The Longest Day is Wayne's most commercial war film. Based on a book by Cornelius Ryan and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, it is the collaborative effort of three directors (Ken Annakin, Andrew Martin, and Bernhard Vicki), four assistant directors, and no less than five screenwriters.
The Longest Day reconstructs the events leading to the June 6, 1944 Normandy invasion of the Allied Forces. Boasting the dimensions of an epic picture, it's filmed in Cinemascope and skillfully edited by Samuel E. Beetley.
Zanuck cast all the cameo roles with bit names; he wanted the audience "to have a kick," so that "every time a door opened, it would be a well-known personality." Zanuck was determined to get John Wayne to play one of the cameo roles in The Longest Day, the epic reconstruction of D Day and the Allies invasion of Normandy. "Since Wayne has taken care of the Alamo and had never lost any historical battle," Zanuck reasoned, "there is no reason why he should not take care of the Omaha Beach."
Wayne was first considered for the part of General Cota (later played by Robert Mitchum), but was cast as Lieutenant Colones Benjamin Vandervoort of the Eighty-Second Airborne Division. His small but tailor-made part was contained in some of the picture's most memorable episodes.
A stern commander who broke his ankle while landing in the town of St. Mere Eglise, Vandervoort continues to lead his men while using his rifle as a crutch. Wayne's portrayal contains all the familiar elements of previous war movies, particularly his toughness; he is told on various occasions to ease up on his men as well as on himself. Proud of his battalion, Vandervoort believes that it is one of the best in the whole army. He is a committed patriot, who can't stand the humiliation of seeing the body of an American soldier hung up.
The film enjoyed a great deal of publicity before it was released and favorable critical reaction afterwards. Bosley Crowther of the N.Y. Times liked the picture for its "huge documentary report, adorned and colored by personal details that are thrilling, amusing, ironic, sad."
The Longest Day became one of 1962's most popular films. Its mass appeal stemmed from its important theme, realistic depiction of action, and, of course, the fun of spotting the large roster of Hollywood stars, including Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger. Wayne's name appears last on the credits–to stress its prominence.
However, several critics thought that the array of familiar star actually weakened the film's authenticity. "It's hard to tell about John Wayne and Robert Mitchum," wrote the N.Y. Post, "they stand out all right, but whether they're too much themselves or make it as what they're supposed to be who knows. They certainly still are Wayne and Mitchum, and no mere D-Day can hide it."