The Longest Day is a war epic based on Cornelius Ryan’s book The Longest Day (1959), a comprehensive account of the D-Day landings at Normandy on 6 June 1944, during World War II. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and adapted from his own book by Ryan, the film recounts the events of D-Day from a variety of perspectives.
Cornelius Ryan (1920–1974), Irish-born correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph, was one of the many war reporters who covered Operation Overlord, the crucial Normandy landings on 6 June 1944. In 1949, on the fifth anniversary of D-Day, after attending a press reunion, Ryan was inspired to try and construct a comprehensive, minute-by-minute account of the invasion. Over most of the next decade Ryan read all 240 books published about D-Day, and he and his researchers conducted 700 interviews with survivors in North America and Europe, of which 383 accounts of D-Day were used in the text of the book. Ryan’s book—The Longest Day: 6 June 1944 D-Day—first appeared in a condensed Reader’s Digest version. Published by Simon & Schuster in November 1959, the big book drew excellent reviews, became a bestseller, and established Ryan as a popular historian of international stature. French producer Raoul Lévy purchased the film rights to Ryan’s book on 23 March 1960 then signed a deal with Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) to make the movie. Ryan’s pay: $100,000 for the film rights, plus $35,000 to write the screenplay. Lévy intended to start production in March 1961. Unfortunately, the project had to be aborted when ABPC could not come up with the $6 million needed. In December 1961 Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck stepped in and purchased Lévy’s option for $175,000 as a last chance gamble for 20th Century Fox, which was hemorrhaging millions on its runaway production of Cleopatra. Zanuck’s friend, Elmo Williams, wrote a film treatment, so Zanuck made him associate producer and coordinator of battle episodes. Ryan commenced on his screen adaptation but often clashed with Zanuck, forcing Williams to mediate between the two throughout the script development process (Zanuck also brought in other writers to help: David Pursall, Jack Seddon, James Jones, and Romain Gary). During pre-production, producer Frank McCarthy (Patton), who had worked for the U.S. War Department during World War II, arranged for military collaboration with the governments of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. With eight major battle scenes planned, Zanuck decided to hire multiple directors—Germany’s Gerd Oswald and Bernhard Wicki (Die Brücke), Britain’s Ken Annakin, and the American Andrew “Bandy” Marton—to head their own film units and shoot simultaneously. Zanuck coordinated their efforts and also did some directing in his own right. The intent all along was to have a big star-studded cast. Zanuck was able to sign a wide swathe of mostly A-list talent: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger, Richard Todd, Richard Burton, Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Paul Anka, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowall, Stuart Whitman, Eddie Albert, Edmond O’Brien, Red Buttons, Peter Lawford, and Sean Connery. All the major stars were paid $25,000 except John Wayne, who insisted on $250,000, to punish producer Zanuck for referring to him as “poor John Wayne” in reference to Wayne’s problems with his pet project, The Alamo (1960), which flopped. Zanuck hired more than 2,000 real soldiers for the film as extras.
Filming of The Longest Day took place over a nine-month period (August 1961–16 June 1962). The film was shot at several French locations, including the Île de Ré, Saleccia beach in Saint-Florent, Haute-Corse, Port-en-Bessin-Huppain (filling in for Ouistreham), Les Studios de Boulogne in Boulogne-Billancourt in Paris and the actual locations of Pegasus Bridge near Bénouville, Calvados, Sainte-Mère-Église, and Pointe du Hoc. The U.S. Sixth Fleet provided extensive support to the production, making available many amphibious landing ships and craft for scenes filmed in Corsica. The USS Springfield and USS Little Rock, both World War II light cruisers (though updated as guided missile cruisers), were used in the shore bombardment scenes.
Ryan’s book is divided into three parts: The Wait, The Night, and The Day. The film follows the same format, devoting about an hour to each section. It also adds a prologue that features Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Werner Hinz) briefing subordinates. Rommel expresses his intent to defeat the coming invasion on the beaches and declares, “For the Allies, as well as Germany,” that day “will be the longest day!” The film proper begins with German intelligence intercepting a coded message that seems to indicate the invasion is now imminent, but the High Command refuses to put troops on alert. Rommel discusses the stormy weather with an aide and expects it to last another week. In England on 5 June, various vignettes show invasion troops moving from staging points or whiling away the time on land and at sea, gambling or complaining about the food, the bad weather, and the seemingly endless waiting for the appointed hour as the weather has forced repeated postponements of the invasion. Col. Thompson (Eddie Albert) tells Gen. Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) that the operation is likely about to start, “providing the weather doesn’t get any worse.” Lt. Col. Benjamin “Vandy” Vandervoort (John Wayne) meets with Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin (Robert Ryan) and expresses his concern about the planned paratrooper drop zone his men have been assigned. He wants it changed but relents when Gavin informs him that the chances that Operation Overlord will commence shortly “are better than 50–50.” On the German side, Gen. Erich Marcks (Richard Münch) predicts the Allies will do the unexpected and attack at Normandy (the longest distance across the English Channel) and in bad weather. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (Henry Grace) and his top generals are briefed by Royal Air Force (RAF) meteorologist Group Capt. J. N. Stagg (Patrick Barr), who predicts a window of moderately decent weather. Ike asks Sir Bernard L. Montgomery (Trevor Reid) his opinion. Monty says, “Go! Go!” The moon and tides won’t be favorable again until July so Ike decides to proceed with the invasion. Gen. Gavin briefs his pathfinder paratroopers. An RAF airborne officer demonstrates “Rupert,” a paradummy decoy loaded with fireworks that go off when it lands. It is hoped that many Ruperts will divert German defenders away from real paratroopers. Vandervoort briefs his men about signaling each other with “crickets” (i.e., clickers) once they land in their drop zone. French resistance fighters are stunned to get the coded radio transmission that the invasion is on; they break out weapons and move out. The Germans intercept coded radio messages indicating the invasion will start in the next 24 hours; the 15th Army is put on alert. At midnight over Normandy, Major Howard’s (Patrick Jordan) glider detachment releases from their towing planes to land. Their mission, to secure the strategically vital Pegasus Bridge on the Orne River before the Germans can blow it up, proves successful. Caen, 1:07 hours: German AA guns open up on Allied transports dropping airborne troops as German ground troops muster. The Ruperts do their job, fooling the Germans into mistakenly diverting troops. French resistance fighters cut German phone lines and team up with British airborne troopers to blow up a train carrying German reinforcements. Sainte-Mère-Église, 2:03 hours: U.S. paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division jump in force. One group overshoots its landing zone and lands in the town square, where they are slaughtered by waiting German troops. Pvt. John Steele (Red Buttons) lands on the pinnacle of a church tower and hangs suspended, watching in horror as the carnage unfolds below him. At a coastal bunker Wehrmacht Maj. Werner Pluskat (Hans Christian Blech) phones headquarters to report hundreds of Allied planes in the skies. Vandervoort breaks his ankle jumping and discovers that his paratroopers have missed their drop zones and are scattered all over. German Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt (Paul Hartmann) requests that reserve panzer divisions be mobilized to counter the invasion, but Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl (Wolfgang Lukschy) refuses to release them without Hitler’s permission—and the Fuhrer is asleep and not to be disturbed. French Cmdr. Philippe Kieffer (Christian Marquand) leads his commandos into battle. Pluskat looks out from his bunker with binoculars and suddenly sees hundreds of ships approaching. He exclaims, “The invasion—it’s coming!” Soon the Allied warships begin shelling. Omaha Beach, 6:32 hours: the landings begin and German troops man fortifications and open fire. Gen. Roosevelt discovers that his troops have landed at the wrong beach, a mile and a half south of their intended destination but decides to proceed anyway. Two German fighter pilots—Col. Josef “Pips” Priller (Heinz Reincke) and his wingman—strafe Gold-Juno beaches, one of the only Luftwaffe sorties on D-Day. Allied fighters strafe a German column, and Pluskat is wounded. Point de Hoc, 7:11 hours: U.S. Army Rangers use ladders and ropes attached to grappling hooks to successfully scale the supposedly impregnable 100-foot cliffs of Point du Hoc and take the German bunkers, but discover that the big guns they were supposed to take out were never installed. Lord Lovat (Peter Lawford), accompanied by his personal bagpiper, leads reinforcements to isolated British paratroopers at the Orne River Bridge. Cmdr. Kieffer and his Free French commandos attack the seaside town of Ouistreham but meet heavy resistance. A group of nuns shows up in the middle of the battle to nurse the French wounded. Then a U.S. Army tank appears on the scene and blasts the German position to ruins, allowing the French to win the battle. Troops advance on the beaches—except for Omaha Beach, where the assault falters, held back by a cement wall that prevents the troops from advancing, but Brigadier General Cota rallies his men. Sgt. John H. Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter) blasts a clear path from the beach with a dynamite charge. An American paratrooper comes across a dead German officer who has been shot by Flying Officer David Campbell (Richard Burton), a downed and wounded RAF pilot. Burton concludes, “He’s dead. I’m crippled. You’re lost. I suppose it’s always like that, war.” The G.I. asks wistfully, “I wonder who won.”
The Longest Day had its world premiere at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris on 25 September 1962, a six-hour gala event that was likely the most extravagant film opening ever staged. Detachments of British, French, and American troops stood ceremonial guard for the arrival of 2,700 guests, some of whom paid as much as $70 ($583 in 2017 dollars) for a ticket. After the screening, there were fireworks at the Eifel Tower, where Edith Piaf gave a free concert. There was also a champagne supper for 400 of the guests, which included lots of Hollywood celebrities and 10 French cabinet ministers. The film had its U.S. opening in New York on 4 October and its London opening a week later. Luckily for Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox, The Longest Day proved to be a box office smash, grossing $39.1 million domestically and $11 million in foreign markets for a total of $50.1 million against a $10 million production budget. Reviews tended to be adulatory, like Bosley Crowther’s: “The total effect of the picture is that of a huge documentary report, adorned and colored by personal details that are thrilling, amusing, ironic, sad … 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” (Crowther, 5 October 1962). Later assessments have been more discerning and insightful, for example, Scott Macdonald’s: “Despite its multiple threads, it is overlong, with too much fat hanging off the narrative, becoming bogged down early in tedious exposition, when it should be pushing forward relentlessly, as the tension and drama builds … since it has multiple directors and styles … it crumbles under its own epic intentions and lack of cohesion” (Macdonald, 2004).
Reel History Versus Real History
To his credit, Darryl F. Zanuck sought to preserve the depth and breadth of Cornelius Ryan’s sprawling history of D-Day while also striving for historical accuracy. Accordingly, Zanuck hired Ryan to adapt his own book to the screen and also retained some two dozen military and technical advisors, most of them D-Day veterans, to ensure that uniforms, weapons, and events were properly represented. Nonetheless, a three-hour movie epic cannot be a cinematic history lesson; it also has to have commercial appeal to recoup its enormous production costs. A notable concession to this prerogative is evident in the film’s casting of a plethora of big-name movie stars: distracting but not historically invalid, except in the case of John Wayne, who was absurdly miscast as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort (1917–1990), the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 505th PIR – 82nd Airborne Division at D-Day. Vandervoort was a compact, athletic man 27 years of age in 1944, whereas Wayne was a lumbering 6’4″ and 55 years old in 1961: 28 years older and much bigger than his real-life counterpart—a preposterous paratrooper. Other bits of Hollywood window dressing involved the casting of teen idols Paul Anka, Fabian Anthony Forte (aka Fabian), and Sal Mineo and the portrayal of French Resistance fighter Janine Gille-Boitard (1907–2001) by Zanuck’s then-mistress, French bombshell Irina Demick: 12 years younger in 1961 than Boitard would have been in 1944 and far sexier, no doubt, in cleavage-revealing outfits and a modishly styled hairdo unknown to the 1940s. As for historical inaccuracies, one involves the so-called Ruperts. The paradummy decoys used at Normandy were not elaborate rubber figures and did not contain fireworks, as shown in the movie; they were stuffed forms, crudely made out of burlap. Though the film’s rendition of “Operation Deadstick,” the taking of Pegasus Bridge by British Glider forces, is quite accurate, it does embellish the American airborne drop at Sainte-Mère-Église for dramatic purposes. In reality, very few paratroopers landed in the town square, compared to the fairly large number in the movie, who are then slaughtered. There was, indeed, a Pvt. John Steele, who ended up hanging off a church roof. In the movie, Steel intently watches the battle below. The real Pvt. Steele played dead in order to survive, and he dangled for two hours, not six. The movie also shows paratroopers firing their weapons as they descended—not possible, according to actual paratroopers. Another inaccuracy involves the scene depicting the U.S. Army Ranger assault on Point de Hoc, which shows the Rangers mounting the cliff face with grappling hooks, ropes, and ladders. In reality, these methods largely failed; most of the Rangers resorted to scaling the cliff face by free climbing. The movie also depicts the big guns as never having been installed—not true. They were installed, but the Germans removed them from their emplacements to avoid Allied naval shelling and set them farther back, where they were later found and taken out by the Rangers. The scene depicting nuns at Ouistreham braving gunfire to nurse French commando casualties is another example of fictional license; there was no nunnery at Ouistreham.