How historically accurate is the movie The Longest Day?

John Wayne in a scene from the Longest Day (1962)

The Longest Day is a 1962 war movie based on the book of Cornelius Ryan of the same name. The movie is filmed in a docudrama style and narrates the key events of the first day of the D-Day Landings on June 6th, 1944. These landings were the largest amphibious operation in history when some 100,000 Allied troops landed on the coasts of Normandy in German-occupied France. D-Day was one of the most important events in the Second World War, as it was the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied western Europe. The movie concentrates on the drama of the vital first day when there was a real risk that the Germans could have driven the invasion force back into the sea.

The Longest Day was directed by several directors who each directed a scene in a specific country or language. For example, there was a director for the scenes on Britain and a director for the scenes involving the German military, filmed in German. The movie was overseen by the influential Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck and he was very committed to historical accuracy. He demanded that much of the dialogue be taken from the diaries and reports of those who had fought at D-Day and hired former Allied and German commanders to provide technical advice.

However, how historically accurate was the movie? The script was written by Cornelius Ryan and he was assisted by a team of writers. [1] The Longest Day was a true Hollywood blockbuster with lavish scenes and great effects. It had also an all-star cast that included Kenneth Moore, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery and many more. Several of the stars were veterans of the war including Rod Steiger and Henry Fonda, who won a bronze star during the Allied invasion of Europe.[2]

Preparation for D-Day

One of the dummy paratroopers used to fool the Germans on D Day

In the movie, the south of England is portrayed as being full of soldiers and camps all readying for D-Day and this was the case. It captures very well the tense and expectant atmosphere prior to the landings. It also shows very accurately the units involved in the assaults and demonstrates the various nationalities that took part in the greatest amphibious invasion in history. The movie spends almost a third of its running time introducing the many characters in the movie and setting the scene.

The movie does portray very accurately all the major players in the planning of D-Day. Naturally, there were some inaccuracies such as John Wayne playing a character who was thirty years younger than him. The movie generally shows the main Allied commanders who were directly involved in the D-Day operation, such as Dwight D Eisenhower. The movie also has the various Germans commanders such as Rommel. The movie very accurately depicts the concerns of the allied planners and commanders and their anxieties about the invasion. The movie very accurately shows the gigantic armada and the huge number of troops that were involved in the amphibious assault. [3]

One of the biggest concerns of the Allied planners was the weather. The weather in northwest Europe is very changeable even in summer and the weeks leading up to the invasion date were unseasonable and stormy. Poor weather could have delayed or even disrupted the invasion, the Allies needed calm weather. The movie captures accurately the importance of the weather breaking on June 6th and how pivotal it proved to be. Another fact that the movie got right was the debate among Hitler and his commanders about the location of the invasion. This debate lends some drama to the otherwise slow opening of the film.

It movie also accurately shows how the Germans believed, that the landings would take place at Calais.[4] They are shown as being utterly taken a-back by the landings at Normandy which was the case. Only General Erwin Rommel believed that a landing in that area was a possibility. The movie also brilliantly captures how the Germans were unable to counter-attack. Hitler is not shown in the movie but the audience is informed, in some dialogue that he is sleeping through the initial stages of the invasion. No one could act without Hitler’s consent and his officers were too afraid to wake him. This was to fatefully delay the counter-attack that had been planned by Rommel. The Desert Fox is shown very sympathetically in Zanuck’s movie. In the opening scene, he gives the line that the day of the invasion would be the longest day. The German general did in fact state that ‘for the Germans and the allies it will indeed be the longest day.’[5] However, the film is inaccurate when it shows Rommel already conspiring with others to remove Hitler from power, although by June 1944 he was certainly disillusioned with the Fuhrer.

Landings on the beaches

Allied troops on D-Day

The landings occurred on a series of beaches and they are all shown in the movie. Zanuck’s movie shows all the beaches Juno, Sword, Utah Gold and Omaha where the Allies landed on June 6th, 1944. However, as was noted at the time and since the landings themselves are not very realistic. The first problem is the landing craft, many of the craft used by the movie were not from the correct the time period. Indeed, many of the amphibious landing craft from which the Allied troops emerged in the movie are contemporary vessels. The producers could not secure enough landing craft from the period and so simply used ones then in use with the American navy in 1962.

The first waves of attackers were met with fierce resistance from the outnumbered but battle-hardened German troops, as indicated in the book upon which the film is based. [6] Many British, American and other allied troops were mowed down with machine gun fire. The Germans despite heavy bombardment by sea and air were entrenched in concrete bunkers. This is shown accurately in the film. The movie does not show how German machine gunners were able to shoot down many Allied troops as they landed on the beach. The Normandy beaches provided little or no cover for the attackers and some historians have calculated that some 80% of the first wave died because of German fire.

The movie does not fully show the heavy losses sustained by the Anglo-Canadian invasion force on Juno Beach. Only on Omaha beach, are the Allied troops shown as encountering stiff resistance.[7] The movie gives a false impression that Omaha Beach was the only landing point where the allies experienced fierce resistance and suffered heavy casualties. The assault on the cliff at Pointe du Hoc by the US Rangers on Sword Beach conforms with historical accounts.[8] The Rangers had adapted mortars to fire grappling ropes onto the face of the cliffs. The films fail to show that many of these ropes did not hit the target as they had become soaked in sea water during the landings. Indeed only 19 ropes hit the target but the Rangers still managed to climb and attack the Germans at the top of the cliffs. The movie shows very truthfully that this heroic assault was unnecessary. It was ordered to take place as the allies believed that heavy guns were positioned on the cliffs and that they could destroy landing craft. In truth there were no guns on top of the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, which is shown in a scene in the movie.

Airborne landings

D-Day was the greatest sea-born invasion in history, but airborne forces played a crucial role in the invasion.[9] The Allied High Command ordered that British, American and other allied paratroopers be dropped behind the German positions to capture territory and to disrupt the German supply lines and even to cut-off their units on the beaches in Normandy. The film accurately portrays the paratroopers who landed in Normandy by gliders or by parachuting into the area. These men played a crucial role in the success of the Allied landings and displayed incredible bravery.

Many paratroopers were among the first into occupied France and the first to engage the Germans. The film shows correctly how in the early morning of June 6, 1944, the airborne troops of the United States 82nd and 101st US divisions were dropped into Normandy and were parachuted into the wrong place. They ended up miles from their intended target. Many of these airborne troops were killed by German fire before they even landed. The movie shows the confusion of units of the 101st Airborne Division when they landed in Sainte-Mère-Eglise. One paratrooper is shown becoming entangled on the church steeple of the Normandy town and this happened. While others are shown landing directly in the town. This did not happen and most of the paratroopers landed outside the towns or in gardens.

The movie does over-dramatize the landings in Sainte-Mère-Eglise. The film also shows how dummies made to appear as paratroopers were dropped as part of an elaborate decoy strategy by the allies. This is historically correct and there was indeed a decoy parachute drop when dummies dressed in American jumpsuits were dropped to fool the Germans[10].

French Involvement

The D-Day landings were the first stage in the liberation of Western Europe after 4 years of German rule. The French played a major role in the success of D-Day. The French Resistance is shown in the movie as playing a key role in the run-up to the landings. They are shown as gathering intelligence for the allies and relaying it back in secret to London. The intelligence that was secured by the French Resistance was very important and they identified the location of German lines of defense and troops movements. This was all a great help to the planners of D-Day.

The movie also shows the incredible bravery of the many ordinary French people who risked their lives to secure vital information on the Germans. The Longest Day also shows how French saboteurs helped to disrupt the Nazis preparations in the run-up to D-Day. The movie also accurately shows the role of Free French forces in the landings. On the beach head known as Sword Beach, a French commando unit are shown in the movie attacking a former casino that had been turned into a German fortress and capturing it and this is a historical fact. However, the movie does exaggerate the scale and size of the former casino but not the ferocity of the battle. It also shows how the timely arrival of an American tank helped the Free French forces to seize the casino when it seemed that they were on the brink of defeat.[11]

Conclusion

The Longest Day movie was a hit and it received several Academy Award nominations, mostly in technical categories. The movie, which is really a series of stories neatly manages to show the main events of the war and evokes the atmosphere of that historic day. The motion picture does give a comprehensive overview of D-Day. It is particularly good at showing the concerns of the Allied and the German high commands. The film can show what happened at the landing points and the events that happened there such as the storming of the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc.

Zanuck’s motion picture also shows the horror of war and how chance played a crucial part in the outcome of D-Day. The most glaring inaccuracy in the entire movie is that it does not show the bloodbath that was the first assault, this is shown much more accurately in the 1996 motion picture Saving Private Ryan. However, the movie is overall quite accurate and for once Hollywood got it (mostly) right. Therefore, the film has generally been viewed favorably by historians and many teachers even believe it is suitable for teaching children about the history of D-Day.

References

  1. Solomon, Aubrey, Twentieth Century Fox: a corporate and financial History (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989). p. 253
  2. Solomon, p. 253
  3. Ryan, Cornelius. The Longest Day (London, Schuster and Schuster, 1959), p. 123
  4. Ryan, p. 11
  5. Ryan, p. 12
  6. Ryan, p. 213
  7. Keegan, John Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p 13
  8. Ryan, p. 312
  9. Keegan, p. 13
  10. Ryan, p. 325
  11. Neillands, Robin. The Battle of Normandy, 1944 (London: Cassel, 1999), p. 113