The Longest Day, Darryl F. Zanuck’s ambitious and expensive recreation of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, is one of the best – if somewhat flawed – war films ever made. Boasting an all-star cast of 41 “A-List” (for 1962, that is) actors from four countries and filmed in various locations around France (Corsica doubling for most of the five invasion beaches on northern France) and made with the assistance of NATO’s armed forces, The Longest Day was, for 31 years, the most expensive movie ever shot in black and white.
It was also, in some ways, a major roll of the movie-making dice for Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox. Not only was the studio spending over $20 million on this huge war epic (with some $2.5 million going to John Wayne), but filming was also underway on the even more costly Elizabeth Taylor – Richard Burton historical soap opera Cleopatra, which with its color production and gargantuan Egyptian sets and almost as gargantuan cast was to cost Fox and Zanuck $40 million….and would be famous for becoming the biggest bomb of its time. Therefore, it would be no exaggeration to say that just as the fate of the free world hung on the success of the Normandy invasion, the future of 20th Century-Fox depended greatly on the box office take of these two huge epic films.
As it turned out, Zanuck got lucky. Cleopatra’s failure at the box office nearly did bleed his studio to death. He was also fortunate because The Longest Day was, and still is, a good movie adaptation of one of the classic non-fiction books on the subject of D-Day, Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 international best-selling work of the same title.
The Longest Day (the title refers to a quote by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel: “Believe me, gentlemen, the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive…For the Allies, as well as for Germany, it will be the longest day.”) follows the basic structure of Ryan’s book and can be divided into three acts: The Wait (showing the preparations by both sides before D-Day), The Night (the Allied night drop and the French Resistance’s opening moves) and The Day (the amphibious assault itself). Ryan and a team of Hollywood screenwriters (including From Here To Eternity author James Jones) adapt episodes from the book and stitch them together to form a “big picture” view of Operation Overlord’s first 24 hours.
And what a big picture it is! The Longest Day not only had a cast of such stars as Eddie Albert, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne (just to name a few), but the producers were able to enlist 23,000 NATO troops to portray the American, British, Canadian and French soldiers who made the initial assault landings.
It is shot in semi-documentary style, with major historical characters being identified (although the DVD’s cut is somewhat inconsistent with this feature. On the VHS version, German titles of rank and their units were solely in German, but on the DVD sometimes English translations are used). The naval bombardment scenes made use of real Sixth Fleet maneuvers in the Mediterranean, though the second unit directors had to be careful not to show any carriers and few aircraft, for the 5,000-ship fleet that attacked Normandy did not include any flattops.
The use of black and white photography also allowed Zanuck, associate producer Elmo Williams, and directors Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin, and Bernard Wicki to incorporate a few bits of stock World War II footage (mostly of German troops). Black and white photography also lessens the marked differences between location shots and material shot in studio sets, not to mention the special effects shots which featured miniatures.
OK, you might be wondering, so the movie was expensive and starred many stars of the time, but is it good? The answer is yes, since it remains the only major movie to attempt to convey the scope and drama of the D-Day landings from a multinational viewpoint. Saving Private Ryan, made six years ago by Steven Spielberg, may be more graphically and technically accurate in its depiction of the D-Day landing, but it is told from the viewpoint of a single squad of GIs (a fact cited by many overseas reviewers writing in other Web sites).
It shows the invasion from the vantage points of many who were involved, from the Allied and German high commands to the French civilians caught in the crossfire between liberators and occupiers. It tries to be true to most of the major facts and most, if not all, of the characters were real and said what the movie quotes them as saying.
Of course, The Longest Day does suffer from the “Hollywood” treatment of historical events. Some characters are obviously composites; Richard Burton’s Flight Officer David Campbell and Eddie Albert’s Col. Newton are nowhere to be seen in Ryan’s original book), while others (Jeff Hunter’s doomed Sgt. Fuller) are clearly fictitious Everyman soldiers created to give audiences human glimpses at the thousands of troops – 200,000 in the initial landings, plus 3 million more based in the British Isles – who fought and died in the invasion.
There are also some unexplainable errors, such as having American paratroopers jumping from British Lancaster bombers. Most of the airborne troops not carried to Normandy by glider were aboard C-47 (better known as DC-3s) Skytrain/Dakota transports, not the four-engine, twin-ruddered bombers depicted in the movie. And nowhere, according to veterans quoted in Stephen E. Ambrose’s book on D-Day, did Allied troops come ashore yelling like banshees and running ashore with such energy. The troops (as the movie itself points out) were too seasick and tired to hit the beaches in such a manner.
Some of the casting choices are pretty strange. Brig. Gen James M. Gavin here is played by the 50ish Robert Ryan; the real Gavin was 38 in 1944 and boyishly handsome. The same casting misstep applies to John Wayne, who plays Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort of the 82nd Airborne. Not only does he give some of the required – if somewhat hokey – expository speeches, but Wayne (who demanded a salary much higher than his cast-mates’ $250 grand) doesn’t look like a 30-something light colonel….and Stuart Whitman is a very old-looking lieutenant!
Still, The Longest Day was a popular and critical success. It was a big box office draw, its take earning 20th Century Fox enough money to save the studio from the financial drain of 1963’s Cleopatra. And to this day, even for all its flaws as a movie, it is still a powerful cinematic monument to all who fought on the beaches on June 6, 1944.