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Film Friday: «The Longest Day» (1962)

On September 2, 1945, Japan signed a formal surrender that effectively brought an end to World War II. In honour of the 71st anniversary of «V-J Day,» as the occasion became known, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you a picture that documents the events that marked the beginning of the end of six long years of devastating conflict. 

Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki, The Longest Day (1962) opens in June 1944 in England, where the Allied troops are preparing to invade France through the coast of Normandy. Despite threats of poor weather that might ruin their changes, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (Henry Grace) decides that the assault will take place in the early hours of June 6. On the other side of the Channel, the German High Command — expecting the invasion to happen at Pas-de-Calais, and assuming it will not happen anyway due to the current bad weather — is caught completely unaware. Because Adolf Hitler has taken a sleeping pill and left orders that he is not to be disturbed, General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt (Curt Jürgens) cannot approve the release of Panzer divisions to the coast.
John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Henry Fonda, Peter Lawford, Richard Todd and Ray Danton.

The invasion of Normandy begins with British and American airborne paratroopers arriving in northwestern France just after midnight. Major John Howard (Richard Todd) of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry leads his men to secure the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne. Despite a broken ankle, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort (John Wayne) of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment commands his battalion to capture the crossroads at the seaside town of Sainte-Mère-Église.
At dawn, the amphibious attack is initiated as the combined Allied forces storm the major Normandy beachheads. Brigadier General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) takes the 29th Infantry Division into Omaha Beach; the 2nd Ranger Battalion scale down the hills on nearby Pointe du Hoc; Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Henry Fonda) leads the 4th Infantry Division into Utah Beach; Brigadier Lord Lovat (Peter Lawford) commands the 1st Special Service Brigade into Sword Beach; and Capitaine de Corvette Philippe Kiefer (Christian Marquand) leads the French Free Forces to capture the seaside town of Ouistreham. While everyone succeeds in their mission, the troops at Omaha Beach are unable to advance due to a cement wall. Finally, Brig. Gen. Cota rallies his men and urges Sergeant John H. Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter) to place a dynamite charge to blast a clear path from the beach. With the coming of nightfall, the Allies are ready to advance inland by crossing France to eventually reach Germany.

Brig. Gen. Norman Cota: I don't have to tell you the story. You all know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the Fighting 29th!

Born in Dublin in 1920, Cornelius Ryan moved to London in the early 1940s to work as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. After covering the air war over Germany, he was sent to Normandy on June 6, 1944 to report on «Operation Overlord,» the Allied campaign that launched the successful invasion and subsequent liberation of Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Ryan subsequently joined General George S. Patton's Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge, before being transferred to the Pacific Theatre following the end of the European war in May 1945.
On a trip to Normandy four years later, Ryan developed an interest in telling a more complete account of «Operation Overlord» than what had been produced to that date. For ten years he researched the invasion thoroughly, compiling information from various war diaries and official reports, as well as conducting more than a thousand interviews with a cross-section of participants, which included American, British, French and German officers and civilians. Among the officers that Ryan consulted were General Maxwell D. Taylor, who led the U.S. 101st Airborne Division's parachute jump into Normandy, Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, the leader of the glider assault conducted by the U.S. 82nd Airbone Division, and General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt, the commander of German forces in the west during the invasion.

LEFT: Men of the 16th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 1st Infantry Division landing on Omaha Beach. RIGHT: American troops coming ashore on Utah Beach.

In 1956, after co-authoring Star-Spangled Mikado (1947) and MacArthur: Man of Action (1950) with Frank Kelley, Ryan finally organized his World War II notes into a non-fiction novel entitled The Longest Day: 6 June 1944 D-Day. The name of the book came from a comment made by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who commanded the German forces opposing the Allies in the invasion of Normandy, to his aide, Hauptmann Hellmuth Lang, on April 22, 1944: «[...] the first hours of the invasion will be decisive [...] the fate of Germany depends on the outcome [...] for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day
Published by Simon & Schuster in 1959, The Longest Day focused on the first day of the invasion, which became known as «D-Day,» and told its story via brief vignettes. Among other things, it included details of «Operation Deadstick,» a coup de main operation by gliderborne troops of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry to capture the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne, a few hours before the main amphibious assault took place on the five Normandy beachheads (Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno and Gold). An instant success, The Longest Day sold tens of millions of copies in 18 different languages. To Ryan, the book had become a story «not about war, but the courage of men

LEFT: Pegasus Bridge across the Caen Canal with Horsa gliders in the background (June 9, 1944). RIGHT: Horsa Bridge over the River Orne (June 8, 1944).

In March 1960, French producer Raoul Lévy purchased the rights to The Longest Day and hired English director Michael Anderson to helm the screen adaptation, which would be written by Ryan himself and distributed by the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). Lévy, who had served with the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the war, planned to start production in March 1961, filming at Elstree Studios as well as on location at the English and French coasts. However, the project was shelved when the ABPC could not get the $6 million budget that Lévy expected.
Meanwhile, Darryl F. Zanuck had left his position as head of production at 20th Century Fox and moved to Europe to concentrate on independent producing under a generous contract that gave him full directing and casting control on any project the studio financed. While in England making The Big Gamble (1961) with Stephen Boyd and Juliette Gréco, Zanuck came across Ryan's novel and «went absolutely nuts about it.» In December 1960, he acquired the property from Lévy for $175,000 and secured a deal with Fox to finance and distribute the film.

Darryl F. Zanuck with Robert Mitchum during the making of The Longest Day.

Zanuck was so passionate about The Longest Day that he and editor Elmo Williams wrote a treatment even before the deal for the screen rights was closed. The producer, who had covered the Tunisia Campaign for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, said that he was «not interested in making a film that is only historically accurate. It just so happens that this one happens to be accurate. I am interested in following the brave, funny, bewildering, human and tragic events of the day.» He also wanted to show the events on the enemy side and avoid «a rosy, star-spangled banner of D-Day,» because that would lead to failure. According to Zanuck, the only way to make the picture a box-office success would be to «tell audiences what they do not know about what happened that day
To achieve this, he hired Ryan in January 1961 to write the screenplay, a decision that proved a double-edged move. Zanuck and Ryan clashed from the beginning, forcing Williams to act as a mediator between the two. While Ryan developed the script, Zanuck brought in other writers for clean-ups, including Romain Gary and James Jones, who saw The Longest Day as «the most true-to-life was film produced in Hollywood.» As their contributions to the finished script were relatively minor, Ryan received full screenwriting credits after an appeal to the Writers Guild — although the four other writers were credited for «additional scenes

LEFT: Henry Fonda as Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. leading the 4th Infantry Division into Utah Beach. RIGHT: Peter Lawford as Brigadier Lord Lovat commanding the 1st Special Service Brigade into Sword Beach.

The production of The Longest Day depended on cooperation from four governments and four militaries to accurately represent the Normandy landings on screen. Luckily, Zanuck was in a strong position as a World War II veteran who was on a first-name basis with many high-ranking American, British and French officers. As his first step, he contacted Air Force general Lauris Norstad, who at the time was serving as the United States commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Zanuck started the conversation by describing his plans to make the film and then asked Norstad whether he should apply to NATO for assistance or go directly to each of the four governments. Norstad advised him to deal directly with each government, because going through NATO would only «complicate things

Darryl F. Zanuck during the making of The Longest Day.

Acting on Norstad's suggestion, Zanuck quickly reached agreements with the British, German and French military authorities. From the British, he received promises of a fleet of World War II-vintage ships and 150 men from the East Anglia and Greenjackets Brigades. The Germans promised military equipment and technical advice, but no troops. The French military agreed to loan Zanuck 2,000 troops despite its current war in Algeria. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), which had a mutually beneficial relationship with 20th Century Fox, also granted Zanuck substantial cooperation, including the use of consultants, equipment and soldiers, and permission to film a Navy exercise off the island of Corsica.
Pre-production on The Longest Day ran into an unexpected obstacle when the Soviet Union and East Germany limited access to Berlin in late 1961. The same American soldiers needed for the film were now responding to a geopolitical crisis in Western Europe. The DOD announced that their cooperation would continue, but the number of troops assigned to the project would be reduced from 700 to 250. At that point, the French Defense Ministry provided an additional 1,000 commandos for almost five weeks and permitted them to wear American uniforms.
Two scenes from The Longest Day depicting the Normandy landings.

Keeping with his efforts to recreate D-Day as accurately as possible, Zanuck employed several Axis and Allied military consultants who had been actual participants in the invasion of Normandy. Besides the aforementioned General Günther Blumentritt and Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, the technical advisors on The Longest Day included Major John Howard, the British Army officer who was in charge of the airborne assault on the bridge over the Caen Canal; Brigadier Lord Lovat, the British Commando who led the 1st Special Service Brigade into Sword Beach; Capitaine de Corvette Philippe Kieffer, an officer in the Free French Forces who led the attack on Ouistreham near Sword Beach; Generalleutnant Max Pemsel, the chief of the staff of the 7th Army, who coordinated the first German response to «Operation Overlord»; and Major Werner Pluskat, credited with being the first German officer who saw the Allied invasion fleet on D-Day. All of these figures had their roles re-enacted in the film.

Peter Lawford, Brigadier Lord Lovat, Richard Todd and Major John Howard.

Zanuck realized early on that with a total of eight battle sequences, shooting would be accomplished more expediently if multiple directors and units worked simultaneously. As such, he engaged Ken Annakin to helm the British and French segments, while Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki were put in charge of the American and German scenes, respectively.
After being injured in the Liverpool blitz, Annakin had joined the RAF Film Unit, where he worked as a camera operator on propaganda film for the Ministry of Information and the British Council. He made his feature film directorial debut with the popular comedy Holiday Camp (1947) and achieved further success when he was hired to directed a series of Walt Disney adventures, including The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1953) and The Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Born in Hungary, Marton worked as an editor and assistant director in the Austrian and German film industries, before moving to Hollywood following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. During the 1940s and 1950s, he was employed by MGM, where, as a second unit director, he helmed the iconic chariot race in the hugely successful Ben-Hur (1959). As for the Austrian Wicki, he had become internationally famous with his anti-war picture Die Brücke (1959), which had received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Filming The Longest Day on location at Sainte-Mère-Église and Corsica.

The Longest Day features what is arguably the largest ensemble cast in cinema history. Charlton Heston actively campaigned for the role of Lieutenant General Benjamin H. Vandervoort, the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, but the part was ultimately given to John Wayne. At 55, he was 28 years older than Vandervoort at the time of action. While his castmates accepted a $25,000 salary, Wayne insisted on being paid $250,000, reportedly to punish Zanuck for referring to him as «poor John Wayne» regarding the actor's problems with his lavish historical epic The Alamo (1960).

Robert Mitchum, widely known for his work in film noir, played Brigadier General Norman Cota, the Assistant Division Commander of the U. S. 29th Infantry Division, which was designated to land at Omaha Beach during the Battle of Normandy. Henry Fonda, an actual veteran of World War II, was cast as Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the Assistant Division Commander of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. Despite a heart condition and arthritis that forced him to use a cane, Roosevelt led the first wave of troops to land at Utah Beach. Fonda later played a military intelligence officer in Annakin's Battle of the Bulge (1965), a popular, though innacurate, epic about the Ardennes Counteroffensive between December 1944 and January 1945.

John Wayne as Lieutenant General Benjamin H. Vandervoort, Robert Mitchum as Brigadier General Norman Cota and Henry Fonda as Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr..

The remaining cast of American actors included World War II veteran Eddie Albert as Colonel Thompson of the 29th Infantry Division; Jeffrey Hunter as Sergeant John H. Fuller, a combat engineer in the same division; teen idols Paul Anka, Fabian and Robert Wagner as privates in the 2nd Ranger Battalion, whose mission it was to scale the hills on Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach; Edmond O'Brien as Major General Raymond O. Barton, who commanded the 4th Infantry Division into Utah Beach along with General Roosevelt; Robert Ryan as Brigadier General James M. Gavin, the Assistant Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, which was assigned to capture the town of Sainte-Mère-Église, a crucial communication crossroads behind Utah Beach; Sal Mineo as Private Martini and Richard Beymer as Private Arthur «Dutch» Schultz, two paratroopers in the 82nd Division. Red Buttons, who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, played Private John M. Steele, the American paratrooper who landed on the pinnacle of the church tower at Sainte-Mère-Église when the 82nd was dropped into the area. Set decorator Henry Grace is seen briefly as General Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he strongly resembled, while Mel Ferrer makes a cameo appearance as Major General Robert Haines of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. 
LEFT: Jeffrey Hunter as Sgt. John H. Fuller and Eddie Albert as Col. Thompson. RIGHT: Sal Mineo as Pvt. Martini and Richard Beymer as Pvt. Arthur «Dutch» Schultz.

Heading the British cast of The Longest Day was Academy Award-nominee Richard Todd, who played Major John Howard. Commissioned as a captain in the 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion during the war, Todd had actually taken part on the real assault on Pegasus Bridge under the command of Major Howard, whose helmet he wore in the film. He was initially offered the chance to play himself, but ultimately chose to portray his commanding officer instead.

The remaining cast of British actors included Peter Lawford as Brigadier Lord Lovat; Leslie de Laspee as Piper Bill Millin, who played «Highland Laddie» and «The Road to the Isles» as the 1st Special Service Brigade stormed into Sword Beach; World War II veteran Kenneth Moore as Acting Captain Colin Maud, the Royal Navy beach master at Juno Beach; Richard Burton as Flying Officer David Campbell, a fighter pilot in the RAF; and Sean Connery, who was about to become world famous in the role of James Bond, as Private Flanagan of the 3rd Infantry Division.

LEFT: Richard Todd as Major John Howard. MIDDLE: Peter Lawford as Brigadier Lord Lovat. RIGHT: Richard Burton as Flight Officer David Campbell.

The group of German actors included Werner Hinz as Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, who was at home celebrating his wife's birthday on June 6, 1944; Paul Hartmann as Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander of the German Army in the West; Hans Christian Blech as Major Werner Pluskat, a battalion commander in the 352nd Artillery Regiment, 352nd Infantry Division; Wolfgang Preiss as Generalleutnant Max Pemsel, Chief of Staff of the 7th Army; Richard Münch as General der Artillerie Erich Marcks, commander of the LXXXIV Corps, who died a week after D-Day during an Allied fighter-bomber attack in Normandy; Heinz Reincke as Oberstleutnant Josef Priller, who flew one of the few Luftwaffe missions against the Allied forces on D-Day; Gert Förbe as Unteroffizier «Kaffeekanne,» the German word for «coffee pot,» which he always carries; and Curt Jürgens as General de Infanterie Günther Blumentritt, the Chief of Staff to Rundestedt. Förbe and Jürgens would go on to play Bond villains in Goldfinger (1964) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), respectively.

LEFT: Paul Hartmann as Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt and Curt Jürgens as General de Infanterie Blumentritt. RIGHT: Wolfgang Preiss as Generalleutnant Pemsel.

Finally, the French cast included Christian Marquand as Capitaine de Corvette Philippe Kieffer, the commanding officer of the 1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos, which was integrated into Lord Lovat's 1st Special Service Brigade in 1944; Georges Rivière as Second-Maître Guy de Montlaur, who served under Captain Kieffer; and Jean Servais as Contre-amiral Robert Jaujard, Commander of the 4th Cruiser Division in the Free French Naval Forces.

The few women who appeared in The Longest Day were also French. These included Arletty as Madame Barrault, a resident of Sainte-Mère-Église; Madeleine Renaud as the mother superior in the Ouistreham convent; and Irina Demick as French Resistant fighter Janine Boitard, a role which was apparently rejected by both Brigitte Bardot and Marina Vlady. Demick, who later played multiple characters in Annakin's Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines (1965), became Zanuck's mistress during the making of The Longest Day.

LEFT: Christian Marquand as Capitaine de Corvette Philippe Kieffer. RIGHT: Irina Demick as Janina Boitard, a French resistance fighter.

Filming on The Longest Day began in June 1961 at Saleccia Beach on the island of Corsica, whose shoreline was made up to look like Omaha Beach as it had appeared on D-Day. In mid-August, the company moved to Normandy, where Zanuck took over the town of Sainte-Mère-Église to recreate the disastrous American parachute drop on D-Day. At the same time, filming started on the Normandy beaches. The filmmakers could not shoot at Omaha Beach at all because its D-Day monument was too large to be camouflaged and it still contained an abundance of buried live ammunition. As a result, Zanuck decided to film the Omaha landing at the Île de Ré, an island off the west coast of France, in late October and early November. However, he did shoot the American struggle to scale down Pointe du Hoc a short distance down the shore from Omaha Beach at the original site.
The British assault on the bridge over the Caen Canal, which became known as Pegasus Bridge as a tribute to the men who captured it (the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces is the flying horse Pegasus) was also filmed at its actual location near Bénouville, Calvados. The village of Port-en-Bessin was used to represent nearby Ouistreham, a small port town captured by the Free French Forces and the 1st Special Service Brigade. 
LEFT: Filming the landing scenes. RIGHT: Filming the assault on Pegasus Bridge.

The Longest Day opened in France on September 25, 1962, with a huge military parade and fireworks on the Champs Élysées. Then there was a similarly festive parade in New York on October 4, with Broadway closed off and a gala premiere at the Warner Theatre. The film quickly became a hit, earning $17.5 million in domestic rentals on an investment close to $10 million, the most expensive black-and-white film ever made until Schindler's List (1993) was released.

Critical reviews were equally favorable. Variety called the film «a solid and stunning war epic,» praising the battle scenes as «some of the best ever put on the screen.» Bosley Crowther of The New York Times commented: «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.» At the 35th Academy Awards in April 1963, The Longest Day won Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Visual Effects, with additional nominations for Best Picture, Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction (Black and White).

Original theatrical release posters for The Longest Day.

In Guts and Glory, author Laurence H. Suid wrote:
«The Longest Day became th[e] quintessential war film because of the authenticity of the battle scenes and because Zanuck followed the lead of Cornelius Ryan and focused on men on both sides, before, during and after battle. Although none of the character became fully developed, most of the actors transcended their roles and created believable people who experienced human fears, pride, courage, and misery. In the end the film, like the book, leaves a lasting impression of the human element of war, in which men on both sides do their best to carry out orders and try to survive their own longest day

Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image on Screen by Lawrence H. Suid (The University Press of Kentucky, 2002)
Fifty Great War Films by Tim Newark (Osprey Publishing, 2016)
Twentieth Century-Fox: The Zanuck-Skouras Years, 1935-1965 by Peter Lev (University of Texas Press, 2013)


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