Many men came here as soldiers, many men will pass this way. Many men will count the hours as they live The Longest Day. Many men are tired and weary, many men are here to stay. Many men won't see the sunset when it ends The Longest Day.
The Longest Day is the title of a book by Cornelius Ryan describing the events of D-Day through the eyes of as many of the participants — Allied, German and local inhabitants — as he could find and interview.In 1962, the book was made into a film with an All-Star Cast and Loads and Loads of Characters. Rather than focussing on one particular group of participants in the manner of Saving Private Ryan, the work aimed to provide an overview of the events of D-Day as they unfolded. Viewpoint characters include French resistance fighters, German generals and local commanders, Allied generals and commanders as well as members of the Airborne troops, Rangers, infantry, air force and navy components of the landings.Because the film was made just 18 years after the events it depicts, many of the older actors had fought in World War II, and some had even taken part in the landings — Richard Todd even played his own commanding officer from 1944.note Todd had participated in the Pegasus Bridge operation as a young soldier, and is even shown in the film interacting with "himself", although this is never mentioned in the film. Supposedly, he was offered the chance to play himself, but he picked his CO instead because he felt his own role in the landings was too small. Another Cornelius Ryan book, A Bridge Too Far, later got a similar all-star-cast big movie treatment.
The Longest Day provides examples of the following tropes:
The Ace: Josef Priller, a fighter wing commander and one of the two German airmen later seen strafing the beaches on the day as mentioned below in Worthy Opponent (the other being his wingman Heinz Wodarczyk). His ace status is referred to during the phone conversation early on in the film in which he basically asks "where the hell are my planes?"
Airstrike Impossible: Though not highlighted in the film, in order for those two German planes to get to the beach to strafe them, they had to make it past all of the Allied fighter planes providing cover over that part of France. In order to make it back from the beach, they had to fly so low, when they landed they found that the tips of their propellers had been damaged from clipping treetops on the way.
America Saves the Day: Averted. The British and French divisions of the Normandy landings do their part in reaching their objectives. Almost subverted with Omaha Beach, where the Americans were stuck until a Heroic Sacrifice opens up the German defenses.
And Starring: The cast credits are announced as being in alphabetical order, but at the end of the list is "and John Wayne"; he would otherwise have been third to last.
Artistic License - History: Mostly averted, due to the source material being Ryan's nonfiction book (and by extension, interviews with the actual participants.) However, the film did popularize a few misconceptions about the invasion. Some notable ones:
The Verlaine poem being the message to the French Resistance announcing the invasion. In reality, the message was code for one specific group to perform certain acts of sabotage; it just so happened that the Germans had learned of this code and correctly interpreted it to mean the invasion was imminent.note Notably, the film does show a resistance fighter reacting to a completely different phrase — "John has a long moustache."
That the Ranger assault on Pointe du Hoc was a failure (or simply unnecessary) due to them not finding the coastal guns they were meant to destroy, with the implication that the guns simply didn't exist. In actuality, the Germans had simply moved the guns inland, and a unit of Rangers did ultimately find and destroy them.
Artistic License - Ships: They tried to avert this by only showing the warships in silhouette, but all that did was exaggerate their obviously postwar lattice masts.
Bilingual Bonus: Although a fairly obvious one. A German runs out of a bunker shouting "bitte, bitte"'. An American Ranger shoots him and then says, "I wonder what 'bitter, bitter' means.". "Bitte" is the German for "please".
Elites Are More Glamorous: A lot of focus is given to the British and American Airborne, as well as the American Rangers and British and French Commandos. Justified, as these units were given the toughest and most critical missions in the invasion.
In a meta example, young heartthrob/A-list actors were purposefully used to cast these units, to emphasize their prestige.
The Engineer: Naturally, when you're up against a big concrete wall, you call in this guy.
Field Promotion: When Brigadier General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) finds that the highest ranking Army engineer is Sergeant John H. Fuller, he promotes Fuller to lieutenant and puts him in charge of demolishing a concrete barrier.
For Want of a Nail: A major contributing factor in the Allies successfully establishing their beachhead in Normandy was some absurdly unlikely coincidences that really happened.
Many unit commanders were away from their posts to participate in previously scheduled war games.
Erwin Rommel, who was in overall command of the coastal defenses and arguably the best general the Germans had, was away from his post because he took a short leave to visit his wife on her birthday.
Adolf Hitler decided to sleep in that morning and left orders not to be disturbed, resulting in several tank units that answered directly to him not participating in the battle at all.
He didn't have the four stars, but Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt III (Henry Fonda) was the highest-ranking officer on Utah Beach that day and the only General to land with the first wave. Walking cane and all. His presence and leadership proved essential when his division was landed a mile out of position. "We'll start the war from here."
Brigadier General Norman Cota was Roosevelt's counterpart at Omaha Beach. When the assault bogged down in the face of immense German fire, he personally organized and led the attack that got the American assault moving.
General Failure: The Germans have to ask Hitler for permission to use the 21st Panzer Division in a counterattack, and no-one dares wake him up.
Heroic BSOD: That horrified look on paratrooper John Steele's face as he dangles from the Sainte-Mère-Église church belltower...
Hollywood Nuns: At Ouistreham, a group of French nuns walk into the hotel where the French commandos are fighting from to tend to their wounded. This did not happen in real life.
Ironic Echo: The Resistance code phrase, "Wounds my heart with a monotonous languor," gets repeated by Gen. Blumentritt when he realizes none of his superiors will do anything against the Allies landing at Normandy. He knows in that moment Germany will lose the war.
Two characters, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort (John Wayne) [Allies] and Major General Gunther Blumentritt (Curd Jürgens) [Germans], wonder aloud "which side God's on" to their respective subordinates.
General Marcks, a Wehrmacht division commander, plans to assault Normandy while role-playing as General Eisenhower (the Allied commander), in the German war game in Rennes, because such a move is "inconceivable" to his colleagues. When news of the invasion comes to him, he can only look at the map and laugh at himself. When Marcks explains his attack plan to an underling, even he thinks Eisenhower is too cautious and would never use that plan. Cut to Eisenhower meeting with his Generals to discuss the weather conditions, with Eisenhower deciding "I'm quite positive we must give the order. I don't like it, but there it is. Gentlemen, I don't see how we can possibly do anything... but go."
Also the aforementioned Dramatic Gun Cock moment. A young paratrooper lands in an isolated area, and suddenly hears somebody nearby. He instantly (as he was instructed) unpacks his little communication tool (a.k.a. "The Cricket"), and gives a signal (one click-clack), and awaits two click-clacks in return, if the other person were another paratrooper. He in fact hears two click-clacks right away, and goes to greet the person in relief. Suddenly, he is shot in the stomach. He manages to mutter, "Two clicks. I heard two clicks!" and dies. It turns out the mysterious person was a patrolling German. The two click-clacks the paratrooper heard was in fact the German instinctively loading and cocking his gun upon hearing the awkward click-clack sound. The contraption designed to preserve the paratrooper's life instead caused his death.
It's Raining Men: Including, unfortunately for those dropping, straight onto a heavily defended town they were supposed to land outside of, then march in to capture. And on a more humorous note, straight onto General von Salmuth's headquarters.
"Terribly sorry, old man. We simply landed here by accident."
Large Ham: Priller is normally a Deadpan Snarker, but when addressing his superior, who's just informed him of the latest bureaucratic stupidity as though it were sense, he becomes a very hammy snarker.
"You were a lousy pilot when we flew into Russia. Now you're flying a desk and you're STILL A LOUSY PILOT!"
"Pluskat, where are those ships heading?" "STRAIGHT FOR ME!"
The face of Sgt. Kaffekanne (Gert Fröbe) when said ships start to bombard the beach.
The Oner: A long overhead tracking shot of the Free French forces taking Ouistreham. It follows the troops running from cover to cover, crossing pedestrian bridges, taking fire, heading upriver toward a target that the camera eventually reveals is a casino building fortified into a massive German bunker. View it here.
Only Sane Man: Blumentritt. He's the one German officer who can see this is the critical battle and tries to get his superiors to deploy the tank reserves that could stop the Allies. No-one listens to him.
Parachute in a Tree: There's a scene (Based on a True Story) where a paratrooper becomes snagged on a French church spire. The real-life church at Sainte-Mère-Église now has an effigy of said paratrooper (John Steele) hanging from its steeples, as well as a stained glass window commemorating the invasion.
Percussive Maintenance: Captain Maud fixing a stalled Universal Carrier on the beach with a baton. The baton in the film was the genuine article used during the real landings.
Precision F-Strike: Col. Priller delivers one of these with just a "damned" at his superiors, who order to him to assemble his forces for a counterattack, not long after having dispersed his forces so far from the front that he has only 2 planes available.
You're driving a hay cart with two Resistance operatives hiding in the hay. You need to get past a German checkpoint. So you arrange for an insanely-hot lady Resistance fighter to arrive at the checkpoint at the same time, riding a bike, showing off cleavage with a half-unbuttoned blouse. It works like a charm.
Later subverted when she tries the same trick to distract a late-night German patrol from discovering the explosives in the railway tracks and nearly gets killed in the process.
Take a Third Option: Rommel wants to fight right on the beaches, where the Allies are most vulnerable, not strongly established on the continent, and so the Germans won't have to try and move forces towards the beach under Allied air superiority. Rundstedt wants to keep a large mobile reserve so that his tanks won't be shelled by the navy and so that he can concentrate as much force as possible. The Third Option, unusually for this trope, is not a clever improvement, but a horrible compromise. The tanks are split so that neither general has overall command and the only common link is back in Germany at Hitler's HQ, and neither plan has enough panzer divisions available so that neither can really be carried out.
Averted with most German officers who have speaking roles in the movie; they are professional military men who are focused on carrying out their missions.
Well, most of them. All of those who didn't run off to play war-games or attending birthday parties. The German officers left for war games that had been scheduled for months. Considering the foul weather they didn't expect Eisenhower to give the order.
Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt refuses to ask Adolf Hitler for permission to release the Wehrmacht's Panzer reserves, declaring that he would not "bow" to "that Bohemian corporal", diesen böhmischen Gefreiter?! Hitler had it set up so that only he could order the reserve Panzer divisions to move. The refusal to wake him on D-Day was costly to put it mildly. Though that's only what Blumentritt thinks to have happened. In reality, when Hitler woke up, he was more cheerful than ever about the invasion, because now he was actually able to reach the allied army for the first time in that war, and crush them... theoretically. (Not only he didn't manage that... the Soviets got him first.) He was so happy, that he started dancing and fell back into his original alpine Austrian dialect: O'ganga is! (It's on!). But why did he not set the Panzer reserves free? Nobody knows for fact. Even the historians wonder. The best the historians can figure is that Hitler was still convinced the Allies would send a larger invasion force at Calais, ignoring the obvious size of the force at Normandy. There's also the possibility that Hitler believed the Americans to be weak and soft enough that the troops already deployed could handle it, despite all the ass-kicking that had already taken place in Africa and Sicily.
Actor Curt Jürgens, in his role as the German General Blumentritt, calls the German generals incompetent. Jürgens was actually imprisoned by the Nazis in his youth, so this might be considered a bit of Take That.
The only time the phrase "Sieg Heil!" appears in the movie is graffiti on a bunker wall in Ouistreham.
The paratroopers crashing into Sainte-Mère-Église. The paratrooper caught on the belltower (John Steele, played by Red Buttons) can only dangle and watch in horror as his fellow jumpers get mowed down. It really happened that way, too.
Omaha Beach. Just... damn. The memorial on Omaha Beach is actually kind of Real Life Tear Jerker in itself (No matter that you smirk a bit when you have to go through metal detectors and checkout in order to enter it. And the fact that when you compare the giant memorial for US soldiers to memorials of other nation armies, which makes irony almost unbearable) — it is nothing but cemetery. Stand in the middle and you can't see the ends.
The Utah Beach unit climbing the cliffs to get at the big guns overlooking half the beach-head reach their objectives only to find the Germans hadn't installed the guns into their bunkers yet. "You mean we climbed all this way... for nothing?" In Real Life it got worse when those secured positions were fired on by the warships anchored off-shore.
In Real Life it wasn't for nothing. The Germans had moved the guns inland prior to the invasion and the US Rangers found and destroyed them.
Between this scene and a scene in which one of the Rangers shoots two German soldiers attempting to surrender, many Ranger veterans were quite upset with their portrayal in this film, as they felt they'd been unfairly singled out to deliver the War Is Hell message.
"He's dead. I'm crippled. You're lost. Do you suppose it's always like that? I mean war."
Worthy Opponent: Most German soldiers. Special props to the two Luftwaffe pilots available, whom even a British officer admired.