The ’68 Comeback Special: The Long Day’s Dying

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“There ARE men dead. I know of men dead. And, and I know of a girl dead. This girl, this girl was loved by one of our lads who was asked questions and had lighted cigarettes pushed into his face… but survived. And came home, to bed and beauty. And she kissed him in the night, asleep. With love. And he stuck a knife in her, without waking, up to her heart. He woke up in Broadmoor.”

As my partner-in-crime Dave Scout Tafoya wrote last week, the would-be 1968 Cannes Film Festival contained good as well as bad competitors for the Palm D’Or, I’ll be writing about at least one of the British duffers later on, but it’s heartening to report that I’ve just seen a British entry which, though little-known and rarely-seen, proves to be a terrific piece of cinema.

Peter Collinson’s career is mysterious — the only quality linking most of his films is their tendency to be chamber pieces, either with a fringe theatre influence or tending more towards the suspense potboiler. One of the few filmmakers to carve out a distinct oeuvre at Hammer un-influenced by the major commercial trends at that establishment, Collinson gave us the fascinating oddities THE PENTHOUSE and STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING. More conventionally, he helmed FRIGHT and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

Right before this one he was responsible for UP THE JUNCTION, the film adaptation of a kitchen sink TV play originally directed by Ken Loach — I think this is what gave Collinson the respectability to be considered for Cannes. Right afterwards he made THE ITALIAN JOB, his biggest hit and the film he’s most remembered for. In the window in between he made the movie with the highest artistic ambition, but on a small scale and tight budget.

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A LONG DAY’S DYING follows three British soldiers lost somewhere in Europe in WWII. Charles Wood adapted the screenplay from Alan White’s novel — the previous year Wood scripted HOW I WON THE WAR and the same year he wrote Tony Richardson’s THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. He also contributed heavily to the screenplay for PETULIA, another film due to have been screened at the abortive Cannes ’68. A sort-of-pacifist who is also an enthusiast for military history, Wood brings acute authenticity to his army stories, combined with a surreal sensibility which makes for rather thrilling, disconcerting contrasts. The main manifestation of this here is the internal monologues he gives to all his characters, which seem to talk to one another at times in a kind of faulty telepathy. The characters are always either overhearing each others’ thoughts or else failing to do so. Sometimes they shout-think their voice-overs at each other in a pathetic attempt to be heard and understood. It adds a strangeness to the simple tale of survival (or the failure to survive).

The Brits are David Hemmings (heart-breakingly youthful — a baby-faced killer) Tom Bell (before he got raddled — actually dishy) and Tony Beckley (also in THE ITALIAN JOB). The lone German is Alan Dobie, who sadly can’t do the accent — he sounds Russian. That, and some heavy-handed music choices at the start and (especially) the end are the film’s only major flaws.

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Sadly, many of Collinson’s films have vanished from view, and this one could only be found on a rip made from a faulty VHS tape, which was a pan-and-scan butchering to begin with. The movie is strong enough to deserve DVD resurrection by the BFI’s Flipside label, I’d argue. Particularly with such a strong Hemmings perf. As a result, the cinematography is impossible to assess — even its atmospheric, earth-tone loamy quality may be simply a result of a bad transfer.

John Trumper’s editing survives better, although obviously the visual rhythms are thrown off by the cropping. Trumper, who would cut GET CARTER, has an edgy way with violence, cutting the graphic moments short and leaving us blinking in disbelief. At one point, Beckley’s character is warned that a grenade will go off in his face one day, and we cut not-quite-subliminally to Beckley’s bloody face and torn lips, as if it’s happened, and then back to reality. Disconcerting.

Collinson also throws in some slow-motion falls, and it’s tempting at first to see this as standard-issue action film-making. But this is 1968, and BONNIE AND CLYDE is only just coming out, Peckinpah hasn’t been allowed to use slomo yet, and so Collinson is ahead of the curve with only Kurosawa as his obvious influence.

It really is only the use of Elgar at the end that spoils this film. Fiona thought the freeze-frames were also overdoing it, but had they unfolded in silence I think they could have been starkly effective, even with all the overuse of that device in the ensuing decade. Collinson’s tendency to over-eggery may be the reason most of his films aren’t so well-remembered — that and, to be fair, his tragic early death at the hands of Ricky Schroder.*

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*For legal reasons, we would like to make it clear that child actor Ricky Schroder did not in fact kill Peter Collinson.

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14 Responses to “The ’68 Comeback Special: The Long Day’s Dying”

  1. According to the Wiki: ” He directed William Holden and Rick Schroder in the 1980 movie The Earthling and was said to have driven the young child actor to tears on numerous occasions.”

  2. Oh dear! Can’t abide mistreatment of children, even child actors. Wouldn’t have made the joke if I’d known.

  3. ” Wood brings acute authenticity to his army stories, combined with a surreal sensibility which makes for rather thrilling, disconcerting contrasts. The main manifestation of this here is the internal monologues he gives to all his characters”
    One of his plays- H- has the subtitle “Being Monologues in Front of Burning Cities”. The authenticity of his army stories isn’t surprising: Wood served for five years as a soldier.

  4. Yes, and he brings not only inside knowledge but compassion. He’s also something of a scholar of military history.

  5. I was very impressed with THE LONG DAYS DYING when I saw it on its initial release ( at a sparsely attended exhibitors screening in Salt Lake City, Utah ) and jumped at the chance to work with Peter on what turned out to be his last project – a large scale television series entitled THE GANGSTER CHRONICLES to be made at Universal ( my last TV as I transitioned to producing JOHN CARPENTERS’ THE THING ). Peter fell ill during preparation, which was interrupted by a SAG strike. When he returned he revealed he has been diagnosed with cancer, left the project, and died not soon after at his Los Angeles home. His death was accutely felt by those of us who had worked with him, which included many actors he had painstakingly guided through a battery of screen tests. The project was taken over by the recently deceased Richard Sarafian, who endeavored to keep much of what Peter prepared in place…

    I arranged for a screening of THE LONG DAYS DYING while a student at USC. John Carpenter, among others, thought it was the most effective anti- war film he had ever seen…

  6. First, congratulations on The Thing, a particular favourite of ours.

    And I can well imagine Carpenter responding to Long Day’s Dying — the tight, microcosmic set-up echoes the structures of Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing and Prince of Darkness.

  7. Also worth mentioning is the films effective use of widescreen ( if memory serves it was shot in the muddy, granular confines of Techniscope )

  8. It needs a proper DVD release — I was forced to watch a horrible VHS pan-and-scan job. I know from The Italian Job that Collinson can use the frame very effectively, but of course that’s impossible to judge in these circumstances.

  9. There’s a good Peter Collinson story in the new Oliver Reed biography regarding a feud the two had whilst filming AND THEN THERE WERE NONE in Iran, that ended up with Collinson in a sling. They seem to have made up later as Collinson directed Reed twice more in the 70s.

  10. Wow. I knew Reed was a wild man, but fracturing filmmakers’ forelimbs is going too far!

    I remember that particular Harry Alan Towers production as being quite nicely shot, or at least the locations looked nice. Am quite interested to see some later Collinson.

  11. […] unearthing the treasures of the buried 1968 Cannes Film Festival today with Peter Collinson’s Long Day’s Dying. This is one of my favourites of the fest (as David points out, dig that stone cold Hemmings […]

  12. […] same year, 1968, saw the release of The Long Day’s Dying, directed by Peter Collinson from Wood’s first draft screenplay. Based on a novel from a […]

  13. Well spotted! harry’s big celery comes from the michael Winner “satire” I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname, with Oliver Reed and Orson Welles.
    He just turned up in the book I’m reading. Props wizard Eddie Fowlie: “Why are you always so shitty to everybody?”
    Winner: “Well, it works, doesn’t it?”

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