The Longest Day was released in 1962, scarcely 18 years after the event. Like most of the WWII films of the 1960’s era, the screenplay seems to require that the actors recite the facts of how the soldiers seem to be there along with the strategic and political complexities of the day, all stated in the common tongue of soldiers.
Most annoying from our perspective now are the “speeches on the beaches” the big name actors give that rally the troops to a nearly bloodless victory – all accomplished while our happy go lucky GI’s are loving and fighting their way across Europe. Cf. Anzio.
Least realistic of the scenes of The Longest Day were of the initial wave of soldiers landing at Omaha. Most of the men survive in the film. This just wasn’t the case.
Of course in 1962, deep in the Cold War, one could not portray the number of things that went wrong on D-Day. While the weather played a role, several fairly significant intelligence lapses changed how things came down.
The currents at Normandy, for example, must have been known yet no one seemed to tell the coxswains in the barges bringing the men ashore. As a result the men on Utah beach were thousands of yards from where they were to begin, but Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. , son of the 26th President played by Henry Fonda, did indeed say “we will start the war right here” as portrayed in The Longest Day.
They don’t really say why they are in the wrong place. This actually worked in favor of the men on Omaha. Many survived because they were landed where the Germans had the least defense, and then just started climbing the bluffs as their leaders planned for them not to do.
Fonda is well cast as the eldest son of President. Despite poor health he landed with the assistance of a cane on Utah Beach with the 4th Armored Division. Only his canteen was hit during the invasion, and he received a scratch on his hand. The President’s son died of a heart attack a month later serving in France. This is not shown in the film.
Nor is the presence of a division of German troops fresh from the Russian Front arriving shortly before the invasion portrayed, effectively doubling the defenses and immeasurably increasing the quality of the troops the invaders of Omaha beach faced.
Apparently no one was willing to admit that high altitude bombing just wasn’t effective against specific targets at this point in 1944 either.
Thus the bombardment of Omaha beach from 10,000 feet through heavy cloud cover with strict instructions not to hit any friendly troops meant delays of up to 20 seconds for the airmen crossing the beach to the “bombs away” command. This meant none of the German fortifications were hit. Instead the air force killed a lot of French civilians. Not in film they didn’t, not in 1962. The naval bombardment was too brief and fell short as well. No footage of this either in The Longest Day.
Finally, the Duplex Drive Tanks that were supposed to swim to shore failed generally to get there.
The calm seas these had been tried out in England were not present that day at Normandy, instead swells of up to six feet merely swamped these behemoths often taking their crews to the bottom with them, but this is not part of the heroic tale in 1962.
The very realistic scene in The Longest Day depicts Robert Mitchum as Brigadier General Norman Cota of the 29th Division on Omaha figuring out the plan had gone horribly wrong, and that somebody like him had to organize an entirely new plan right there on the beach amid the dead, dying, and the rest of them that were going to be dead and dying if he didn’t do something.
The portrayal is more Robert Mitchum than Norman Cota. Eddie Albert asks him if he wants to take the men off the beach, and Mitchum answers a dramatic “you mean we brought these guys here to let half of them die and tell the rest to leave with their tails between their legs, hell no!” Very Hollywood.
There was no climatic explosion that Mitchum created to open the beach exit. Instead what really happened was groups of men climbing the bluffs to take on the Germans in a way no one had planned. But that kind of heroism doesn’t really make good cinema.
John Wayne portrays an actual commander in the 82d Airborne who leapt in to combat with his troops behind Utah Beach, Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort. While the commander really did break his leg I have grave doubts about the same bravado.
Meanwhile things were just jolly on British beaches in The Longest Day. Sean Connery portrays an ordinary soldier on Sword Beach. He wades ashore after falling on his face in the surf disembarking the landing craft.
I do not recall if the leisurely pace is portrayed as well by the film, but in reality once the beach was secure the British settled down for a pot of tea, rather than retaining the momentum and pressing on to Caen. Labour Party principals had infected England well before Tony Blair.
There is also a shocking absence of any reference to the Canadian forces which were primarily responsible for the landings at Juno Beach. Ask any Canadian, they know all about it.
The Longest Day is meant to be an emotional film. Portrayals of the French Resistance activity is well documented, but the presence of Free French forces probably overemphasized. For the 117 Frenchmen who came ashore they are given 20 minutes of film.
Maybe we saw so few Frenchman on that day because Churchill didn’t want De Gaulle to appear in France just yet.
But ultimately De Gaulle and a Free French armored division does appear on Utah Beach at about D-Day + 60 days. They were completely outfitted by the United States; tanks, uniforms, rifles, boots and helmets, the whole kit. The French citizens run out to greet them and see the uniforms and ask why Americans have been wearing French uniforms all this time. No, this is not part of any film but I am told this is typically French.
All in all The Longest Day plays out like D-Day was a great adventure we all should want to be part of. The truth is completely the opposite. More in the second installment of this review.