Longest Day, The (1962): Zanuck’s Epic WWII Film with John Wayne, Fonda, Mitchum and All-Star Cast

Based on Cornelius Ryna’s 1959 book of the same title, about the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944, The Longest Day was produced with passion and commitment by Fox’s legendary head, Darryl F. Zanuck, who had paid the author $175,000 for the screen rights.

Grade: B (***1/2 out of *****)

This massive operation was the collaborative effort of three directors, four assistant directors, and no less than five screenwriters.

The screenplay was penned by Ryan, with additional material written by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon.

Made in black-and-white, it utilized the work of three directors: Ken Annakin (British and French exteriors), Andrew Marton (American exteriors), and Bernard Wicki (German scenes).

The Longest Day reconstructs the events leading to the seminal event of June 6, 1944, the Normandy invasion of the Allied Forces, which turned the tide of the war.

Boasting the dimensions of an epic picture, it’s filmed in Cinemascope and in black-and-white.  It is extremely skillfully edited by Samuel E. Beetley, considering the amount of footage shot and the frequent changes of characters and locales.

Early on, Zanuck decided to cast all of the cameo roles with A-list stars.  He wanted the audience “to have a kick, so that every time a door opened, it would be another well-known personality.”

Zanuck was determined to get John Wayne to play one of the cameo roles in The Longest Day. “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 he 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 tells his soldiers, “We came here to fight, not to swim.”   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, screaming and yelling to take the corpse down right away.

The film is shot in the style of a docudrama (with subtitles identifying the different participants, places and dates), beginning in the days leading up to D-Day. It concentrates on events on both sides of the channel (Nazi Germany and French Normandy).  We observe the Allies as they impatiently wait for a break in the poor weather so that they can strike more effectively. They are also trying to anticipate the reaction of the Axis forces in Northern France.  (In the first scene, an innocent French civilian, a farmer, is shot in the back by a Nazi).

General Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander of SHAEF, makes the fateful decision as to where the invasion should happen, after reviewing the initial reports of bad weather and reading documents about the divisions within the German High Command.

Several scenes depict in detail the early hours of June 6 when Allied airborne troops were sent in to take key locations inland from the beaches. The French resistance is also shown reacting to the news that an invasion has started.

The Longest Day chronicles the important events around D-Day, including the British glider missions to secure Pegasus Bridge, the counterattacks launched by American paratroopers scattered around Sainte-Mère-Église, the infiltration and sabotage work conducted by the French resistance and SOE agents, and the response by the Wehrmacht to the invasion and the uncertainty of German commanders as to whether it was a feint in preparation for crossings at the Pas de Calais, where the senior German staff had always assumed that it would be.

Crucial scenes include the parachute drop into Sainte-Mère-Église, the advance inshore from the Normandy beaches, the U.S. Ranger Assault Group’s assault on the Pointe du Hoc, the attack on Ouistreham by Free French Forces, and the strafing of the beaches by two lone Luftwaffe pilots.

The last two scenes are powerful.  In the penultimate act, Richard Burton and Richard Beyer discuss the issue of killing and death, while smoking.  “Have you ever killed a man, face to face?” asks Burton. And when Beymer confesses that he never did, Burton admits, “Neither do I.”

The very last word and image belong to Robert Mitchum, seen searching for his cigar, and after lighting it, he jumps into his jeep and commands, “let’s go uphill.”  The camera tracks him in his jeep, followed by a line of soldiers walking upwards against the skyline.

The film enjoyed a great deal of publicity before it was released and mostly favorable critical reaction afterwards. Bosley Crowther of the N.Y. Times liked the picture, praising 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 commercially popular films. Its mass appeal stemmed from its important theme, realistic depiction of action, and 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. (See Cast by country below).

However, several critics thought that the array of familiar stars 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.”

Release date: September 25, 1962

Running time: 179 Minutes

Commercial appeal

Made on a budget of $7.75 million, the film was extremely popular all over the world, earning over $50 million.

Cast (by country, in alphabetical order)


Eddie Albert, Colonel Thompson, 29th Infantry Division
Paul Anka, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion
Richard Beymer, Private Arthur ‘Dutch’ Schultz, 82nd Airborne Division
Red Buttons, Private John Steele, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Ray Danton, Captain Frank, 29th Infantry Division
Fred Dur, Major, 2nd Ranger Battalion
Fabian, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion
Mel Ferrer, Major General Robert Haines, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF)
Henry Fonda, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Assistant Commander, 4th Infantry Division
Steve Forrest, Captain Harding, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Peter Helm, Young private, 29th Infantry Division
Jeffrey Hunter, Sergeant John H. Fuller (later field promoted to lieutenant), combat engineer, 29th Infantry Division
Alexander Knox, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Chief of Staff, SHAEF
Roddy McDowall, Private Morris, 4th Infantry Division
Sal Mineo, Private Martini, 82nd Airborne Division
Robert Mitchum, Brigadier General Norman Cota, Assistant Commander, 29th Infantry Division
Bill Nagy, Major, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Edmond O’Brien, Major General Raymond O. Barton, Commander, 4th Infantry Division
Ron Randell, Joe Williams, war correspondent
Robert Ryan, Brigadier General James M. Gavin, Assistant Commander, 82nd Airborne Division
Tommy Sands, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion
George Segal, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion
Rod Steiger, Destroyer commander, United States Navy
Tom Tryon, Lieutenant Wilson, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Robert Wagner, Private, 2nd Ranger Battalion
John Wayne, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort, CO, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment
Stuart Whitman, Lieutenant Sheen, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment


Richard Burton, Flying Officer David Campbell, Royal Air Force fighter pilot
Sean Connery, Private Flanagan, 3rd Infantry Division
Leo Genn, Major-General at SHAEF
John Gregson, Padre, 6th Airborne Division
Peter Lawford, Brigadier Lord Lovat, Commander, 1st Special Service Brigade
Kenneth More, Acting Captain Colin Maud, Royal Navy Beachmaster, Juno Beach
Leslie Phillips, RAF officer with French Resistance
Richard Todd, Major John Howard, OC, “D” Company, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry


Madame Barrault, resident of Sainte-Mère-Église
Jean-Louis Barrault, Father Louis Roulland, parish priest of Sainte-Mère-Église
André Bourvil, Alphonse Lenaux, Mayor of Colleville-sur-Orne
Pauline Carton, Louis’s housekeeper
Irina Demick, Janine Boitard, French Resistance, Caen
Christian Marquand, Capitaine de Corvette Philippe Kieffer, CO, Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos
Madeleine Renaud, Mother superior in Ouistreham
Georges Rivière, Second-Maître Guy de Montlaur, Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos
Jean Servais, Contre-amiral Robert Jaujard, Commander, 4th Cruiser Division, Free French Naval Forces
Georges Wilson, Alexandre Renaud, Mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église


Hans Christian Blech, Major Werner Pluskat, 352nd Artillery Regiment, 352nd Infantry Division
Wolfgang Büttner
Generalleutnant Dr. Hans Speidel, Chief of Staff, Army Group B
Gert Fröbe, Unteroffizier “Kaffeekanne” (“coffee pot”)
Paul Hartmann, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander, OB West

Werner Hinz, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, Commander, Army Group B
Karl John, Generalleutnant Wolfgang Häger, Luftwaffe Kommando West
Curd Jürgens, General der Infanterie Günther Blumentritt, Chief of Staff, OB West
Wolfgang Preiss, Generalleutnant Max Pemsel, Chief of Staff, 7th Army
Peter van Eyck, Oberstleutnant Ocker, Commander, 352nd Artillery Regiment, 352nd Infantry Division

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