'Longest Day' Took a Long Year
Recreating D-Day for the movies brought some of the same fortunes and foibles as the original invasion
CAEN, FRANCE — THIS placid little town has known two invasions.
The first came 50 years ago - on June 6, 1944 - when an Allied air and sea armada was launched against the Nazi-held Normandy coast, and Allied soldiers spilled onto the beaches and began their drive inland.
The second invasion, equally determined and in a way just as complicated and meticulously planned, came in 1961 and '62, when producer Darryl Zanuck recreated D-Day for his cameras on the spot where, 17 years earlier, the Allied forces had landed.
``The Longest Day,'' which Fox Video has colorized for release on a new videocassette, was originally shot in black-and-white, as Zanuck felt this would better convey the grim realities of the invasion. It is based on Cornelius Ryan's definitive account of what was then known by the code name ``Operation Overlord.''
In making the movie, Zanuck virtually turned into another Eisenhower, poring over maps of Normandy and calling heads of state to get their cooperation.
I was hired by Zanuck to handle publicity for the movie, which was a year in the filming and which at times was shot on four different invasion beaches, with Zanuck crisscrossing the coast by helicopter to be present for shooting crucial scenes.
A real crisis intrudes
Zanuck needed American, British, and French troops and equipment, and he got them, but the problems he faced nearly equaled those of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in planning the original invasion. The US Defense Department had agreed to let several hundred marines from Berlin portray American GIs in Normandy. As the Berlin Wall crisis developed, however, Congress protested, and Washington sharply cut back its commitment. A similar thing happened with the French, who were preoccupied with problems in Algeria.
But Zanuck, a persistent man with a distinct sense of mission when it came to ``The Longest Day,'' recruited and trained extras and stunt men. The picture was shot in four sections - American, English, French, and German - and each was directed by a filmmaker of that nationality.
Filming often matched the D-Day reality. In the early morning of June 6, when men of the 101st Airborne Division dropped over Ste. Mere-Eglise, many were blown off-course and landed in trees and on rooftops, helpless targets for enemy gunners.
For ``The Longest Day,'' Zanuck took over the town square and re-created the paratroopers' drop. The square was filled with curious visitors from the countryside. All the electricity had been cut off to avoid accidents with power lines. Hanging from the church steeple, strapped in his parachute harness, was Red Buttons, who played Pvt. John Steele. On June 6, 1944, Steele had hung motionless from that same steeple, a bullet in his leg, as the battle raged below.
As they rehearsed the scene, the unmistakable click-clack of hobnail boots on cobblestone came out of the dark. In marched actors wearing German Wehrmacht uniforms, led by an officer (actually a former German paratrooper hired by Zanuck to train the French extras).
Unaware of Zanuck's arrangements, the French crowd panicked. There were angry words, and stones began to fly. A riot was in the making. Zanuck grabbed a bullhorn and, in his broken French, reminded the spectators that it was a movie and that the uniforms were worn by French actors. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life.
Zanuck had little trouble booking some of Hollywood's top names for the film. Among them were John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Sean Connery, and others.
A new character
The original script called for no women at all, but Zanuck met the glamorous Irina Demich in Paris and built the only female role in the movie for her, that of a heroic Resistance worker. The role was modeled on Jeannine Gilles, a courageous Frenchwoman responsible for saving the lives of many Allied pilots by hiding them from the Germans after they had parachuted down.
Many of the strange incidents of D-Day are in the movie. For instance, the Germans had called for war games on June 6, and many of the officers were away from their command posts. Hitler, who thought the landings were a feint, held back the deployment of his vital tank corps beyond the point where it could be of use, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who commanded the German defenses at Normandy, had gone home to visit his wife and to confer with Hitler.
On the Allied side, a careless wireless operator released a test message that announced the invasion on June 2. The Germans got it as well, but ignored it. More tragically, many of the landing boats didn't hit their assigned beaches, and soldiers jumped into deep water and were dragged down by their heavy gear.
Zanuck did take some liberties with historical fact. He found two airworthy old Messerschmitt fighter planes in Holland and in the movie had them attack British soldiers as they stormed ashore. But that never happened.
Hitler had moved virtually all his air force back to German fields. The Allies feared a night attack by the Luftwaffe, but only two planes appeared: a reconnaissance plane and one fighter. Hitler's navy did no better: A group of three Nazi patrol boats sank a Norwegian destroyer, then hotfooted back home.
In other respects, Zanuck insisted on a host of details. The sound of explosions, for instance, had to match the type of ammunition used. And he copied the life-sized rubber dummies the Allies dropped to fool the Germans into believing that paratroopers were coming down all over an area.
Even by today's standards, ``The Longest Day'' was an ambitious undertaking, though its budget of $10 million is a pittance compared to modern films.