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The Longest Day

Cigar-chomping Darryl Zanuck re-created one of history's most momentous events on the beaches of Normandy.
Fred Hift
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

(continued from page 1)

Zanuck originally didn't plan for any female roles. Then he met Irina Demich (who became his lover) and wrote a role for her as French Resistance fighter Janine Gilles, who was responsible for saving many Allied fliers. The movie starred masculine icons like Mitchum, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, Sean Connery, Richard Burton and many others. To re-create the assault, the director used the actual invasion beaches--Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno, Gold.

Zanuck used flamethrowers to clear the thick brush growth from the old German defenses. His troops--played by actual U.S. Marines--fired grapple-hooks to the top of 100-foot Pointe du Hoc, climbed up the slippery ropes and tossed grenades at the bunkers, just as their real-life comrades had done 17 years before. Zanuck erected a huge crane on the invasion site and installed his camera on a platform that could be raised and lowered up and down the side of the cliff. He frequently directed action sequences himself, always recognizable from his big cigar and small stature and always very much in charge.

During the D-Day invasion the United States Rangers lost 81 of their 225 men in the assault on Pointe du Hoc. Men died falling from ropes and ladders to the pebbly beach below. When they reached the bunkers, they found that the big German guns that were supposed to be there had never been installed--a fact that Allied headquarters hadn't discovered. (Five 155-millimeter cannons were found and destroyed in an apple orchard not far from the bunkers.)

Sainte-Mère-Église was the little Normandy village where American paratroopers landed in droves on roofs, in trees and hedgerows in the middle of the night. Pvt. John Steele, wounded in the leg and hanging by his parachute on the Sainte-Mère-Église church steeple, was forced to play dead while a fierce battle raged below. Steele was played by Red Buttons in the movie. Zanuck prevented a riot when the hundreds of onlookers who had come to watch the filming of the battle for Sainte-Mère-Église suddenly saw "German soldiers" (actually French extras in German uniforms) march into the main square. Stones suddenly flew and insults were shouted until Zanuck reminded the excited crowd that it was just a moviemaking--real as it might seem.

At a bridge over the Caen Canal, Zanuck's big, black gliders lay with their noses crunched into the ground, some broken and destroyed just as on that fateful night. Peter Lawford played Lord Lovat, the casual British Ranger commander, who led his squad across the bridge under heavy German fire, jauntily swinging his swagger stick as a bagpipe squealed.

At Ouistreham, where the French capture of German headquarters was reenacted in a large casino, Zanuck shared gambling memories with Cmdr. Philippe Kieffer, who had led the 171 French commandos on the original raid.

Zanuck didn't spare himself during those months of filming. I often went with him when he flew by helicopter from one of the movie's four locations to another. The trouble was that our "supreme commander," furiously chewing on his ever-present cigar, would urge the pilot to fly ever lower over those endless hedgerows. Zanuck enjoyed chasing rabbits that way, but the pilot argued that even an additional few inches represented a real danger. Meanwhile, I died a little on each flight.

At times, we would fly over the limitless expanse of white crosses that mark the graves of the 9,350 American soldiers who died in the invasion. There were 2,500 British casualties and 200 Canadians. Some 6,000 German defenders are buried in a separate cemetery where black crosses loom over their graves.

At one point, Zanuck needed an actor to play an Allied pilot who had been shot down and had landed in a field. Many names were suggested. Suddenly Zanuck stabbed his cigar in the direction of his main assistant, Elmo Williams, and said excitedly: "I've got it. Get me Richard Burton on the phone in Rome." Burton at that time was starring opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. "They'll never let him go," argued Williams. "You just watch me," Zanuck assured him with a grin.

A few days later, Burton arrived for one day's work. He looked dashing in his flier's uniform, complete with a large, elegant white scarf. Burton had agreed to work for nothing--provided Zanuck would let him keep the scarf, which he intended as a present for his Elizabeth.

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