Filming the Longest Day: Conflicting Interests1

By Lev, Peter | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Filming the Longest Day: Conflicting Interests1


Lev, Peter, Literature/Film Quarterly


Any large-scale film must come to grips with a number of tensions caused by the conflicting interests of the various stakeholders: scriptwriter, director, producer, star, production company, stockholders, censorship groups, and governments. These tensions become particularly noteworthy in the case of the war film, where questions of history and ideology add another layer of potential conflict, and the portrayal of governments and famous individuals becomes especially sensitive.

Consider, for example, Darryl Zanuck's production of The Longest Day (1962), based on the nonfiction bestseller by Cornelius Ryan about the D-Day invasion of France. This three-hour epic, one of the most expensive and most successful war films of its era, had to satisfy a bewildering array of stakeholders. The scriptwriter wanted the film to be an audio-visual version of the book. The governments of the United States, England, France, and Germany, all of whom provided assistance to the film, wanted their militaries to be presented in a positive light. The censors of the Production Code Administration wanted limits on both profanity and violence. The production company wanted a successful film and a patriotic film-it is worth explaining that Zanuck was at this point an "independent producer," but he still depended on Twentieth Century-Fox for financing and distribution. The stars wanted a film they could be proud of. What the public wanted is unclear (which is why film production is so risky).

The above paragraph already contains an assumption that Zanuck the producer was the primary filmmaker, an assumption contrary to the director-oriented orthodoxy of film studies. In this case, the evidence for Zanuck as filmmaker is pretty clear: he cowrote the script (uncredited), hired the three directors, directed some scenes himself, and closely supervised the editing. He certainly did not work alone, however. Writer Cornelius Ryan had a considerable influence on The Longest Day; so did associate producer Elmo Williams. Directors Bernhard Wicki, Ken Annakin, and Andrew Marton handled the German, British, and American scenes respectively, though Zanuck directed many of the American interiors. And Twentieth Century-Fox exerted some influence on the production not only in budget and distribution, but also during the scripting stage.

My thesis is that the producer's major job on The Longest Day, aside from solving the logistics of a complex production, was satisfying all of the stakeholders while at the same time making an original and compelling statement of his own. Darryl Zanuck's great achievement in this film was to balance the conflicting interests and produce a film that shows the humanity and heroism of D-Day without bombast. To highlight Zanuck's skill as a producer, I will concentrate on his relationships with author/screenwriter Cornelius Ryan, the US Department of Defense, and Twentieth Century-Fox President Spyros Skouras. To round out the picture, I will briefly mention Zanuck's contacts with Britain and France as well as The Longest Day's interaction with the Production Code Administration, the Hollywood film industry's self-censorship office.

Cornelius Ryan and Darryl Zanuck basically agreed on the substance of The Longest Day, but disagreed about who should get the credit. Zanuck was attracted to the book's complex portrayal of all the participants of D-Day, German and French as well as American and English. He highlighted this multisided complexity in his many public and private statements about the film. Zanuck and Ryan shared some basic attitudes about the war narrative. They were for immediacy based on firsthand accounts, individual stories melded into a larger whole, respect for the soldiers on the other side, and a firm sense of pace. Ryan's bestseller focuses on one day and tells its story via brief vignettes; unlike many sprawling war books, it is a tightly written narrative. Zanuck, the master of cinematic pace, worked with Ryan to compress the book's 302 pages into a three-hour movie.

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