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War movie still falls far short, but Hollywood brings it back for a victorious stand on video 'THE LONGEST DAY' D-DAY 50th ANNIVERSARY

These are the boys of Pointe-du-Hoc -- Paul Anka, Tommy Sands and Fabian.

Possibly sad but very certainly true, for most of the baby boomer generation, memories of D-Day are synthetic and perhaps even contaminated by Darryl F. Zanuck's oafish, bumbling, noisy and occasionally incoherent 1962 movie version of Cornelius Ryan's book "The Longest Day." A three- hour behemoth of explosions and machine-gun fire, it offered, among other cheery desecrations, a platoon of callow, pretty American teen idols in the roles of the fierce, young Rangers who went straight up the Pointe-du-Hoc cliffs under intense fire.

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Robert Wagner, OK. Paul Anka, maybe. Tommy Sands, all right . . . but did it have to be Fabian?

Well, by the laws of show biz, it did. And, quite naturally, by still other laws of show biz, Twentieth-Century Fox has re-released the film on video in a new edition, partly in tribute and partly to cash in on the great money cow the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion has become.

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As a movie, "The Longest Day" is pretty wretched. It hasn't much in the way of personality or point of view, and it lumbers absurdly from big action sequence to big action sequence, bridging the spaces in between with appearances by 43 stars in historically accurate but dramatically inert roles as battleground celebrities or purveyors of cheap, facile irony.

It stands as a monument less to the soldiers than to the will of its producer, Zanuck, a legendary studio boss who had lost his post and his power but functioned, late in life, as an independent producer.

Zanuck was cut from the old cloth: autocratic, patriotic, primal, dynamic, square and dazzling because of -- not in spite of -- his bad taste and predatory instincts. He conceived of "The Longest Day" as his legacy, not realizing he already was his own legacy. Oh, and also to give his European mistress work, which explains why a resistance heroine in the film is played by the impossibly beautiful Irina Demrich. Zanuck saw filmmaking almost as a military operation, not an artistic one, and the film is only impressive in its marshaling of components, its shanghaiing of the United States Navy and Army to a bright beach in Italy, which stood for the smoky horrors of Omaha and Utah.

Impossibly stilted

The movie unspools in a tone of utter blandness. Zanuck hired so many people to work on the film they all but canceled each other out. Ryan himself wrote the screenplay, but he was assisted by, of all people, the French novelist (and husband of Jean Seberg) Romaine Gary. Also enlisted as a presumed expert on GI argot was the American novelist James Jones, who wrote "From Here to Eternity," the great Army novel. Yet no trace of Gary's eloquence nor Jones' profane energy can be found in the impossibly stilted dialogue. Instead, the characters speak a kind of droning, exposition-laden esperanto.

That same principle is at play in Zanuck's choice of directors, again exceedingly weird, as if the producer were making subversively certain to horde all glory himself. The German Bernhard Wicki did the German sequences, while a bland British hack named Andrew Marton did the American and English; the action set pieces were directed by Ken Annakin, a specialist in spectacle (he would later direct "The Battle of the Bulge" and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines").

What's so strange about this is that Wicki had just directed "The Bridge," about a squad of German teen-agers in the last days of World War II who fight a terrifying rear-guard action against the advancing Americans -- one of the most uncompromising looks at ground combat ever filmed. Wicki had invented new and astonishing ways to involve the audience in the battle, to make it terrifying and intimate and exhilarating at once. It's significant and sad that the 20 minutes of combat in "The Bridge" are more memorable than the 200 minutes of it in "The Longest Day." Annakin, instead of evoking intimacy and danger, chose to portray the action as distant spectacle, viewed from above, as if he were a 19th-century battle painter of the Victorian school.

But there's hardly ever any of the blurry horror of the seven Robert Capra pictures of the beachhead, or the few feet of archival film that show men cowering in the water as German machine guns peck spouts of froth around them. We never feel the snap of bullets in the air or the loudness, the infernal pressure, of the explosions. It's war as military history, not as human experience.

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Star power

But the movie is also fascinating as a kind of map of the heavens of show biz in the year 1962, which is what gives it its camp aspect. Casting young rockers as Rangers is one example, but it's also a road map of a dead end. The Anka-Fabian-Sands school of rock was about to disappear forever, itself crushed by a great invasion from Britain, involving not commandos but Beatles and Rolling Stones. (I suppose if Zanuck had made his film in '63 instead of '62, the boys of Pointe-du-Hoc would have been played by John, Paul, George, Ringo and Mick; now there's a desecration to ponder!)

Stars still held their power. Robert Mitchum, for example, was so magnetic that the director gave him the most famous line on Omaha Beach, even though his character, Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, didn't say it. It was said by Colonel George Taylor: "There's two kinds of men on this beach, those who are already dead and those who are going to be dead. So let's get out of here." That was clearly too cool a line for poor, weasel-faced Eddie Albert, as Taylor, to deliver.

Then there's the curious case of John Wayne. Playing an abrasive, go-getting 101st Airborne Colonel, he snarls and growls his way through a performance that may seem mystifying to today's viewers. That's because so great was his authority as America's reigning star that no justification for his command presence was needed. But seen today, without awareness of that authority or having largely forgotten it, one sees him as a mere hollow bully and creep. He just shouts at people: we never see him do anything.

Peter Lawford, the British pretty-boy, Kennedy pimp and rat packer, appears as Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, leader of the British commandos. Is this one ever absurd! Lawford, in a turtleneck, struts around the battlefield like the young prince among fishmongers. You're thinking: Where's the Master Sniper when you need him?

And you'll be stunned to notice that among the comedians on the non-Yank beaches -- Zanuck's screenwriters almost completely trivialize the British and Canadians at Sword and Juno -- is no less a bloke than Sean Connery, as a slacker-blowhard gunner, given a half-pint buddy, no less. From his boozy, slovenly appearance, you couldn't begin to guess at what lay ahead for him.

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Moments of brilliance

Among the movie's more irritating strokes is the casting of look-alikes in the roles of famous generals. Eisenhower is played by one such nonprofessional, and watching this poor gentleman (his name is lost to history) mouth Ike's lines while trying oh-so-hard to "act" is painful.

But now and then there are odd moments of brilliance. By far the best performance is given by Jeff Hunter as a young engineers officer who risks his life to plant explosives under a concrete blockhouse impeding a division at Omaha. He breaks your heart: He's all earnest, all-American enthusiasm, unironic, square and completely committed to getting the job done. He gives up his life almost cavalierly, without regret or bitterness, out of commitment to the larger shape of things. (The officer on whose life Hunter's performance was based was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.)

In fact, it's possible that if "The Longest Day" were any better, it would only be worse. It's so artless and awful it's almost -- but not quite -- laughable. Now and then -- when Hunter gives it up, say -- you feel the awful meaning of that day in a streak of pain that's more meaningful than all the TV documentaries and presidential speeches. To paraphrase and defang Housman's cynicism: These in the day when heaven was falling, when earth's foundations fled, followed their country's calling, did their duty and are dead.


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