The Longest Day (1962): Movie Review

Guest blogger Nathanel Hood writes:

In hindsight, it’s a little unfair that The Longest Day was destined to be released in 1962, the same year as David Lean’sLawrence of Arabia. As a result, The Longest Day will always be overshadowed by the film that is said to be one of the greatest film epics of all time. And, really, that isn’t fair. The Longest Day is one of the most ambitious and massive films ever produced by Hollywood. The film sported five screenwriters and a whopping six directors. The result: one of the finest war films ever made about World War Two. It seems inevitable that history will remember Steven Spielberg’sSaving Private Ryan as the definitive film about the D-Day Normandy landings. However, while Saving Private Ryan focused on a very small group of soldiers, The Longest Day encompasses the entirety of the forces involved in that terrible battle. The filmmakers brought in military consultants, many of whom actually fought during D-Day, from both the Allied and Axis camps. It is estimated that 23,000 troops were brought in from the American, British, and French armed forces for shoting. Darryl F. Zanuck, the principle director, effectively commanded more “soldiers” than any general did during the invasion. The film poster boasts 42 international stars, including John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Robert Mitchum. It cost $10,000,000 to make, earning it the title of most expensive black-and-white film ever made until 1993 and the release of Schindler’s List.

But enough about the technical aspects. The true triumph of The Longest Day is how it compressed all of the events surrounding D-Day, including occurrences on both sides of the beach, into three hours. We see the Allied soldiers as they wait for the final order to cross the English Channel. We see the German command organize a desperate defense at the sight of the largest amphibious invading force in world history knock on Normandy’s door. We see preliminary paratroopers landing behind enemy lines to sabotage German defenses. We see French Resistance members joining the struggle. We see the death and carnage on the beaches. And yet, at no point is the human element of the story lost. At all times we feel deeply connected to the characters onscreen, even if they are only there for a few minutes.

And really, it is the human element of D-Day that makes that historic event so fascinating. We know of the general specifics of the invasion and defense forces: 175,000 Allied troops and merely 10,000 German. And yet, it is so easy to forget that each of those troops had a story to tell on that horrible day. Thankfully, The Longest Day frames each element of the invasion with characters, many of which were based off real soldiers.

For instance, take the scenes detailing the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. During a night assault code-named “Mission Boston,” 6,420 paratroopers were dropped on both sides of the Merderet River on the French Cotentin Peninsula five hours before the landing crafts hit the beaches. Their job was to capture key locations in order to prevent reinforcements from reaching the German defenses. However, the drops went horrifically, with most of the troops completely missing their drop points. Many of these troops were killed due to bad landings or because they were intercepted by German troops. With a grim solemnity, the film doesn’t shy away from the fates of these doomed soldiers. We watch as they crash into houses, get caught on trees, and in one horrific instance, land square into an open well.

Thankfully, as history tells us, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, led by Benjamin H. Vandervoot, landed accurately and were able to capture and defend the town of Sainte-Mère-Église. Vandervoot is played by John Wayne in a terrifying performance. Wayne gives a face to not just a soldier, but an entire regiment of troops whose success was crucial to the Allies’ victory.

Or consider the vignettes focusing on individual groups of soldiers storming the beaches. The troops aren’t portrayed as faceless drones, but as people faced with an impossible goal. The scenes following British troops on Sword and Gold Beaches. Many of these scenes are dominated by a close group of comrades (one of which is played by a young Sean Connery) that we grow close to. And, yes, even the German soldiers are given respectful portrayals. Zanuck made sure that the Germans were not shown in a stereotypical manner. He even had the German director Bernhard Wicki shoot the scenes with the German army officers. As such, they come off as men who are tired of war and well-aware that the incoming invasion spells their doom. Considering that many of the German officers were played by their real-life counterparts, I suspect that this might not have been too far from the truth.

While during the filming of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg shied away from using actual locations to shoot the beach scenes. However, Zanuck took great pains to shoot on the same beaches that the soldiers landed on. Of course, much maintenance was required before the locales were safe enough to film on. Permanent monuments dedicated to the invasion had to be hidden behind sandbags and disguised as bunkers.

Unexploded mines still littered the beaches. As a result, Zanuck hired 41 U.S. and German sappers to identify areas where the actors would be safe. As a humorous side note, while preparing a section of Normandy Beach near Ponte du Hoc, the crew accidentally discovered a tank that had been buried in the sand during the actual invasion. The tank was repaired by mechanics and used during the film as part of the British tank regiment.

So much work, time, and effort went into the creation of this truly gargantuan film. In an age where entire armies and planets can be created at the click of a mouse, it’s refreshing to see old school filmmaking that operated on a truly massive scale. Such films contain something that no computer can replicate: a sense of authenticity. And really, authenticity should be the key word when creating a film about such a momentous event. The D-Day Normandy landings are easily one of the most important moments of 20th-century history. There were at least 16,000 casualties on both sides of this great battle. In a film that pays tribute to such a great loss of life, computer graphics just don’t cut it…you need the real thing. And The Longest Day provides just that: as close a historical reconstruction as the cinema has ever provided.

Nathanael Hood is a blogger who writes about film at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.

  • Ron

    Nice picture of one of my favorite actors Jeff Hunter.

    I like “The Longest Day” and it had to be one of the hardest logistical movies ever filmed. The scene where the two German pilots strafe the allied landing troops is magifico! But in my opinion the movie is almost completely ruined by one of the worst scores ever contrived on film.

  • Susan Heidarifar

    This movie is one of he best (rarely shown w/out commercials) film. I bought the DVD (and prior – the VHS) of course, but I think it really shows us more of what those troops were facing. People talking just before hitting the beach, not ever knowing each other again – or what will happen. Problems had t/b solved in seconds. This is what did really happen (so I was told by WWII vets a couple decades ago). Too bad it isn’t shown more.

  • Mark Townsend

    “The Longest Day,” or “Der Lengst Tag,” as one would say in German, is a classic war film. Spectacular.
    A drawback to me is the producer apparantly felt this movie would portray war so horrifically it would end war in the world. Now, there’s a narcissistic ego at it’s biggest.
    But “The Longest Day” remains a stupendous, moving film, the closing song is very touching….it will always remain a classic!

  • TinyTim

    Thanks for this worthy appreciation of a magnificent achievement in filmmaking.

  • Tom Leonard

    I would like to see a running credit of all the main characters of how the rest of there lives went as a bonus feature to a future issue.

  • chris

    I think that “The Longest Day” will be considered the movie for expressing the sheer scale of D-Day while “Saving Private Ryan” will be the definitive movie for expressing what all those soldiers had to go through to get through the day.


      You got it right Chris!

  • Stan

    Best war movie ever made. Never to be outdone.

  • max fraley

    The LONGEST DAY is a magnificent cinema achievement. In a regular film group in which I share quality time I posed this trivia question: Name the academy award winning actor who played Teddy Roosevelt in an epic film that was nominated for the best picture Oscar but lost out to another movie that is also considered one of the great epic films of all time. ???

    • Jim Sepeda

      That would be Henry Fonda, who played General Theodore Roosevelt, President Teddy Roosevelt’s nephew.

  • Jim

    With the world class equipment they had back then, it is unfortunate that black and white were selected over color.

    • Mark Townsend

      There’s nothing wrong with B&W film. I am always “taken aback” by people who seem somehow dependent on color film.
      Black and White has its own qualities, its own depth and “feel.”
      It’s too bad more people do not appreciate it.
      But *SIGH!* “to each his own” I guess, as they say…..

      • Jim

        I realize that B & W was chosen to embellish the grit of war, but the soldiers who invaded Normandy did not live in a B & W world; the color of blood was red, not black.

        • Mark Townsend

          And since we know blood is red …. why do we need color?
          Jim, I’ve nothing against color. I just tbink B&W is fine. The film we’re discussing was made at a point in time when Hollywood was transitioning from mainly B&W film to mainly color production. Of course there was color before –The Wizard of Oz was primarily color, and French film makers would hand paint each frame of film back in the early days.
          It has its place for sure.
          But B&W is just fine.

          • Jim

            Actually, beginning with the introduction of CinemaScope in 1953, “A” list films thereafter were shot in color.
            Another poster remarked that he saw The Longest Day in color. Is it possible that it was shot in both formats?

          • Mark Townsend

            By “Hollywood transitioning to color” I meant not just motion picture film but all film, “A”, B pictures, and even TV production, which began basically, in the mid 1960s when color TV sets became more common.
            I had not heard that “The Longest Day” had been shot in both color & B&W. It is possible to shoot color and produce B&W prints for release, but correction is required for contrast is required. That would be the least expensive method and what would likely have happened, if the movie had been shot that way.
            But I have no idea if it was originally shot in color or not, I can only say I tend to believe it was B&W because that is generally something decided on before filming begins.

  • Lisa C

    Magnificent film. The human element is definitely the star. Two of my favorite scenes are the French man crying when the Allies start shelling the beach, even though his home is in the line of fire; and the line of nuns walking through a gun fight to get to a building to help wounded men.

  • frank pienkosky

    ….the book was better…

    • Mark Townsend

      Books are ALWAYS better then the films made from them.

      Except of “The Posiedon Adventure.” ~~~ and we’re not discussing that one.

    • Baz

      That’s like saying after eating a lamb cutlet-“The sheep was better”. The comparison of two completely different artistic forms is invalid.

      • Mark Townsend

        No, not really, unless you consider the book to be raw mutton.
        Very good movies can be made from books. But IMHO books are usually better because they are normally more extensive and more is left to the imagination.
        While the critiques of the results of the “based on the book-movie may be subjective, they are valid.

        • Baz

          I meant to comment to Frank actually. Comparing books with films is not comparing apples with apples, for the very reasons that you point out, so the exercise is pointless.

  • gerard

    A great war film of that there is no doubt and true in most part to the book by Cornelius Ryan who also wrote A Bridge Too Far also a fine war film. I believe the film was also shot in colour as well as black and white and the colour version that I have appears to be in “natural colour ” and not computer generated.As fine a film as Saving Private Ryan is I would always choose The Longest Day if I wanted to see a film that told the story of D Day.

  • AJ North

    IMHO, this is hands-down THE finest motion picture about WW II ever made.

    Zanuck bought the rights for this film from the author of the book by the same name, Cornelius Ryan (who co-wrote the screenplay), producing it and virtually single-handedly saving Twentieth Century Fox from bankruptcy in the process (he is also an uncredited director).

    Maurice Jarre (who also scored “Lawrence of Arabia” that year) composed & conducted the soundtrack (though the title song was written by Paul Anka, who also has an acting role, and recorded by Mitch Miller). Jarre cleverly utilizes the four-note “fate motif” from the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, which, of course, in Morse Code is the letter “V” (for “victory”) that was so often heard during the war.

    The B&W cinematography is spot-on; color would definitely have detracted from the cinematic experience (as it would for so many other classic pictures shot in B&W). As the author observes, this film was made the old-fashioned way, with hands-on craftsmanship; no CGI here.

    Of course, between and Wikipedia (amongst other sources readily available on-line), the extraordinary number of top-tier actors and the extensive list of military advisers who contributed, along with more of the back story, can be found.

  • Vann Morrison

    I have read and reread Cornelius Ryans books many times. The Longest Day is one of the greatest war movies ever filmed in my opinion. Ryan’s second book, A Bridge Too Far about Operation Market Garden was made into a so so movie with a great cast with the exception of Ryan O’Neil. I can only hope that some day, some one will make his third book, The Last Battle, about the last days of WWII and the fall of Berlin into a movie on the same scale as The longest Day.

  • Rufnek

    The Longest Day was adapted by a very good book by an aurthor who tracked down and intereviewed the people, military and civilian, who really were there that day. It was well filmed from a solid screenplay with recognizeable actors.

    Saving Pvt. Ryan, on the other hand, was based on a confused and pretty silly storyline and is a warped 3rd or 4th generation view of what Hollywood thinks WWII looked like. For all its claims of authenticy, it got it wrong on many levels.

  • S. R. Orsulak

    There have been many really outstanding War Films made down through the years, but this film in my opinion is the best of the best. The human drama alone from both sides was a real plus. My favorite scene is when the German officer is at the bunker and he is scanning the horizon and sees nothing and before he leaves with his dog he says he’ll take one more look and he sees the ships. Calls his commander and tells them there are 5,000 ships out there and his commander says allies don’t have that many ships. Well the shelling starts and the officer tells his boss about those ships and let’s him listen to the shelling taken place on beach and bunker area. This is a great scene, one of many. B&W Films are fine by me.

  • Alexander M. Foundoukis

    The argument about black & white or colour is inane. Whether a film is B&W or colour, sound or silent, widescreen or standard is wholey irrelevant. The important thing is that the story is good, the acting is good, the photography is good, etc. Agood film is good no matter what!

    • Mark Townsend

      Yeah ….pretty much gotta agree with you in the end, Mr. Foundoukis.

  • Eric Sinkkonen

    On a plaque near the military cemetery at Omaha Beach there is a poem titled “The Longest Night”. Very touching. Lest we forget, which I hope we never do. And, yes, “The Longest Day” is a great film.

  • Wilson

    I see no need to denigrate Private Ryan. Even the Longest Day is not completely accurate. In order to give the film a climax (no jokes please), the Longest Day implies that the whole invasion will be called off if Robert Mitchum can’t get his men off Omaha Beach. I love the long tracking shot showing the street battle.

  • Magman

    “The Longest Day” is the second film in my personal WW II Trilogy. The first being “Yanks” with Richard Gere, Vanessa Redgrave, and William Devane which describes the attitudes and lives of the thousands of GI’s based all over England awaiting the invasion. The second film, “The Longest Day” is about the invasion itself. And the third being “Is Paris Burning?” about the liberation of Paris. Of course you can throw in “Patton” somewhere. There was one casualty in the filming of “The Longest Day”. Annette Funicello, who was dating Paul Anka at the time, insisted he not go to Europe for the film. But Paul was so excited at the offer to write the Longest Day march and have a bit part in the movie went anyway. She dumped him for leaving her. Annette was the casualty in my opinion.

    • Jim Sepeda

      My personnal WWII trilogy is Longest Day, Patton, and Battleground. The latter is another B&W film but unlike the other two is not an epic. It follows a platoon of the 101st airborne through the Battle of the Bulge – very gritty.

  • Tito Pannaggi

    War pictures are the only genre that is worse than skinflicks!

  • Ben Lineberry

    I taught a warfare class, for nineteen years, at Spartanburg High School. The class covered warfare from the American Revolution, War of 1812, Alamo, Civil War, Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, and Iraqi/Afghanistan Wars.
    Besides my lectures, I used snippets from certain warfare films, and THE LONGEST DAY was one of them. I would show segments of the British gliders landing at the Orne River Bridge, American paratroopers falling into St. Mere Eglise, hitting the beaches, as well as the French troops hitting the Casino.
    One other thing about the warfare class,they did table-top wargames, as well as computer simulations. This was one class, the students got the AUTHENTIC history and not any of that so called, politcally correct junk.
    Also,there was a good number of guest speakers, such as: Gen. Francis Gabreskie (WWII ace in the European theater), Gen. Joe Foss (Marine ace on Guadalcanal), and Gen. Robert Morgan (pilot of the B-17, Memphis Belle. There were several other guests for WWII, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraqi Freedom. Oh yes, one guest speaker was Lt. Barry Hull (Lt. Commander today,who flew an F-18 downtown Baghdad in 1991. His wingman was Lt. Speicker.
    The students enjoyed the class, but when I retired in ’08, I took all my warfilms and war toys with me.
    God Bless the U.S. Armed Forces! God Bless the U.S.A. Oh yes, during the Vietnam War,I served in the Navy, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.

  • jerry clifford

    there where no NCDUS in the pic operation neptune cleared beach of mines etc i landed omha beach dog white with boat #3 lcm ansd team #27 of NCDU but i did like the pic very much

  • frankd

    Most young people do not appreciate what was done in WW2. They are living in a society that does not understand the meaning of real sacrifice. Perhaps films such as “The Longest Day” should be required viewing in high school. Freedom is not free. There is a tremendous price.

  • Baz

    I have just ordered a colour (or colourised) uncut dvd from England of The Longest Day. Looking fwd. to comparing it with B&W cinema release version.

  • Larry Jacox

    “Longest Day’ is definitely one of the best, if not the best depiction of the event. My only problem with the film was John Wayne stepping in and chewing up scenery and winning the war. I think “TLD” along with “Saving Pvt Ryan” define the scope and horror of the event. Although not a theater release, I’d add “Band of Brothers” to list of great movies about D-Day.

  • Keith

    One of the freast I have seen,And even ‘Omah” landing was terrific,It will be a long time before anything else comes’ along

  • Edgard Lassalle

    One of the greatest war movies ever made!!

  • evrrdy1

    Little known factoid about this epic WWI film; British ctor Richard Todd (one of the officers whose team’s orders are to ‘take and hold’ one of the strategic bridges during the pre-invasion early morning hours, was, in fact, a participant in the actual D-Day invasion before becoming an actor. It remains one of my favorite war films.