grey-glitz contrast of the city during the 1960’s, it’s a visually striking film with some truly memorable sequences. Director Martin Ritt uses each of these to obfuscate the drama that is unfolding and when combined with the slow build up and its deviously clever dialogue, a lot of things seem to happen without it looking that way.
Burton’s Leamus seems to embody this pace and atmosphere more than any other character to the extent that his various personas bleed into one another leaving the audience wondering when his character is putting on an act or not. From the point of view of a le Carré novel, this central ambiguity is essential and every bit as intuitive as Gary Oldman’s recent turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The familiar support players from le Carré’s novels are all present with Cyril Cusack giving us an interesting and layered take on Control. Claire Bloom is outstanding as the love interest and Oskar Werner makes for a compelling East German spy master.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a bleakly shot and acted film steeped in the grim paranoia of the times and so, hugely effective as a cold war vehicle. Through Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper’s elegant screenplay and le Carré’s unique insight into the phenomenon, it not only functions as a first rate thriller but it also provides an interesting comment on the perversion of the motives and the philosophies of the various nations involved in the cold war. Few films manage to achieve such a balance.