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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

It is something of a miracle that the Allies succeeded on that cold, fog-shrouded morning of June 6, 1944, in Normandy, France. On that significant date General Eisenhower's huge invasion armada began the famous onslaught that would lead to the end of the Second World War.

It was easily the largest, most daring, meticulously planned military assault ever undertaken, yet it was also plagued by the most astonishing incidents and accidents, the kinds of human errors and communications failures that could easily have turned the effort into disaster--and in some instances did.

In 1961, Darryl F. Zanuck, producer and former czar of Twentieth Century Fox Studios, began to roll the cameras for The Longest Day, his painstaking reenactment in black and white of Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion. Zanuck's is easily the most ambitious war film ever made. (Recently colorized, The Longest Day has been re-released on FoxVideo to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day.)

Zanuck used Cornelius "Connie" Ryan's book, The Longest Day, as the basis for his epic masterpiece. Ryan wrote the first script and eventually became a technical adviser to the film, which took virtually a year to create. Some of the historical mishaps that Ryan recounted seemed almost too unbelievable to be true, yet provided some of the most memorable moments in the film. The movie was divided into four segments: American, British, French and German--each with its own director and the cooperation of the respective government.

Zanuck, his cigar always firmly clamped between his teeth, was the "supreme commander" involved in just about every detail of the huge cinematic undertaking--right down to the timing of explosions on the sound track. One instance of his obsessive attention to detail was his search for two, old Messerschmitts, the only German planes that actually attacked the invasion force. He found them in Belgium, but he had to build some of the Horsa gliders that carried the advance Allied paratroopers behind the German front lines a few minutes after midnight on June 6.

I was director of publicity for the film and spent most of the year working very closely with Zanuck and his top assistants. He was not an easy boss--demanding, a stickler for detail and not known for a sense of humor. A former lieutenant colonel in the Signal Corps, he had two great loves: danger--any kind of danger--and cigars. To see Zanuck without his fat, long cigar was unthinkable. He smoked it, he chewed it, he used it like a swagger stick; he would sometimes poke you with it for emphasis. But although he had an almost bottomless supply of cigars, he never shared them with anyone, not even his closest aides.

Robert Mitchum, one of the 42 big-name stars in the movie, told me one evening in Caen that when Zanuck was head of the studio he often held meetings in his office. George Jessel, an avid cigar smoker, attended once, but had forgotten to bring his own cigar along and lusted for one that winked at him from Zanuck's open humidor.

When Zanuck turned his back, Jessel reached for the cigar. At that moment, Zanuck turned around and whacked him across the knuckles with a metal ruler. The injury that resulted was serious enough to send Jessel to the studio nurse, yet Zanuck thought he had been perfectly justified. In any case, he never apologized.

Zanuck also kept a supply of Havana cigars in a vault at Davidoff's famous store in Geneva. Whenever he ran low, I'd be asked to fly to Geneva on some pretext to pick up more boxes.

The title, The Longest Day, oddly, came from German General Rommel. Discussing the expected Allied landings on the French coast, he told an aide that if the Germans couldn't stop the Allied forces in their landing craft, despite the thousands of mines and the deadly underwater obstacles designed by the Desert Fox himself, that day would effectively end the war. "That will be the longest day," Rommel predicted. And it turned out to be--for both sides. It turned out that the day was longer for the Nazis because they ignored critical clues that could well have prepared them for D-Day.


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