Hollywood doesn’t always get history right, in fact it often gets it wrong. But when it does get it right it can often outshine the rest of the world’s film industry, as was the case with producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s masterpiece, The Longest Day.
The film was released in 1962, only 18 years after the actual Allied landings on France’s Normandy beaches on June 6th, 1944; consequently the realities of that day were still clear in the minds of veterans, most of whom, in 1962, were only in their late 30s and early 40s. The film had to try and get it right for their sakes if no one else’s. And the film does get it right (with one exception), due in no small way to the chief screenwriter, military historian Cornelius Ryan, allowed to adapt his own book pretty much unhindered, although his finished script was beefed-up here and there by experienced script writers, Roman Gary, Jack Seddon, and ex-GI novelist, James Jones.
Zanuck then employed three world-renowned directors to tackle the various national areas of concern, as well as directing some smaller scenes himself.
Veteran British director Ken Annakin (who died in 2009) concentrated on the British and French sequences, with his re-telling of the British Airborne landings in the early hours of June 6th, and the French commando attack on the casino at Ouistreham (two of the best scenes in the film) are quite stunning, due in no small part to the performance of Richard Todd (as Major John Howard), who had actually taken part in those glider landings, and the long continuous shots at the start of the Ouistreham section.
The American sequences were shot by Andrew Marton (who had been the 2nd unit director on Ben Hur), who, with hand-held cameras, was able to create a strong documentary feel to the Omaha Beach scenes, at the same time coaxing a truly stunning performance out of Robert Mitchum, as the legendary Brig. General Norman Cota, who, after super-human efforts, manages to get his US troops off the beach. His cigar stars alongside him.
Austrian director Bernhard Wicki looked after the German sequences, and again, like Marton, created a strong documentary feel in places, but also, by having the German characters speak in their own language, also created a very strong verisimilitude that made those scenes extraordinarily compelling, helped hugely by Curt Jurgens’ powerful performance of General der Infanterie, Gunther Blumentritt, who, as Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s second-in-command, creates a genuine sense of exasperation and despair when von Rundstedt (played with a seething honesty by veteran German actor, Paul Hartman) will not even consider talking personally to “…that corporal” (the Fuhrer), and demand he release the Panzer Division based in Calais. It is a turning point in the film: a point where — with Rommel (played by Werner Hinz) away celebrating his wife’s birthday — we know the German’s will lose the day.
The only weak point in the film is the ‘comedy’ duo of privates Flanagan and Clough — played by Sean Connery and Norman Rossington — whose performances, although well played, show the average British soldier as something of a fool. Better left on the cutting-room floor.
On the other hand, Patrick Burr’s portrayal of RAF meteorologist, Group Captain Stagg, is a mighty performance, and when coupled with Henry Grace’s Eisenhower, is a joy to watch. Amazingly Grace and Burr were never even credited in the finished film.
Another short episode, played with a serious wit, is when John Gregson (an army padre), is seen, with the help of an astonished Harry Fowler (playing a private soldier), looking for the padre’s communion set he’s dropped crossing a fast- flowing river. With the sound of bombing and gunfire in the near distance, the two men submerge themselves in the murky waters in search of the bread and wine. When found, by the padre, with a wonderful “Praise be…” by Fowler, we know the invasion is in good hands.
The film also had one of the longest celebrity cast lists ever assembled, including John Wayne, Kenneth More, Richard Burton, Robert Wagner and Henry Fonda — plus many, many more — which gave the production the potential of a huge international audience.
I have to say the more I watch the film, the more I enjoy John Wayne’s commendable performance; with the performance of Richard Burton’s RAF officer who, when drinking warm beer in the officers’ mess, is asked by his fellow officer, Donald Houston, if he’s seen a particular flyer, only to be told by Burton that he was shot down in the early hours of D-Day. Houston’s response is to mourn the loss of a pair of flying boots he’d loaned the downed pilot, and to remind Burton that the was also one of ‘Few’. Burton replies in a very deep, and laconic way (as we hear a Spitfire flying overhead), that what worries him is that the ‘Few’ are, day by day, getting ever fewer.
There have been many other films and TV series about D-Day, most notably Band of Brothers, but if you want to find out the sequence of events on that momentous day of June 6th, 1944, then watch The Longest Day.