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.