It’s been 78 years since Allied forces took to the skies and beaches of Normandy, France, in the first major step toward the liberation of Europe. In the nearly eight decades since that monumental undertaking, countless movies and television shows have depicted D-Day and the battle for France. Works like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Big Red One all help shape our collective memory of Operation Overlord. But only one succeeded in capturing the true magnitude of the invasion: The Longest Day.
In fact, with more than 23,000 actors and extras, the film’s directors Ken Annakin and Andrew Marton technically had more people under their command than any single general did during the actual operation. With its ensemble cast led by none other than The Duke himself, the film depicts the battle from multiple perspectives, switching from American, British, and Canadian forces assaulting the beaches, to paratroopers jumping behind enemy lines, to German troops desperately fighting to rebuff the invasion.
Like with most great movies, the behind-the-scenes story of The Longest Day is also fascinating. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about the film.
John Wayne Was Cast To Play Someone Half His Age
By the time John Wayne was cast in The Longest Day, he was 54 years old. He starred as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, who was only 27 at the time of the battle. While some felt The Duke was too old (and pudgy) to convincingly play a paratrooper half his age, Wayne’s incomparable star power won over casting director Maude Spector, who even agreed to list Wayne’s name separately in the film’s credits.
The Film Crew Accidentally Unearthed a Tank Left Over From the Battle
During filming of the assault on Pointe du Hoc, crew members stumbled upon an American tank that had been buried in the sand since D-Day. They then excavated the tank, cleaned it up, and used it in the film as part of a British tank column. Nothing beats a free tank.
A Ranger Who Scaled Pointe du Hoc Did It Again for the Movie
The movie features many WWII veterans, some of whom even participated in D-Day. Among them was Joseph Lowe, a former Army Ranger who scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc during the invasion. Nearly two decades later, Lowe made the harrowing climb up the 110-foot rock face all over again, albeit this time for the sake of entertainment.
Christopher Lee Didn’t Look ‘Military’ Enough for a Role, Despite Actually Fighting in WWII
Legendary actor Christopher Lee — best known today for roles in Dracula, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings — auditioned for a part in the film but was turned down for not looking like a “military man.” Ironically, Lee not only served in WWII but was also a special operations pioneer who served in the famed Long Range Desert Group.
A Replica of an American Paratrooper Still Hangs From the Steeple in Sainte-Mère-Église
In one of the film’s more dramatic scenes, Pvt. John Marvin Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division (portrayed by Red Button) floats toward Earth from a C-17, and his parachute gets tangled in a church steeple. In the movie, Steele dangles above the ground, pretending to be dead for 10 hours before eventually being captured. The real Steele only dangled for two hours before his capture but was able to escape four hours later and rejoin his regiment.
Today, the stained-glass windows of that same church depict American paratroopers descending from the sky, and a full-sized replica of Steele still hangs from the steeple.