Based on Cornelius Ryna’s 1959 book of the same title, about the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944, The Longest Day was produced with passion and comitment by Fox’s legendary head, Darryl F. Zanuck, who paid the author $175,000 for the screen rights.
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This massive operation was the collaborative effort of three directors, four assistant directors, and no less than five screenwriters.
The screenplay was penned by Ryan, with additional material written by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon.
Made in black-and-white, it utilized the work of three directors: Ken Annakin (British and French exteriors), Andrew Marton (American exteriors), and Bernard Wicki (German scenes).
The Longest Day reconstructs the events leading to the seminal event of June 6, 1944, the Normandy invasion of the Allied Forces, which turned the tide of the war.
Boasting the dimensions of an epic picture, it’s filmed in Cinemascope and in black-and-white. It is extremely skillfully edited by Samuel E. Beetley, considering the amount of footage shot and the frequent changes of characters and locales.
Early on, Zanuck decided to cast all of the cameo roles with A-list stars. He wanted the audience “to have a kick, so that every time a door opened, it would be another well-known personality.”
Zanuck was determined to get John Wayne to play one of the cameo roles in The Longest Day. “Since Wayne has taken care of the Alamo and had never lost any historical battle,” Zanuck reasoned, “there is no reason why he should not take care of the Omaha Beach.”
Wayne was first considered for the part of General Cota (later played by Robert Mitchum), but was cast as Lieutenant Colones Benjamin Vandervoort of the Eighty-Second Airborne Division. His small but tailor-made part was contained in some of the picture’s most memorable episodes.
A stern commander who broke his ankle while landing in the town of St. Mere Eglise, Vandervoort continues to lead his men while using his rifle as a crutch. Wayne’s portrayal contains all the familiar elements of previous war movies, particularly his toughness. He tells his soldiers, “We came here to fight, not to swim.” He is told on various occasions to ease up on his men-as well as on himself.
Proud of his battalion, Vandervoort believes that it is one of the best in the whole army. He is a committed patriot, who can’t stand the humiliation of seeing the body of an American soldier hung up, screaming and yelling to take the corpse down right away.
The film is shot in the style of a docudrama (with subtitles identifying the different participants, place and time), beginning in the days leading up to D-Day. It concentrates on events on both sides of the channel (Nazi Germany and French Normandy). We observe the Allies as they impatiently wait for a break in the poor weather so that they can strike more effectively. They are also trying to anticipate the reaction of the Axis forces in Northern France. (In the first scene, an innocent French civilian, a farmer, is shot in the back by a Nazi).
General Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander of SHAEF, makes the fateful decision as to where the invasion should happen, after reviewing the initial reports of bad weather and reading documents about the divisions within the German High Command.
Several scenes depict in detail the early hours of June 6 when Allied airborne troops were sent in to take key locations inland from the beaches. The French resistance is also shown reacting to the news that an invasion has started.
The Longest Day chronicles the important events around D-Day, including the British glider missions to secure Pegasus Bridge, the counterattacks launched by American paratroopers scattered around Sainte-Mère-Église, the infiltration and sabotage work conducted by the French resistance and SOE agents, and the response by the Wehrmacht to the invasion and the uncertainty of German commanders as to whether it was a feint in preparation for crossings at the Pas de Calais, where the senior German staff had always assumed that it would be.
Crucial scenes include the parachute drop into Sainte-Mère-Église, the advance inshore from the Normandy beaches, the U.S. Ranger Assault Group’s assault on the Pointe du Hoc, the attack on Ouistreham by Free French Forces, and the strafing of the beaches by two lone Luftwaffe pilots.
The last two scenes are powerful. In the penultimate act, Richard Burton and Richard Beyer discuss the issue of killing and death, while smoking. “Have you ever killed a man, face to face?” asks Burton. And when Beymer confesses that he never did, Burton admits, “Neither do I.”
The very last word and image belong to Robert Mitchum, seen searching for his cigar, and after lighting it, he jumps into his jeep and commands, “let’s go uphill.” The camera tracks him in his jeep, followed by a line of soldiers walking upwards against the skyline.
The film enjoyed a great deal of publicity before it was released and favorable critical reaction afterwards. Bosley Crowther of the N.Y. Times liked the picture for its “huge documentary report, adorned and colored by personal details that are thrilling, amusing, ironic, sad.”
The Longest Day became one of 1962’s most popular films. Its mass appeal stemmed from its important theme, realistic depiction of action, and the fun of spotting the large roster of Hollywood stars, including Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger. Wayne’s name appears last on the credits-to stress its prominence. (See Cast by country below).
However, several critics thought that the array of familiar stars actually weakened the film’s authenticity. “It’s hard to tell about John Wayne and Robert Mitchum,” wrote the N.Y. Post, “they stand out all right, but whether they’re too much themselves or make it as what they’re supposed to be who knows. They certainly still are Wayne and Mitchum, and no mere D-Day can hide it.”
Release date: September 25, 1962
Running time: 179 Minutes
Made on a budget of $7.75 million, the film was extremely popular all over the world, earning over $50 million.
Cast (by country, in alphabetical order)
Eddie Albert, Colonel Thompson, 29th Infantry Division Paul Anka, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion Richard Beymer, Private Arthur ‘Dutch’ Schultz, 82nd Airborne Division Red Buttons, Private John Steele, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment Ray Danton, Captain Frank, 29th Infantry Division Fred Dur, Major, 2nd Ranger Battalion Fabian, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion Mel Ferrer, Major General Robert Haines, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Henry Fonda, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Assistant Commander, 4th Infantry Division Steve Forrest, Captain Harding, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment Peter Helm, Young private, 29th Infantry Division Jeffrey Hunter, Sergeant John H. Fuller (later field promoted to lieutenant), combat engineer, 29th Infantry Division Alexander Knox, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff, SHAEF Roddy McDowall, Private Morris, 4th Infantry Division Sal Mineo, Private Martini, 82nd Airborne Division Robert Mitchum, Brigadier General Norman Cota, Assistant Commander, 29th Infantry Division Bill Nagy, Major, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment Edmond O’Brien, Major General Raymond O. Barton, Commander, 4th Infantry Division Ron Randell, Joe Williams, war correspondent Robert Ryan, Brigadier General James M. Gavin, Assistant Commander, 82nd Airborne Division Tommy Sands, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion George Segal, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion Rod Steiger, Destroyer commander, United States Navy Tom Tryon, Lieutenant Wilson, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment Robert Wagner, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion John Wayne, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort, CO, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment Stuart Whitman, Lieutenant Sheen, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Richard Burton, Flying Officer David Campbell, Royal Air Force fighter pilot Sean Connery, Private Flanagan, 3rd Infantry Division Leo Genn, Major-General at SHAEF John Gregson, Padre, 6th Airborne Division Peter Lawford, Brigadier Lord Lovat, Commander, 1st Special Service Brigade Kenneth More, Acting Captain Colin Maud, Royal Navy Beachmaster, Juno Beach Leslie Phillips, RAF officer with French Resistance Richard Todd, Major John Howard, OC, “D” Company, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
Arletty Madame Barrault, resident of Sainte-Mère-Église Jean-Louis Barrault, Father Louis Roulland, parish priest of Sainte-Mère-Église André Bourvil, Alphonse Lenaux, Mayor of Colleville-sur-Orne Pauline Carton, Louis’s housekeeper Irina Demick, Janine Boitard, French Resistance, Caen Christian Marquand, Capitaine de Corvette Philippe Kieffer, CO, Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos Madeleine Renaud, Mother superior in Ouistreham Georges Rivière, Second-Maître Guy de Montlaur, Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos Jean Servais, Contre-amiral Robert Jaujard, Commander, 4th Cruiser Division, Free French Naval Forces Georges Wilson, Alexandre Renaud, Mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église
Hans Christian Blech, Major Werner Pluskat, 352nd Artillery Regiment, 352nd Infantry Division Wolfgang Büttner Generalleutnant Dr. Hans Speidel, Chief of Staff, Army Group B Gert Fröbe, Unteroffizier “Kaffeekanne” (“coffee pot”) Paul Hartmann, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander, OB West
Werner Hinz, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, Commander, Army Group B Karl John, Generalleutnant Wolfgang Häger, Luftwaffe Kommando West Curd Jürgens, General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt, Chief of Staff, OB West Wolfgang Preiss, Generalleutnant Max Pemsel, Chief of Staff, 7th Army Peter van Eyck, Oberstleutnant Ocker, Commander, 352nd Artillery Regiment, 352nd Infantry Division