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The Longest Day

The Longest Day(1962)

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teaser The Longest Day (1962)

Sometimes a great filmmaker's best intentions can be swamped by the dictates of the marketplace. 20th-Century-Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck hoped that The Longest Day (1962), a blow-by-blow account of the Allied invasion on D-Day, would be an anti-Hollywood war movie, a picture that would, once and for all, show audiences what war is really like. But Zanuck, who may well have been viewing the picture as his swan song, knew that an undertaking of this size was a risky business proposition to say the least. So he hedged his bets by casting as many name stars as he could get his hands on, thus nixing any opportunity he may have had to fully immerse viewers in a realistic, documentary portrayal of the events and the ultimate price of victory.

Everyone from John Wayne to Henry Fonda to Robert Mitchum to Eddie Albert gets a few moments of screen time, with teen idols like Paul Anka, Tommy Sands, and Fabian thrown into the mix to attract the younger viewers. Zanuck was operating on such a grand scale, he needed no less than four directors to shoot the film, with numerous assistants working the perimeter. The final product, though often memorable, seems more like an exposition-laced military maneuver than an actual narrative. Regardless of what's going on ?- and there's always something going on -- it's not hard to imagine Zanuck standing beside the camera, heatedly chomping his cigar while he writes his Oscar® acceptance speech.

Well, he didn't win the Best Picture Oscar® though the film garnered five nominations, winning two (one for Best Cinematography and one for Best Special Effects). But Zanuck did produce one of the more insanely ambitious films in movie history, even if it doesn't always succeed. Viewers who are looking for moments as visceral as Saving Private Ryan's (1998) Omaha Beach sequence will be disappointed. Despite Zanuck's goal of showing us the real blood and guts of battle, the violence is as stylized and predictable as in any Hollywood war movie. Actually, the film that The Longest Day most closely resembles is Richard Attenborough's equally cumbersome (and star-laden) A Bridge Too Far (1977). There are moments of high drama in The Longest Day, including a sequence where the Allies are parachuting into Saint Mere Englise, only to be ambushed by German snipers. But the real drama of The Longest Day was happening behind the scenes.

In his autobiography, So You Wanna Be a Director, Ken Annakin, one of the three directors of the film, said "One of Zanuck's great film conceptions was an eight-minute helicopter shot showing the attack around the casino at Ouistreham. It was a very involved shot showing the Free French Troops in action. It involved nuns being rescued from a convent and the overcoming of the Germans on the casino roof. Every director who had been on the picture had tried to complete this sequence to Zanuck and his editorial advisor, Elmo Williams' satisfaction. So, I found myself introduced to Gilbert Chomat, French helicopter wizard pilot, who could do anything with an Alouette and had an uncanny sense of swinging the camera exactly where you wanted it - so long as you gave him detailed instructions...The shot I'm still very proud of is the sequence which survived into the final edit of The Longest Day." Annakin also experienced Zanuck's strong reaction to certain actors. "Sean Connery had been sent over from London by Maude Spector (from my Disney casting days) to play a double act-cameo with a young English actor, Norman Rossington. Zanuck immediately took a dislike to Sean and said, 'That Limey mumbles his lines and looks like a slob!'"

Much more to Zanuck's liking was a young French actress, Irina Demick, who was one of the few women to appear in a substantial role in the film. Brigitte Bardot and Marina Vlady had originally been approached for the part but turned it down. Demick not only won the role, but also became Zanuck's mistress during the production.

It's difficult to pinpoint the real "star" of The Longest Day, but Robert Mitchum would have to rank high on the list. As General Norman Cota, the Allied commander of the Twenty-ninth Infantry Division, he somehow manages to convey the gravity of the situation without coming across like a movie star wearing an Army suit. Many of the other faces are so familiar such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Richard Burton that it's hard to convince yourself that these actors represent real people caught up in earth-shattering events. Many critics at the time noted that the array of celebrities on display became a constant distraction but there were a few renowned reviewers who praised the film in spite of that. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote "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."

This sort of production is always a breeding ground for oddball occurrences and trivia, and The Longest Day is no different. Perhaps it's best to simply list some of the more interesting tidbits:

-Roddy McDowall only appears in the film because he was in Italy, pulling his hair out over the endless delays on Cleopatra (1963). He begged Zanuck to cast him in The Longest Day simply because he wanted a chance to actually act for a while!

-Richard Todd (Maj. John Howard) fought at Normandy on D-Day while a member of the British Air Force. He entered the fray, as did hundreds of other men, via a highly dangerous parachute drop.

-The real-life American soldiers who Zanuck hired to storm Omaha Beach in the picture were reluctant to enter the water because it was too cold, but they finally relented when a disgusted Mitchum jumped in first.

-The producers had to make certain that members of a nearby nudist colony didn't wander onto the beach during the "invasion."

-Sean Connery, who, of course, would make his name playing James Bond, appears in the film opposite Gert Frobe and Curd Jurgens, two future Bond villains.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower was interested in playing himself in The Longest Day, but it was determined that he simply looked too old to pull it off! (Forget World War II- several years in the White House will do that to you.)

Perhaps the most important piece of information, as far as Zanuck was concerned, was that The Longest Day cost $10,000,000 to make - an astronomical amount at the time. But it earned back every penny, and then some. In Hollywood terms, anyway, that's called winning the battle.

Directors: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald
Producers: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall (based on the book by Cornelius Ryan)
Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin, Pierre Levent, Henri Persin, Guy Tabary, Walter Wottitz
Editor: Samuel E. Beetley
Music: Maurice Jarre
Song: Paul Anka
Production Design: Edward S. Haworth
Art Direction: Leon Barsacq, Vincent Korda
Associate Producer: Elmo Williams
Set Design: Gabriel Bechir
Principal Cast: John Wayne (Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort), Robert Mitchum (Brig. Gen. Norman Cota), Henry Fonda (Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt), Robert Ryan (Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin), Rod Steiger (Destroyer Commander), Richard Todd (Maj. John Howard), Richard Burton (Downed R.A.F. Pilot), Robert Wagner (U.S. Ranger), Jeffrey Hunter (Sgt. Fuller), Mel Ferrer (Maj. Gen. Robert Haines), Paul Anka (U.S. Ranger), Sal Mineo (Pvt. Martini), Roddy McDowall (Pvt. Morris), Stuart Whitman (Lt. Sheen), Eddie Albert (Col. Tom Newton), Edmond O'Brien (Gen. Raymond O. Barton), Fabian (U.S. Ranger), Red Buttons (Pvt. John Steele), Tommy Sands (U.S. Ranger), Peter Lawford (Lord Lovat), Sean Connery (Pvt. Flanagan).
BW-178m. Letterboxed.

by Paul Tatara

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