When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face
Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States. Or perhaps tomorrow is, if you follow the old ways.
Memorial Day was an ad hoc tradition from the days of the Civil War. It was sometimes known as “Decoration Day.” The decorations, in this case, being the ones that would be taken to the graves of fallen soldiers. A few years after the war’s end, consolidation of the holiday occurred. The date of May 30th was supposedly chosen for its lack of significance to any particular battle.
In 1971, the official date was changed, along with other Federal holidays, to make it the last Monday in May, thus creating a 3-day weekend. The holiday had also long become, not a Civil War memorial, but a memorial for all servicemen killed in the line of duty.
The tradition of lamenting those who fail to remember the true spirit of the holiday also goes back at least 100 years. The Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Civil War Veterans, was one of the strongest proponents for the holiday and its observation. They used the date to help push their political agenda (pensions, mostly) as well as urging a solemn and dignified celebration (family were urged to keep their war veterans sober). By the turn of the century, they are on record as complaining about the “younger generation” who “forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears.” This is one tradition we keep strong.
For myself, I did not engage in races and revelry yesterday. I cannot credit this to a superior character as it was a little too cold out for merry-making. My celebration of Memorial Day consisted of rewatching the film We Were Soldiers.
I have seen it said online as well as heard it from Vietnam War veterans that We Were Soldiers is the best Vietnam War film yet made. Hal Moore has spoken favorably of Mel Gibson’s portrayal of him. I cannot speak to that. However, young me spent some years on military bases around that time and there are a handful of scenes that, despite being mere actors doing their thing, absolutely capture the mannerisms and bearing the 1960s American officer.
Since the film was released, both General Moore and Sgt. Major Plumley have passed on. May they, and all those who died in America’s wars, rest in peace.
Patris aeterni Verbum caro factum.
Venite adoremus. Dominum.
Clocking in at 2 hours and 58 minutes, The Longest Day is hardly the longest movie Hollywood has made. Heck, it’s not even the longest movie I’ve watched this week. However, the 1962 movie hasn’t aged so well and can at times seem a bit endless. Of course, that is part of the point – to show the massive scale of the Normandy invasion.
The Longest Day was released in what is called the Roadshow format. This is where movies, generally very long ones, were given limited releases. First to only the major cities and then to limited theatres after that. Showings were restricted to, perhaps, only 2 shows per day and perhaps less on off days. Reservations might be required and often an intermission was granted. All of this, in addition to creating a “buzz” for the film, also was accompanied by a premium ticket price.
The film was very popular and did quite well for itself. It features, quite possibly, every major male actor of the time and covers the entirety of the D-Day landing operation by focusing on the details. The writing of Cornelius Ryan is, to me, very obvious featuring as he does little details an vignettes. Ryan also authored the script, which based on his own book. It came out at a time when America’s Second World War heroes were growing older, but were still among us. The next generation was asking “What did you do in the great World War Two?”
The first thing that hit me, as I watch this week, is that the actors are all too old. With very few exceptions, the soldiers are not played by teenagers (as our soldiers so often are) but by middle aged men. The real kick in the teeth was General James Gavin. At the time of his film, he had recently turned 37. He had been promoted to Brigadier General at the age of 36, making him one of the youngest generals in the army and, in fact, upon his promotion to Major General before Market Garden was the youngest U.S. Division commander in the war. So imagine my horror when he is portrayed by an actor, Robert Ryan, who is barely younger (in real life) than the general and is trying to portray the man nearly 20 years younger than they are.
My image of General Gavin was shaped by the “other” Cornelius Ryan’s book-turned-film, A Bridge Too Far. In that film, made fifteen years later, the 6-months aged Gavin is played by actor Ryan O’Neal (so many Ryans!). That choice was also criticized as Ryan O’Neal was not only a year younger than the Gavin he was portraying, but he retained a particularly youthful look. O’Neal, While Gavin did not necessarily look like Ryan O’Neal, he did look youthful (as he was) for a general officer.
Perhaps more egregious, although less obvious, John Wayne plays (then) Major Vandervoort, who was (at the time, mind you) ten years his junior.
I’m also ruined by modern special effects. Saving Private Ryan has forever altered how we’re going to view D-Day, and 1962 special effects technology just falls flat. In particular, I notice how many of the outdoor combat scenes are obviously filmed on an indoor soundstage. It makes everything look claustrophobic and peculiarly geometrical. The fighting ends up and unreasonably close range and with the then Hollywood effects. Of course, there are other major battle scenes which are very impressive, and all the more so for having been created before computerized special effects.
Finally, to add insult to injury. One special characteristic of the film at that time is that it foreign characters (German, French) were played by foreign actors who spoke in their native language. The trend at the time, particularly for World War II films, was for the Germans to speak German-accented English. The film was released in the theater subtitled. However, in the Netflix version I elected to watch this week, they are using an all-English language cut (which was also made at the time).
I feel like I’ve been cheated out of one of the saving graces of this otherwise aged film.
All my complaints aside, the film is still popular today and remains unique in its scope, attempting to capture the full scale of the multinational Normandy operations. Such a thing, like the massive invasion itself, may never again be attempted.
The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no mans land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned