1959, Books, Non-Fiction

The Longest Day (1959) by Cornelius Ryan

I grew up with the movie. There’s this recent term for movies that you can watch over and over again because they make you feel good, “poppy fields movies.” Because of the kinds of films I grew up watching, WWII movies are among those for me and The Longest Day was one of those for quite some time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this film, though I haven’t watched it in probably twenty years. Somehow, it took me decades to read the book.

I didn’t love the start. Ryan has a line about La Roche Guyon (or another such town), about how it was untroubled for centuries. It felt entirely ridiculous and very much playing into American stereotypes of Europe as a whole. I know nothing about La Roche Guyon (or wherever) but I know a fair amount of French history and I can tell you that history hasn’t been as peaceful as Ryan is trying to sell American audiences on. This country was the setting for both The Hundred Years War (which lasted well over 100 years) and The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (which collectively lasted nearly 30 years) among other conflicts. It’s a weird way to introduce the book and I was worried that I had found my way into a book that would be riddled with cliches or stereotypes.

But that’s not it at all. This is a very well-researched, nearly exhaustive primary history of D-Day. Ryan has done so many interviews and looked at so many files and diaries, it almost boggles the mind. It’s no wonder this book was published when it was, rather than in the immediate aftermath of the war. It’s an an impressive feat and, I would say, also an important document. As much as there may be better histories of WWII as a whole or even the Allies in France, this is about as close to the “ground truth” as we might get.

Ryan is a captivating writer and the book has a ton of momentum. He moves from personal experience to personal experience so quickly, it basically never lets up. He is able to balance these anecdotes with enough of the overall strategic and tactical picture that the reader is rarely confused. (Except in terms of the full geography of everything, as most of us English-language readers don’t have a map of Normandy in our heads. Fortunately, there’s the internet. A map or two would have been useful.) Like all narrative histories, this one is likely not 100% accurate as Ryan does attempt to enter the minds of some people he likely didn’t directly interview, but I think that’s a minor quibble.

A slightly larger quibble is that this book is very much focused on the Western Allies and, particularly, the Americans. The book tries to balance American and British but it’s clear where his sympathies lie. (Which makes sense, he’s Irish.) And it further promotes the idea that the Normandy invasions specifically were what ended the Nazis, not the Russians, not Hitler himself (though there is some of the latter). That being said, it is a book solely about D-Day so it would be weird if he spent the entire book saying “Stalingrad this” and “Hitler’s impulsive decision making that.”

Of interest to me, and people who have seen the film but not yet read the book, is how close some of the dialogue is here compared to the movie. Though I haven’t seen the movie in decades, I know enough of the lines that I felt like I was reading the script at least five times. I recognized not just moments but actual dialogue, word for word. I think that’s a credit to the movie and it’s something I didn’t realize had happened. I sort of thought there was more artistic license than there was. (There is some.)

Despite the intervening years, I’m really glad I read it. I didn’t fully appreciate how much effort Ryan put into this or how much it aspired to be an accurate retelling of the events, rather than just “a history.” This is actual primary history from someone who knows, not just one narrative of many and I think that’s quite an accomplishment.

I guess I need to read A Bridge Too Far now.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.