‘An excessive amount of slaughter’: what The Longest Day got right – and wrong – about Normandy

Steve Forrest, John Wayne, Stuart Whitman - Alamy
Steve Forrest, John Wayne, Stuart Whitman - Alamy

For producer Darryl F. Zanuck, The Longest Day was a matter of victory or defeat. “Either I will go broke, or make the greatest picture ever,” he said.

Based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day tells the story of D-Day – with, at times, impressive accuracy – from the perspective of soldiers from four nations: American, British, French, and German.

The production was a war-like effort in itself: an all-star cast of actors from all four nations; multiple directors and units shooting different battles across real D-Day locations; and an armada’s worth of military hardware. “I believe I have a tougher job than [Eisenhower] had on D-Day,” wrote Zanuck about the planning and execution of his three-hour masterpiece. “At least he had the equipment. I have to find it, rebuild it, and transport it to Normandy.”

Released on September 26, 1962, The Longest Day would prove to be a victory. It helped turn around the fortunes of 20th Century Fox and scored two Oscar wins. For Zanuck, however, The Longest Day was a personal victory – very much his own vision and triumph – one of several points that turned his contentious relationship with Cornelius Ryan into their own personal war. By the end of it, Zanuck was made the head of 20th Century Fox.

There were other battles for Zanuck on the road to victory: the money men at Fox and even the US Department of Defense. Perhaps, in the years since, a battle with its own sense of D-Day myth-making. As historian Peter Caddick-Adams wrote in Sand and Steel – a definitive D-Day history which busts D-Day myths popularised by The Longest Day and later Saving Private Ryan – the interpretations of Cornelius Ryan and Steven Spielberg “still dominate the D-Day story”.

The Longest Day was the result of 10 years’ research and writing. Cornelius Ryan had been a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and watched D-Day happen from a B-26 bomber. In the following years, he put out ads for stories from veterans who had been there. He claimed to have conducted 700 interviews for an exhaustive first-hand account of June 6, 1944. Ryan worked full-time on the book for three years; he estimated that he was $60,000 in debt by the time it was finished. Published in 1959, The Longest Day sold 30 million copies.

At the time, both 20th Century Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck were in freefall: the studio lost more than $60 million between 1961 and 1962 – with hopes now pinned on the spiralling-out-of-control epic Cleopatra – while Zanuck, a multiple Oscar-winning producer, was down-and-out.

“He had been in a tailspin since the mid-1950s, professionally and personally,” says Peter Lev, author of 20th Century Fox: The Zanuck and Skouras Years. “He was exiled from Hollywood and his wife kicked him out, or he left, because he was having an affair. He was drinking heavily, living in France, and dating women 30 years younger. He was this pathetic figure.”

Now working as an independent producer, Zanuck purchased the rights for The Longest Day after initial plans by French producer Raoul Levy collapsed.

Darryl F Zanuck, left, left with Peter Lawford, Irina Demick and Richard Todd on location in France, 1961. Commando leader Simon Fraser, played by Peter Lawford, stands third from right - Getty
Darryl F Zanuck, left, left with Peter Lawford, Irina Demick and Richard Todd on location in France, 1961. Commando leader Simon Fraser, played by Peter Lawford, stands third from right - Getty

20th Century Fox took a gamble. At a cost of almost $9 million – an incredible budget for the time – The Longest Day was the only film that Zanuck’s son, the also-very-successful producer Richard D. Zanuck, ever warned him against. “I asked him, ‘Who cares about World War 2?’” recalled Zanuck Jr in Mel Gussow’s biography. “Most of the theatre-going public wasn’t even born at that time.”

Zanuck Sr. certainly cared – he was a WW2 veteran himself – and knew that The Longest Day was a different kind of war picture. It was, Zanuck said, “the story of the little people, of the underground, of the civilians who were there, of the unknown men who made the first assault, of the general confusion… my picture will hate the institution of war, but be fair about it.”

He also knew that a war film of this scope needed cooperation from all four countries. Zanuck had personal friends among military higher-ups.

“Zanuck knew everybody,” says Peter Lev. “When he wanted cooperation from the Department of Defense, he didn’t just call the office at the Pentagon, he called the commander of NATO.”

The US Department of Defense pledged 700 Special Forces troops. France provided over 2,000 men and lots of equipment. West Germany gave technical assistance. “I negotiated for nearly eight months,” Zanuck told Life magazine. “I needed a great deal of material for a period of almost a year. In return, I agreed that each of the participating governments could review the finished film and censor anything that might appear to be offensive.”

Richard Burton and Richard Beymer in The Longest Day - Alamy
Richard Burton and Richard Beymer in The Longest Day - Alamy

Dealing with the British was harder. “I found a slightly hostile feeling,” said Zanuck. “Based on the fact that they thought this was another one of those American movies which showed how the Americans won the war. They wanted to be sure I wasn’t interested in making it a one-man show. I told them what I was planning and that, realistically, I had to have their cooperation.”

Zanuck got most support from Lord Mountbatten, with whom he’d served. Mountbatten assisted with a pledge of 66 World War II era ships (which couldn’t be used because neither Fox nor Blighty wanted to front the fuel costs) and 150 men. Mountbatten was also an advisor, along with Lord Lovat and Major John Howard. It’s a curious detail about The Longest Day and its proximity to the events: real-life D-Day heroes advised the actors playing them. Lord Lovat, who landed at Sword Beach, coached Peter Lawford in how to play him. Captain Colin Maud, who landed on Juno beach, advised on-screen counterpart Kenneth More and lent him his real shillelagh.

Zanuck wanted a big-name cast. John Wayne played Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort, a paratrooper who dropped into the town of Sainte-Mère-Église in the early hours of June 6, 1944. Wayne was 28 years older than Vandervoort was at the time of D-Day. But as Zanuck said: “Since Wayne has taken care of the Alamo and has never lost any historical battle that he has ever appeared in, there is no reason why he should not take care of Omaha Beach.”

Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell shuttled back and forth between Cleopatra and The Longest Day. McDowell asked for a role to stave off the tedium of the Cleopatra production; Burton took a specially written role of an RAF pilot. It was one of only entirely fictional lead roles in the film – though Burton had served with the RAF for real.

Darryl F. Zanuck with Robert Wagner and Tommy Sands on the set of The Longest Day - Getty
Darryl F. Zanuck with Robert Wagner and Tommy Sands on the set of The Longest Day - Getty

Other veterans included Robert Mitchum (who was drafted during WW2), Richard Todd (who was there on D-Day), and Henry Fonda (who was upset that he wasn’t there on D-Day). No boot camp was needed. “They knew how to hold a gun and wear a uniform, and they knew how to salute,” says Paul Woodadge, a D-Day historian, filmmaker, and battlefield guide. “Robert Mitchum looks like a guy who spent his life in khaki. Even if the uniform is a bit wrong in the film, you buy into it because of their overall demeanour – it’s a level of authenticity.”

Zanuck, of course, was commander-in-chief. Even with three different directors – Ken Annakin (shooting the British and French scenes), Andrew Marton (shooting the Americans), and Bernhard Wicki (shooting the Germans) – Zanuck boasted that he’d directed 60 per cent of the film himself. Cornelius Ryan called him “Darryl Eisenhower”. Zanuck helicoptered between shooting locations, a cigar always clamped in his hand.

Tensions escalated between Zanuck and Ryan. The film’s PR man Fred Hift recalled their tricky relationship: “Zanuck respected screenplay writer Connie Ryan, but didn't like him very much.” They fought over rewrites, over Zanuck bringing in (and, more to the point, crediting) other writers, and Zanuck adding fictionalised scenes.

“I am not interested in making a film that is only historically accurate,” said Zanuck. “It just so happens that this one happens to be accurate.”

The success of Ryan’s book, said Zanuck, was because “it gave the public a chance to see our own errors and our own successes, our own confusion and our own clear thinking. It also gave us a chance, for the first time, to see what happened to the Germans on this day, and to understand why they made so many blunders and errors…”

As noted by Peter Lev, the title of the film is in fact a German phrase – spoken by Rommel (played by Werner Hinz) as he gives a speech to his officers. “The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive,” says Rommel. “For the Allies as well as the Germans, it will be the longest day…”

The ID card belonging to Cornelius Ryan, The Daily Telegraph reporter who covered D-Day - and wrote The Longest Day
The ID card belonging to Cornelius Ryan, The Daily Telegraph reporter who covered D-Day - and wrote The Longest Day

Lev describes a rehabilitation of the German image in movies at the time. “The Germans are presented as professional soldiers doing their job,” says Lev. “There’s nothing about Nazi ideology. That’s very different from a lot of war movies. The German government of 1962 was happy to help.”

Their portrayal speaks to the politics of the time: West Germany was considered an ally to the United States amidst the Cold War and Berlin Crisis. French locals were less forgiving. The sight of a swastika flag and actors marching in Nazi uniforms almost sparked riots during filming.

German advisors included Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, Rommel’s naval advisor during D-Day, and Major Werner Pluskat, who was – so the story goes (as told by Pluskat himself) – the first German to spot the Allied fleet. Actors playing the German soldiers did basic training under former Wehrmacht paratrooper Jonny Jendrich.

“The Germans in The Longest Day are very realistic,” says Paul Woodadge. “They have different views about dealing with the invasion, which is the truth. There’s Rommel saying stop them at the beaches, and von Rundstedt saying let them land and we’ll circle them later on.”

Woodadge also credits the film’s emphasis on weather conditions: the Allied commanders debating if they should proceed; the Germans incredulous that the Allies would even attempt an invasion in poor weather. “An attack now would be embarrassing,” says Rommel (they also believed the invasion would land in Calais, not Normandy, as depicted in the film). “The weather in the channel was crucial,” says Woodadge. “D-day was already postponed a day because of weather. You had to have clear skies without heavy winds.”

The landing scene in The Longest Day - Getty
The landing scene in The Longest Day - Getty

It comes down to Eisenhower, who makes the call to launch the invasion in a small, barely adequate spell. Zanuck reportedly wanted Dwight D. Eisenhower himself to play the scene, but settled for a set dresser named Henry Grace who bore a striking resemblance.

The British – perhaps due to their less-helpful stance behind the scenes – aren’t as well served as either the Americans or even the Germans. (Though not as hard done by as the 14,000 Canadians who landed on Juno Beach – omitted entirely from The Longest Day, apart from sweeping overhead shot.)

The Brits mostly tread between old timey stereotypes – stiff-upper-lipped poshingstons or cor’ blimey guvnors doing the Lambeth Walk. “It’s still that era when the Americans won the war and the British are there to make the tea and make up numbers,” laughs Paul Woodadge. Brits, however, do take charge in a tremendous sequence – the taking of Pegasus Bridge.

Shortly after midnight on June 6, 181 men – led by Major John Howard – landed near Bénouville, arriving in bumpy Horsa gliders, and captured a drawbridge that spanned the Caen Canal. Major John Howard was an advisor on the film; Richard Todd, who played him, was also at Pegasus Bridge on June 6, 1944. He wore his real beret for the film.

“That’s hands down the best sequence in the film,” says Woodadge. “The accuracy is so well done – it’s the real location, the glider coming in and bumping on the ground, and them running out and seizing the bridge.”

Also seen are various diversionary and sabotage tactics, including the dropping of dummy paratroopers – “Ruperts” – to confuse the Germans and play into fears of invasion. In the film, they’re ornate mannequins that explode – in truth they were burlap sandbags.

Peter Lawford, Brigadier and commander Simon Fraser, Lord Lovaton, Richard Todd and British Army officer John Howard on the set of The Longest Day - Getty
Peter Lawford, Brigadier and commander Simon Fraser, Lord Lovaton, Richard Todd and British Army officer John Howard on the set of The Longest Day - Getty

The French Resistance’s efforts play a role in the film, too. “That’s interesting because it’s right but wrong at the same time,” says Woodadge. “The Resistance was a key part of the success of Operation Overlord. But the majority of the work seen in the film – blowing up railways lines and cutting down telegraph wires – wasn’t near the beaches. A lot of it was in the Calais area, where we wanted the Germans to think we were going.”

One of the film’s most iconic scenes follows paratrooper John Steele (played by Red Buttons) of the 505th Parachute Infantry, who dropped into the village of Sainte-Mère-Église in the early hours of June 6. In the film, the paratroopers fire machine guns at the enemy as they descend. In reality, their guns were disassembled in bags. What the film gets right, however, is that the paratroopers stood little chance against the German machine guns waiting for them on the ground.

John Steele famously got his parachute caught on the pinnacle of a church roof and hung there, playing dead. It’s an iconic moment – horror wrought across his face as he watches his fellow paras killed and the church bell tolls. “It’s almost certain that he exaggerated the story,” says Woodadge. “We can’t prove that he didn’t land there, but there’s not much evidence that he did! But as soon as I hear the bells tolling in the film, I find myself gripped.”

Capturing the scenes – which were filmed in the real Sainte-Mère-Église – was a losing battle, blighted by powerful winds. Cranes had to be brought in to lower the paratroopers onto the ground.

 Irina Demick in The Longest Day - Alamy
Irina Demick in The Longest Day - Alamy

A bit of wind, however, was the least of Zanuck’s problems. In April 1961, Zanuck was summoned to a board meeting back in the US. 20th Century Fox top brass wanted to call quits on The Longest Day – take a $3 million hit and cut their losses. But one board member, General James Van Fleet – a veteran of both World Wars – defended Zanuck.

“He lost his temper,” Zanuck said. “He practically called them idiots. He had landed in the first wave on D-Day. Usually at board meetings, he never said anything, but now he said, ‘This picture will make more than any other picture.’” The board conferred and warned Zanuck: if he spent any more than $8 million, they’d take his cameras away.

With or without cameras, Zanuck had accrued an impressive arsenal. He recovered Spitfires, Messerschmitts, German guns and artillery. His crew unearthed a British tank which had been buried in the Normandy sands and refurbished German bunkers. They ordered more than 60,000 rounds of ammunition and made use of Allies’ uniforms, which were still in abundance. Nazi uniforms had to be made – the German government had long since destroyed the originals. Not everything was authentic – they made do with contemporary hardware.

For the big shots of the Allied fleet, Zanuck used the US Sixth Fleet, which was on manoeuvres off the coast of Northern Corsica. The 22-strong fleet wasn’t quite the near-7,000 vessels that headed to Normandy on June 6, 1944 (or historically accurate) but they were good enough for Zanuck. He did ask, however, that an aircraft carrier stay 2,000 metres to the side so he could keep it out of shot.

To make the Corsica beach look more like Normandy on D-Day, they hosed down the sands each morning and burned tires to turn the skies grey. For shots of the actual landings, men of the Third Marine Battalion played the part. The Marines were genuinely seasick from the choppy conditions and looked unsettled.

A classic scene comes when Major Werner Pluskat (Hans Christian Blech) spots the Allied fleet from his bunker and warns another German officer over the phone. “My dear Pluskat, where are these ships heading?” asks the officer. “Straight for me!” yells Pluskat.

Sean Connery in The Longest Day - Shutterstock
Sean Connery in The Longest Day - Shutterstock

There’s doubt that Pluskat was at the bunker. It’s now believed that he was with a prostitute at the time and didn’t arrive until later. Pluskat may have taken the story from another German – one who didn’t live to tell the tale – and claimed the historic moment for himself.

Another story popularised by The Longest Day is that Hitler slept in on D-Day – that the invasion was only successful because the officers didn’t dare wake him, preventing them from mobilising tanks. Paul Woodadge thinks the story is overplayed. “What time of day he got up can be debated,” Woodadge says. “What isn’t up for debate is that even if Hitler was up at 2 O’clock that morning, there’s nothing he could have done at that point to change anything – it was too late.”

The Longest Day’s biggest creative liberty is the battle at Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed the cliffs to destroy a battery of six cannons. In the film, the Rangers are played by young pop stars of the time, including Tommy Sands and Fabian (among the few age-appropriate actors in the film). They scale the cliffs to find the cannons aren’t there: a tragically pointless effort. In truth, the Rangers continued on and found the cannons inland. They destroyed the cannons and fought for several days.

Peter Caddick-Adams noted that Cornelius Ryan had found Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder, who led the ascent, an uncooperative eyewitness, so Ryan may have added his own drama into the Pointe du Hoc battle.

Another factually inaccurate scene is one of the film’s best, as the French commandos attack a casino, which is housing a German base, in the commune of Ouistreham. The battle is captured by a still-stunning aerial shot. There had indeed been a casino at Ouistreham, but it was destroyed by June 6, 1944 – all that was left was a series of fortified bunkers in the basement. “The man who told that account to Cornelius Ryan was a commando,” says Woodadge. “But he hadn’t been there on D-Day. He repeated what other blokes had told him and got it all wrong… some of the stories turned out to be a bit iffy.”

In August 1961, The Longest Day was rocked by the building of the Berlin Wall. Questions were suddenly asked about whether US soldiers should be used for showbiz purposes when they were needed in a real-world crisis. The Department of Defense cut Zanuck’s troops from 700 to 250 men. The US military’s relationship with Hollywood was fundamentally changed from that point on.

As production headed into winter, Zanuck had to make an Eisenhower-like decision: soldier on with the Omaha battle scenes (filmed on the island of Il de Rey) in potentially bad weather; or halt filming until the following year. He gathered the crew and asked them: postpone filming or risk it? Most voted to postpone, but Zanuck decided to march forward. 20th Century Fox was in such peril that if production stopped, it might never start again.

The battle on Omaha – multiple efforts along four-and-a-half miles of beach, further mythologised by Saving Private Ryan – now seems amusingly simplified by The Longest Day. It all comes down to Robert Mitchum and his men breaking down one small gap in a wall. But there was real-life chaos during the filming, as smoke from some 150 explosives filled the air.

Zanuck called it “the goddamndest mess I’ve ever seen in my life”. Neither the actors nor cameras could see through the smoke. “People were sitting, holding their faces in their hands,” Zanuck told biographer Mel Gussow. “Some had facial cuts where they had run into explosives. In one scene, where guys blow up in the air, that wasn’t staged. They were running blind. We stayed up all night working out non-smoke or white smoke. I got two takes that were good and decided we wouldn’t do it again. We would have killed somebody.”

The original ending was set to be a lone, solemn soldier tossing stones into the water. The Department of Defense, however, wanted something more gung-ho. Instead, the film ends with Robert Mitchum’s General Cota in a jeep. “Run me up the hill, son,” he commands.

The DoD was also unhappy with a scene of Americans shooting surrendering Germans (though Zanuck kept it in), while the Motion Picture Association of America raised concerns over the script’s “excessive amount of slaughter”. Sixty years on, it’s laughable – actors holding their chests bloodlessly and leaping to the ground. Zanuck added a final insert, too, at the request of a British advisor – a British flag being run up a pole.

Some British critics, however, were frosty. “Germans get a lot of screen time,” says Peter Lev. “More than the UK. The critics of the time did notice.” Not everyone in the US liked it, either. Eisenhower walked out just minutes into the film, unable to stomach the inaccuracies. When his wife, Mamie, told him he couldn’t leave, Ike replied: “The hell I can’t.”

Sixty years on, The Longest Day remains the definitive account of June 6, 1944 on film. “As an overview of how Operation Overlord unfolded, it’s peerless,” says Paul Woodadge. “You’d struggle to explain it any better in three hours.”

For more on Paul Woodadge follow the WW2 TV YouTube Channel