The Longest Day

Cigar-chomping Darryl Zanuck re-created one of history's most momentous events on the beaches of Normandy.
| By Fred Hift | From 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.

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.

One of the most vexing casting problems in The Longest Day was the role of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Zanuck respected screenplay writer Connie Ryan, but didn't like him very much. One day, he instructed us to enthusiastically greet an announcement he was to make at the weekly staff meeting. The day came, and Zanuck, puffing contentedly on his cigar, said: "Gentlemen, I have decided who will play Ike. The actor I have chosen is Mickey Rooney." Applause all 'round. Ryan, a stickler for details--he was forever arguing with Zanuck about uniform buttons and who was marching where and in what direction--sat in shock.

"What's the matter, Connie? You aren't agreeing with me again?" Zanuck grinned. And then Ryan knew that his leg had been pulled.

The actor who played Eisenhower was Henry Grace, a set de-signer at MGM Studios, who bore a truly uncanny likeness to the supreme commander and who, just walking the studio streets, was frequently mistaken for him.

Filming the great invasion with the kind of realism demanded by Zanuck required all kinds of sacrifices. During the real thing, seasick GIs poured out of landing craft that frequently had been blown off course, so that they came to shore in deep water. The soldiers attempted to wade ashore, but hundreds never made it, drowning under the weight of their heavy packs.

Zanuck's troops were luckier, of course, but they, too, encountered hardships, rough seas and accidents.

I recall standing on Sword Beach, one of the British landing areas. Next to me, clearly in pain, stood a tall Tommy decked out in full gear. He explained that he had turned his ankle coming off one of the boats during the last shot and he was worried about the next take.

"I've got to be in it," he said, his voice betraying his Scottish background. "I've just got to be!"

"You'll be OK," I assured him. "What's your name?"

"Sean Connery," he replied and limped off.


Part of the thrill of The Longest Day was re-creating the sense of drama and tension that surrounded the lead-up to the real invasion. In retrospect, both sides seemed almost determined to foul up the preparations.

The Allies went to great lengths to keep the actual incursion date a secret, hoping to fool the Germans into believing that the air- and seaborne assault would take place across the Strait of Dover in the Pas-de-Calais area rather than right across the Channel. Even down to the last day, when Eisenhower ordered the invasion fleet to return to port rather than face a raging storm--the worst to hit the Channel in some 20 years--there was fear that the Germans had spotted the ships and were prepared for the landings. They hadn't.

And Adolf Hitler, even after the Allies had landed, still believed the Normandy beach fighting was only a cover for the "real thing" to come.

Even more astonishing, the German Wehrmacht high command had plenty of warning. A German spy at the British Embassy in Turkey had told his superiors in Berlin that the BBC in London would alert the French Resistance to the invasion by broadcasting a two-part coded message taken from a poem by Paul Verlaine called "Song of Autumn."

The first part would be: "The long sobs of the violins of autumn." The second, signaling an attack within 48 hours, was: "Wound my heart with a monotonous languor." The poem was duly broadcast and set off a wide range of railroad demolition and other destructive activities by the French underground.

German intelligence intercepted those messages and even notified Berlin, but the high command didn't put the troops on alert--at least not the German Seventh Army Corps, which had been stationed along the Normandy coast.

The Germans had called war games for June 6 in Rennes, France, some 80 miles southwest of Omaha Beach, and many top-ranking officers were absent from their north-coast redoubts. Most important, Rommel, in charge of all the German defenses, was far from his headquarters at La Roche-Sur-Yon(75 miles south of Rennes on the Atlantic Coast). He had gone home to Germany to visit with his wife and see Hitler. To make things even worse, the German high command had shifted its last remaining fighter wing from Normandy back to Germany, leaving just two planes capable of taking to the air. They promptly attacked the British invasion force and then hightailed it to the interior.

The Germans weren't alone in their mistakes, however. On the Allied side, there were errors galore. The most glaring involved a press message on June 3, originating from Eisenhower's headquarters, stating: "General Eisenhower today announced Allied landings in France." It turned out to be a mistake, of course, a careless machine "test" by a teletype operator in the pressroom, yet the Germans received it, and seeing no maritime activity on the Channel, actually ignored it.