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Posted on Mar 1, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

A Salute to John Wayne

By Wyatt Kingseed

6.jpgThe Longest Day (1962) By any measure one of the finest and most authentic war films ever produced. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck brilliantly captures the drama and suspense of Cornelius Ryan’s bestseller about the Allied landings at Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Variety called it a “solid and stunning epic.” In perhaps the greatest assemblage of international stars for a single film, John Wayne’s role as Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort of the 82nd Airborne stands out. By now, John Wayne had fully assumed the mantel of the world’s biggest movie star.

Like the exhaustively researched book, the film jumps seamlessly between scenes of Allied and German forces as they prepare for the inevitable and long anticipated invasion, and engage the enemy in savage action during the first day. Ryan’s screenplay is rousing and poignant. Two pre-battle scenes particularly resonate. The first has Henry Grace as General Eisenhower, wonderfully showing the anguish that comes with command as Ike agonizes over the decision to launch the invasion in the face of a narrow window of acceptable weather, all the while expecting high casualties. The second has Wayne as Vandervoort, giving his men a final briefing before they climb into planes: “You can’t give the enemy a break,” Vandervoort says. “Send him to hell.” It is classic Wayne. Grace’s work is outstanding. A set designer by trade and not an actor, this is his only screen performance.


Vandervoort leads his men on a dangerous nighttime parachute jump behind enemy lines, where he breaks his ankle. Their mission is to secure the northern approaches to Ste. Mere Eglise, a small French village a few miles inland. As the flank of the Utah invasion bridgehead, it is imperative that they cut off any German counter-attack. The town is heavily defended as a strategically important crossroads.

Thirty-six years before Saving Private Ryan, the film depicts the fury and chaos of the landings and the immensity of the overall logistics needed for the invasion. The sudden appearance of the invasion fleet on the horizon through the morning mist, as seen from a German bunker; dead American parachutists hanging limp in a courtyard; French Resistant fighters blowing up a bridge; German fighters strafing the beach; and nighttime encounters across the hedgerows—it all adds up to spectacular entertainment, heightened by a rousing musical score and a Paul Anka theme that is immediately recognizable. Another worthy Best Picture nominee.

Other, lesser World War II films in Wayne’s canon include Operation Pacific, Back to Bataan, The Fighting Seabees, and The Flying Leathernecks.

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