THIS IS THE THE DAY THAT CHANGED THE WORLD… WHEN HISTORY HELD ITS BREATH.
As Sean Connery was preparing to play a small role in this World War II blockbuster, he was also planning a trip to Jamaica for the first James Bond thriller, Dr. No. Also appearing in The Longest Day were two German actors who didn’t share any scenes with Connery but nevertheless also became members of the future James Bond family as two classic villains – Gert Fröbe played Goldfinger two years later, and in 1977 Curd Jürgens faced 007 in The Spy Who Loved Me. That’s the lighthearted aspect of watching this cast.
The more earnest part of it is that many of the actors actually fought in World War II or suffered in other ways. Richard Todd took part in the attack on the Pegasus Bridge crossing the Caen Canal, which is depicted in the film; Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger and Kenneth More also served in the war; Fröbe actively helped Jews escape the Nazis, and Jürgens and co-director Bernhard Wicki suffered in Nazi labor camps. The combined experience of the war that lies behind the making of The Longest Day is quite impressive.
In the early summer of 1944, Allied servicemen are waiting for just one thing – the order to begin the invasion of Europe. Bad weather has been pummeling the English Channel and the Supreme Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, is still waiting for the right moment to launch Operation Overlord. The goal is to crush the German Atlantic Wall, a series of fortifications built to protect Nazi-occupied western Europe from an assault. On the German side, there is much doubt as to where and when the attack will come; rumors and misleading operations confuse the military leadership. On June 6, Operation Overlord finally begins even though the weather isn’t ideal… but the Allies face heavy resistance on the beaches of Normandy.
Sincerely made docu-drama
Most 1960s war epics were Alistair MacLean-type adventures. Some aspects of this film may have heroic moments that could inspire young men to pick up a rifle, but in some ways it is a (much more expensive) forerunner to films like The Battle of Algiers (1965) – a sincerely made docu-drama aiming to capture a historic event as closely as possible.
There were three filmmakers tied to it, an Englishman and an American covering the Allied side, and an Austrian director shooting the German scenes. Thankfully, the German cast do speak their own language, which helps credibility. The film was based on Cornelius Ryan’s thoroughly researched book about the Normandy landings and it was made with valuable input from all sides, including retired German and Allied generals, men on the ground who survived D Day, and even the widow of Erwin Rommel, the commander in charge of the German defense of Normandy; some of these people are also portrayed in the film.
The all-star cast is put to great use (even John Wayne feels like a natural part of the story)… although much more could be said about Brigadier General Ted Roosevelt (Fonda) whose story is much more compelling than what is covered here. Because that’s basically the only complaint one could have; all military matters, including battles, are staged in credible, exciting and horrifying ways that give us an idea of what a massive operation this was, but because of the sheer scale of information here, it is a bit on the dry side at times.
Technically, the rear-projection shots look less convincing today, but the effects are impressive overall; combined with the art direction, they make us believe in the destruction. And even if we are not served rich character portraits we do get the ironies of that longest day – such as Hitler sleeping through it.
The Longest Day 1962-U.S. 180 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki. Screenplay, Book: Cornelius Ryan. Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin, Walter Wottitz. Art Direction: Léon Barsacq, Ted Haworth, Vincent Korda. Cast: John Wayne (Benjamin Vandervoort), Robert Mitchum (Norman Cota), Robert Ryan (James M. Gavin), Rod Steiger, Peter Lawford, Henry Fonda… Richard Burton, Jeffrey Hunter, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowall, Eddie Albert, Curd Jürgens, Gert Fröbe, Sean Connery, Robert Wagner, Red Buttons, Mel Ferrer, Paul Anka, Edmond O’Brien, George Segal, Frank Finlay, Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Arletty.
Trivia: Charlton Heston was allegedly considered for a role.
Oscars: Best Cinematography, Special Effects. Golden Globe: Best Cinematography.
Last word: “On a lot of the work, Zanuck came and watched over your shoulder. He soon learned it was best not to watch over my shoulder, because I’ve never liked that, and Walt Disney also very quickly discovered that, and dropped the idea! I think if you’re working for a producer who knows exactly what he’s wanting, you’ve got to say ‘Leave it to me,’ then watch the rushes. That’s certainly what happened on ‘The Longest Day’. I remember Zanuck coming down to the beach landing and saying ‘You know Ken, I’ve got 3,000 troops for you on this beach, and I want to see all of them!'” (Annakin, Venice Magazine)