Seventy years ago, 150,000 Allied troops stormed ashore at Normandy. Within hours they had secured a beachhead, and 11 months later Hitler’s Third Reich was in ashes.
The largest military operation in history has naturally inspired lots of movies – some classic, some less so.
No D-Day movie list I’ve ever seen, though, includes my personal favorite: 36 Hours, a 1965 psychological thriller starring James Garner and Eva Marie Saint.
The premise of 36 Hours, based on a story by Willy Wonka creator Roald Dahl, is as outrageous as it is ingenious: The Nazis know the Allies are coming; now they just need to find out where and when. A German psychiatrist (Rod Taylor) has the bright idea to kidnap an in-the-know American major (Garner), knock him out and, when he awakes, convince him the war has long since ended.
And so a groggy Garner comes to in what appears to be an Allied hospital. The first thing he notices: His hair has gone a bit gray. Then he spots a newspaper dated 1950. He’s understandably confused, but the shrink and a nurse (Saint) calmly explain that he’s been in the hospital suffering from amnesia for six years. What’s more, the lovely nurse is actually his wife!
So far so good. But the shrink has been warned by his Nazi bosses that he’s got just 36 hours to make Garner reveal details of the D-Day invasion. That turns out to be long enough for Garner to discover the ruse, thanks to one damning detail the Nazis overlooked – and, naturally, for Garner and Saint to fall in love for real.
I saw 36 Hours at age 10 the week it opened in 1965, when my dad took us to a show at Radio City Music Hall. This was back when the Music Hall put on lavish musical stage productions before each film, featuring a full orchestra, jugglers and production numbers choreographed by Peter Gennaro.
Here’s the thing: While I vaguely remember some bits of the stage show, 36 Hours remains burned in my memory, even though I have not seen it in nearly 50 years. (It’s been available only sporadically on DVD and video-on-demand).
I’ve read that the film medium can put viewers in a semi-dream state in a way that live performances simply cannot. Maybe that’s why I remember James Garner and Eva Marie Saint in a desperate clinch so much clearer than I do the Rockettes high-kicking across the Great Stage.
There are probably good reasons why 36 Hours never appears on lists of great D-Day movies. But I see it’s airing on Turner Classic Movies at 1 p.m. July 14.
I might have to take that afternoon off.
Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
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