Sixty-Six Years Ago Today, The World Held Its Breathby Logical Lizard on Jun. 06, 2010, under Cinema & TV, History, Musings, Technology
D-Day, June 6, 1944 was the most critical day of World War Two, probably the Twentieth Century, and possibly all of modern history. The Allied invasion of Europe was superbly chronicled by Cornelius Ryan in his book The Longest Day. The title refers to a comment made by the German high command that the invasion would be, for both the Allies and the Axis, the longest day.
When I was a little boy, my father took me to the Classic Cinema in South London to watch the Darryl F. Zanuck-produced blockbuster of the same name, and my life was never the same again. The Longest Day is the cornerstone of war films, and was also a groundbreaker. Zanuck took an uncredited directorial role, but the bulk of the filming was handled by three others: Ken Annakin for the British segments; Andrew Marton for the American; while Bernhard Wicki oversaw the German scenes. Multi-national actors spoke in their native tongues and Zanuck took the then rather unprecedented step of using extensive subtitles in the film—thereby avoiding the annoying and embarrassing norm of watching English or American actors playing German characters who speak English with fake German accents.
The Longest Day also boasts perhaps the greatest male cast ever assembled in a single film, including Richard Burton, Robert MItchum, John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Sean Connery, Richard Todd, Eddie Albert, Sal Mineo, Henry Fonda, George Segal, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger and many others. The movie was released in 1962—suprisingly (for the time) and effectively in luminous and striking black and white—and a large number of the action sequences were filmed at the actual invasion locations in Normandy. I have often wondered how the French locals reacted when the gargantuan invasion was recreated in their home towns and villages less than twenty years after the actual events. My father attended the star-studded film premiere in New York City and—even though he is not, in any way, a man impressed by celebrities or status—he was thrilled that one of his heroes, Major General Omar Bradley was present at the screening.
My parents took me to visit the Normandy beaches while I was still a child, when only about 25 years had passed since the invasion itself. The beaches of Normandy were, at that time, still littered with monstrous sections of the Mulberry artificial harbors. We found landing craft buried in the sand and a ghostly German 88mm artillery cannon hidden in the woods.
Each year France hosts a D-Day anniversary, and veterans return to those cool, windy beaches where the outcome of World War Ii was irrevocably determined, and each year there are fewer of them. The average age of D-Day veterans is today about 85; the same age as my father. Although he didn’t land on D-Day, he did disembark on the Normandy beaches soon after, and saw heavy action in France, Belgium (during the brutal Battle of the Bulge), and was unofficially one of the very first Americans into Germany—during a scouting mission his jeep inadvertently came up against the Siegfried Line, at which time my father received a piece of Nazi shrapnel in his foot and missed the rest of the war. He told me that he’d wanted to see it all the way through to the end, make it to Berlin and do as much damage as he could. My father is a contemplative and peaceful man, so this revelation surprised me, but then when I reflect that he lost family members in the Nazi death camps it’s no longer quite so surprising.
After six hours of fascinating interviews, I recounted part of my father’s wartime story in the chapter “As We Say in French,” in Duty, Honor and Valor, published by The Society of Southwestern Authors and Wheatmark Press. My original (and far superior) title of Dad’s story was “Command of the French Language,” but that was changed, without my permission, by the editor, and of course that’s sometimes what editors do to writers.
Every year, on the Sixth, my father and I go through an amusing little rituai. One of us calls the other and, in a proper British accent, says: “And now some messages for our friends in occupied Europe . . . Jean has a long mustache. I say again, Jean has a long mustache.” This being a coded radio missive broadcast to French resistance fighters announcing that the invasion was coming the next day.
I also make time in my busy life to watch The Longest Day, each year, on June 6th. Partly because it is—in my opinion—one of the finest films ever made, and partly out of respect for the literal armies of service men and women who embarked upon that greatest and most hazardous of military adventures.
My father, and millions like him, made sacrifices and endured hardships that we can barely imagine. Because of those sacrifices my generation has been able to enjoy the privileges of blogging, frolicking on Twitter, making television shows, and indulging in other modern pastimes in comparative freedom (although those freedoms continue to erode in a slow and frighteningly Orwellian manner).
There was no doubt in the mind of my father, and his many comrades-in-arms, that the Nazi monster had to be destroyed completely and utterly. In our modern world of smart bombs, biological weapons, September 11, plastic explosives, and religion-crazed terrorists, the battle lines are no longer so clearly drawn. We can only hope that world leaders who determine our path today show a fraction of the resolve, clarity, and brilliance that Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower displayed on the night of June 5th, 1944 when he ordered the invasion to commence.
Follow me on Twitter @geoffnotkin