The Longest Day (1962)
(Also known as Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day)
Directed by: Andrew Marton (American Exterior Episodes), Ken Annakin (British Exterior Episodes), Bernhard Wicki (German Episodes), Darryl F. Zanuck (Uncredited)
Written by: Cornelius Ryan, based on his book; Additional Episodes Written by James Jones, Romain Gary, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon
Starring: 42 International Stars (including Eddie Albert, Arletty, Richard Beymer, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Jeffrey Hunter, Curt Jurgens, Peter Lawford, Christian Marquand, Robert Mitchum, Wolfgang Preiss, Robert Ryan, Richard Todd, Stuart Whitman, and John Wayne)
“The Most Crucial Day of Our Time….”
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel: Just look at it, gentlemen. How calm… how peaceful it is. A strip of water between England and the continent… between the Allies and us. But beyond that peaceful horizon… a monster waits. A coiled spring of men, ships, and planes… straining to be released against us. But, gentlemen, not a single Allied soldier shall reach the shore. Whenever and wherever this invasion may come, gentlemen… I shall destroy the enemy there, at the water’s edge. Believe me, gentlemen, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive. For the Allies as well as the Germans, it will be the longest day… The longest day.
On October 4, 1962, 20th Century Fox released The Longest Day, an epic dramatization of the first 24 hours of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy in German-occupied France, which took place on June 6, 1944. The brainchild of Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck, the three-hour-long film is based on the 1959 best-selling book by Cornelius Ryan, who also wrote the screenplay. (Four other writers, novelist James Jones, Romain Gary, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon, wrote “additional episodes” and were credited separately as a result of arbitration by the Writer’s Guild of America.) Filmed in various locations in France, including St. Mere Eglise in Normandy, The Longest Day is one of the last Hollywood extravaganzas shot in black-and-white; with a budget of $10,000,000 (in 1962 dollars), it was the most expensive black-and-white movie made by any major studio until Steven Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List (1993), which cost $22 million (in 1992 dollars).
Like the eponymous non-fiction book it is based on, The Longest Day is a mosaic of episodes that depict various events that took place before and during D-Day, told in a semi-documentary style. It tells the story of D-Day from the Allied and German points of view, on a scale that can only be described as “epic.” Although it features – as its tagline boasts – “42 International Stars,” the docudrama doesn’t have a leading character (or a group of leading characters, such as the eight-man squad led by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan) that we follow from start to finish. Instead, D-Day itself is the “star,” while the actors, drawn from the various countries – on both sides of the war – that were belligerents in 1944, have glorified cameos as counterparts to real-life participants, such as Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Henry Fonda), General Max Pemsel (Wolfgang Priess), Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Werner Hinz), Major John Howard (Richard Todd), and Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort (John Wayne).
(Although many of the well-known actors played real people who appear in Ryan’s nonfiction book, some play composite characters invented for the film. Eddie Albert’s “Col. Thompson,” Richard Burton’s “Flying Officer David Campbell,” and Roddy McDowall’s “Private Morris” are loosely based on real D-Day veterans but were inventions that producer Darryl Zanuck – who also did some uncredited directing – insisted upon for artistic purposes. This sort of artistic license displeased Cornelius Ryan, who wanted The Longest Day to be as historically accurate as possible.)
Like Ryan’s book, the film consists of many separate incidents that, when edited together, form a more-or-less coherent depiction of the events of the sixth day of June 1944. Its set-pieces include:
- A quick overview of the German preparations for the cross-Channel attack, including Rommel’s plans to stop the Allies on the beaches and German intelligence efforts to determine where and when the invasion will take place
- The marshaling of American, British, and Canadian forces in assembly areas (known as “sausages”) in southern England
- The fateful weather forecast by RAF meteorologist Group Captain J.N. Stagg (an uncredited Patrick Barr) and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s (Henry Grace) decision to go on June 6
- The French Resistance’s supporting role in D-Day and the now-famous series of coded messages – including verses from a poem by Paul Verlaine and “John has a long mustache” – sent by the Allies via the BBC to activate resistance cells in Normandy
- The British glider assault on the Orne River bridge (the Pegasus Bridge)
- The night-time airborne drops to secure the eastern and western flanks of the invasion area, including Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort’s (Wayne) efforts to assemble a suitably large fighting force with badly-scattered paratroopers despite a broken ankle
- The initial German reaction – mostly confused – to the parachute landings and Gen Max Pemsel’s (Preiss) deduction that the Allies aren’t mounting a simple raid or diversionary attack
- The naval bombardment and the landings on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches
- The U.S. Army Rangers’ assault on the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc
- “Bloody Omaha”
- The French Commando attack on the small but strategically-located village of Ouistreham
- The breakthrough at Omaha Beach and denouement
The Longest Day – which had its world premiere in France (as Le jour plus long) a little over a week prior to its release in the United States – was a big hit for 20th Century Fox, which at the time faced bankruptcy as a result of several box office flops and the incredibly expensive Cleopatra. It was not the first Hollywood film about the D-Day invasion, but it was based on the popular non-fiction book that imprinted the events of June 6, 1944 in the public mind at the end of the Fifties and the brief bright days of the Kennedy era Sixties, not just in the U.S. but in many other countries, especially in France. During its original theatrical run in 1962 and subsequent re-releases, 20th Century Fox collected $50,100,000 ($425,334,069.54 in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation) in cumulative worldwide gross; that, plus the success of The Sound of Music three years later, was enough to put Fox in “the black” for most of Darryl Zanuck’s tenure as head of the studio.
The movie also earned two technical Oscars for 1962, including Best Special Effects, as well as good reviews from film critics. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote in his review:
From the climactic concentration of Allied forces along the English coast, ready to launch the invasion in early June, 1944, to a few sample incidents at nightfall on D-Day, June 6, the immensity and sweep of the great battle to crack the Nazi’s hold on France are portrayed.
No character stands out particularly as more significant or heroic than anyone else. John Wayne is notably rugged as Colonel Vandervoort, the dogged officer of the 82d who hobbled through D-Day on a broken ankle, using a rifle as a crutch. Robert Mitchum is tough as General Cota, who led his men of the 29th Division onto Omaha Beach and then off it after a day of deadly pounding by forcing a breach of the Vierville roadblock.
Red Buttons is very effective as paratrooper John Steele, who watched the pitiful slaughter of many of his buddies in the town square of Ste-Mère-Eglise while hanging from the church steeple in the harness of his parachute. Richard Beymer does well as a young soldier who wanders dazedly through the whole thing, never connecting with his outfit and never firing a shot. And dozens of other actors are convincing (and identifiable) in roles that call for infrequent appearances (or only single shots) in the film.
But Crowther wrote his rave review of The Longest Day in an era when war movies were so sanitized that when the Motion Picture Association of America implemented its rating system in the mid-Sixties, The Longest Day was rated G. Though epic in scale, it’s the kind of war movie where GIs “die” on screen using grossly exaggerated “I’m hit!” gestures with little to no effusion of fake blood. As a result, modern audiences which have been accustomed to the realism of war films such as Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, or Black Hawk Down will shake their heads at Crowther’s closing comment that “it is hard to think of a picture, aimed and constructed as this one was, doing any more or any better or leaving one feeling any more exposed to the horror of war than this one does.”
I’ve watched The Longest Day countless times – on over-the-air broadcast and cable TV airings, on VHS videotape, on DVD, and Blu-ray – since the 1970s. I’m a fan of Cornelius Ryan’s original book, and the movie version is an emotional favorite of mine.
That doesn’t mean that The Longest Day is a flawless movie. Even taking into account that it was filmed at a time when war movies rarely showed truly horrific scenes full of gore a la Saving Private Ryan’s recreation of the Omaha Beach landings, Darryl F. Zanuck and his crew, including the three credited directors (Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, and Ken Annakin) not only took artistic license with Ryan’s script, but also allowed a plethora of historical inaccuracies to slip in, including:
- American paratroopers jumping into Normandy from British Lancaster bombers (they actually jumped from U.S, Army Air Force C-47 transports)
- Actor Robert Ryan was 55 years old when he was cast as Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin, the 82nd Airborne’s assistant division commander; the real “Jumping Jim” Gavin was only 36 in June of 1944 and was the youngest general in the U.S. Army at the time.
- The real “Rupert” dummies used to simulate Allied paratroopers dropped far from the actual landing zones as a distraction were far less elaborate than the movie props in The Longest Day
- The Allied infantry that waded ashore and fought its way up the beaches did NOT charge against German positions en masse or yell like Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The men were too seasick to run and shout like banshees, and large groups of soldiers were juicy targets for German mortar and small-arms fire
- Although some of the U.S. warships seen in the movie were of World War II vintage, they were still in service with the Sixth Fleet in 1961-62. Careful observers, especially Navy veterans, can tell that the ships were (then) modernized for Cold War service
- The landing craft seen in the film are not LCVPs from 1944, but are LCM-8s that were introduced in 1958
- Irina Demick, who plays a French Resistance fighter in The Longest Day, sports a hairstyle that was in fashion in 1962 but was not used in 1944. She was also Darryl Zanuck’s French mistress!
Still, The Longest Day remains one of American cinema’s true war epics. Yes, it is an old-school Hollywood production full of razzle-dazzle and (muted) glamor; as a result, its cast of “42 International Stars!” and visual design made the Normandy invasion look glamorous and nowhere as terrifying as the actual event truly was. Yet, for all its issues (such as a 54-year-old John Wayne playing a lieutenant colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division who was actually 27 years old on D-Day) and historical anachronisms, such as the (brief) appearance of Douglas AD-1 Skyraiders or Irina Demick’s 1960s-era hairstyle, The Longest Day is still the definitive account of the big picture of June 6, 1944 from various perspectives, including French civilians caught in the cross-fire between the Allied forces of liberation and the occupying German forces.
(Another case of casting gone wrong was when Robert Ryan, then 55, was chosen to play the 82nd Airborne’s assistant division commander, Brigadier Gen. James M. Gavin. Ryan was a good actor who had worked with Wayne in other war films, but he looked nothing like the boyish brigadier who was one of the first U.S. generals to land during the night-time airborne drop on Normandy,)
Interestingly, some of the actors and extras were themselves veterans of D-Day. British actor Richard Todd was a young captain in the 7th (Light) Parachute Battalion on June 6, 1944; he was asked if he could play himself. According to the Internet Database (IMDb), Todd “was offered the chance to play himself but joked, ‘I don’t think at this stage of my acting career I could accept a part that small.’ He played the commander of the actual bridge assault itself, Maj. John Howard, instead.”
Another veteran who had climbed up the cliff at Point Du Hoc as a Ranger, Joseph Lowe, repeated the feat nearly 18 years later as “U.S. Army Ranger Sparrow.”
Also, 20th Century Fox had the benefit of full cooperation by various military forces during production, including the French and British defense ministries, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense. All in all, 23,000 military personnel on active duty participated, most of them as extras portraying Allied and German soldiers. U.S. Marines, dressed in 1944-era Army uniforms and carrying WWII weapons, were among the “Normandy landing” recreators, landing on a beach on the French island of Corsica – the real beaches on the Calvados coast were off-limits for various reasons. U.S. Sixth Fleet ships – most of them of WWII vintage – on maneuvers were filmed to portray portions of the 5,000-ship armada, even though sharp-eyed warship buffs or Navy vets can tell they were modernized for Cold War duty.
The Longest Day is one of the first war movies to attempt to give audiences of the time a touch of cinema verite by using a “documentary-style” visual style and having French and German characters deliver their lines in their own languages – with English subtitles added, of course. This technique is highly effective and adds authenticity to a film that is trying to recreate an epic battle without giving viewers a case of combat fatigue (or, as we call it nowadays, PTSD).
The producers of The Longest Day also tried hard to bring the reporting of Cornelius Ryan’s book to life as best it could, even though it uses artistic license in several places. Events that happened in real life to American participants are depicted in the movie as happening to British characters, and in some cases, fictional characters are added to the wide array of real-life persons. Richard Burton’s “Flight Officer David Campbell” of the RAF is one, and the role of the private played by Roddy McDowell was created for the actor during a long and boring lull in the Cleopatra shoot.
Still, Zanuck (who was present on D-Day as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Army Signal Corps and led a combat film unit at Normandy) made a huge effort to tell some of the stories in Ryan’s now-classic book on film as best as he could. And, for the most part, he succeeded. Considering the times in which both the book and movie were created, The Longest Day is still a moving tribute to the men (and a few women) who fought to liberate Western Europe from Adolf Hitler’s evil Third Reich.