Richard Todd (playing Maj. John Howard, Officer Commanding D Company of The 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, Air Landing Brigade, 6th Airborne Division) was himself in Normandy on D-Day, and participated as Capt. Todd of the 7th Parachute Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade, British 6th Airborne Division. His battalion actually went into action as reinforcements, via a parachute jump (after the gliders had landed and completed the initial coup de main assault). Capt. Richard 'Sweeney' Todd was moved from the plane he was originally scheduled to jump from, to another. The original plane was shot down, killing everyone on board.
While clearing a section of the Normandy beach near Ponte du Hoc, the film's crew unearthed a tank that had been buried in the sand since the original invasion. Mechanics cleaned it off, fixed it up and it was used in the film as part of the British tank regiment.
As a 22-year-old private, Joseph Lowe landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day with the Second Ranger Battalion and scaled the cliffs at Point-Du-Hoc. He scaled those 100-foot cliffs all over again, for the cameras, some 17 years later.
Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was considered for the role of himself in the film, and he indicated his willingness. However, it was decided that makeup artists couldn't make him appear young enough to play his WWII self.
According to several German veterans, Maj. Werner Pluskat was not at his command bunker in Omaha Beach when the first wave of the invasion forces landed, as depicted in this film. He was in a bordello in Caen.
20th Century-Fox was taking a real gamble making this film. At $10 million it was a hugely daring venture, but even more risky was Cleopatra (1963), which was being filmed concurrently. This was to set Fox back the then unprecedented sum of $40 million. Although "Cleopatra" did well at the box office, it was simply too expensive to recoup its costs and nearly bankrupted the studio. Fortunately, this film turned out to be one of Fox's biggest hits and helped offset the financial damage caused by the Egyptian epic.
Darryl F. Zanuck was quoted in an interview as saying that he didn't think much of actors forming their own production companies, citing The Alamo (1960), produced by John Wayne, as a failure of such ventures. Wayne found out about this interview before being approached by Zanuck, and refused to appear in the film unless he was paid $250,000 for his role (when the other famous actors were being paid $25,000). Wayne got his requested salary.
Due to the massive cost overruns on the film Cleopatra (1963) (which was filming contemporaneously), Darryl F. Zanuck had to agree to a fixed filming budget. After he had spent the budgeted amount he started using his own money to pay for the production.
When cost overruns on Cleopatra (1963) threatened to force 20th Century Fox to shut down production of this film, Darryl F. Zanuck flew to New York to save his project. After an impassioned speech to Fox's board, Zanuck regained control of the company he founded, ultimately finishing this picture and getting the production of "Cleopatra" under control.
The piper who played the bagpipes as Lord Lovat's commandos stormed ashore is played by the late Pipe Maj. Leslie de Laspee, who was at the time Pipe Major of the London Scottish Pipe Band and personal piper to HM the Queen Mother. The actual man who did this stirring deed on D-Day is Bill Millin. He recently donated that very set of pipes to the national war memorial in Edinburgh Castle.
One of producer Darryl F. Zanuck's big worries was that, as filming of the actual invasion drew near, he couldn't find any working German Messerschmitts, which strafed the beach, or British Spitfires, which chased them away. He finally found two Messerschmitt Me-108 trainers that were being used by the Spanish Air Force, and two Spitfires that were still on active duty with the Belgian Air Force, and rented all four of them for the invasion scenes.
An estimated 23,000 troops were supplied by the U.S., Britain and France for the filming. (Germans only appeared as officers in speaking roles.) The French contributed 1,000 commandos despite their involvement in the Algerian War at the time.
The fleet scenes were filmed using 22 ships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet during maneuvers off Corsica between June 21-30, 1961. The cameras had to avoid shooting the area where the fleet's aircraft carrier was positioned, as there were no carriers in the invasion.
Just before shooting began in Corsica, Darryl F. Zanuck was approached by a man stating he represented the beach owners. He insisted on a $15,000 payment or else they would drive modern cars along the beach. Zanuck paid the money, but it was later discovered to be a scam as there were no private beaches in Corsica. Zanuck eventually won damages after an eight-year lawsuit.
During shooting in Ste. Mère-Eglise, traffic was stopped, stores were closed and the power was shut down in order not to endanger the paratroopers who were unused to night drops in populated areas. Still, the lights and staged fire proved too difficult to work around, and only one or two jumpers managed to land in the square - with several suffering minor injuries. One of the initial jumpers broke both legs in landing. Ultimately, plans to use authentic jumps were abandoned, opting instead for rigged jumps from high cranes.
During the filming of the landings at Omaha Beach, the American soldiers appearing as extras didn't want to jump off the landing craft into the water because they thought it would be too cold. Robert Mitchum, who played Gen. Norm Cota, was so disgusted with them that he jumped in first, at which point the soldiers had no choice but to follow his example.
In Italy for the filming of Cleopatra (1963), Roddy McDowall became so frustrated with the numerous delays during its production, he begged Darryl F. Zanuck for a part in this picture just so he could do some work. He ended up with a small role as an American soldier. Richard Burton, who was also filming Cleopatra, also took the opportunity caused by the long delays to take a cameo role of an RAF pilot.
One of the very first World War II films made by an American studio in which the members of each country spoke nearly all their dialog in the language of that country: the Germans spoke German, the French spoke French, and the Americans and the British spoke English. There were subtitles on the bottom of the screen to translate the various languages. There were two versions of this movie, one where all the actors spoke English and the other(the better known one) where the French and German actors spoke their respective languages.
Richard Todd, who actually took part in the action at the bridge at Benouville (later renamed Pegasus Bridge), was offered the chance to play himself but joked, "I don't think at this stage of my acting career I could accept a part 'that' small." He played the commander of the actual bridge assault itself, Maj. John Howard, instead.
In researching his contribution to the script, Romain Gary uncovered one of Cornelius Ryan's mistakes: the casino at Ouistreham had not existed on June 6, 1944. Since the casino set had already been built, however, the scene taking place there was filmed anyway.
The character who calls the homing pigeons on Juno beach "Traitors" when they appear to fly east towards Germany is Canadian journalist Charles Lynch, who landed with the Canadians and covered the landings for Reuters.
There was some controversy over the casting. At 54, John Wayne was 27 years older than Col. Benjamin Vandervoort had been at the time. At 52, Robert Ryan was 15 years older than Gen. James M. Gavin had been.
Four Spitfires were used in the strafing sequence. They were all ex-Belgian target tugs and all were MK9s. The serial numbers were MH415, MK297, MK923 and MH434 and all are, as of this writing, still extant. The Spitfires were assembled and co-ordinated by former Free French Spitfire pilot Pierre Laureys, who flew with 340 Squadron, a Free French unit in the RAF. The four Spitfires were, of course, repainted in 340 Squadron markings. Spitfire MK923 was owned by Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson from 1963-1998.
Col. Benjamin Vandervoort was very disappointed to find that he was being played in the movie by John Wayne, since even 17 years after D-Day Vandervoort was still a decade younger than the 54-year-old Wayne.
In 1963 the civil rights organization the NAACP accused Hollywood studios of racial discrimination. Using this film as an example, it cited the fact that despite there being some 1,700 black soldiers who took part in the actual landings, the film featured not a single black actor.
To create a more sympathetic stance to each of the different parties, Darryl F. Zanuck had Englishman Ken Annakin direct the British segments, the American parts were handled by American action specialist Andrew Marton and German Bernhard Wicki took care of the scenes with the German army officers.
Darryl F. Zanuck and Cornelius Ryan collaborated on the screenplay, even though they hated each other almost from the first time they met. It was up to producer Elmo Williams to mediate between the two and keep the peace.
As part of John Wayne's contract, in addition to his high fee, he insisted on getting separate billing. The usual practice in film credits for this type of situation is to start off with "Starring John Wayne and *the other actors*; however, the credits begin with "starring *the other actors*... and John Wayne". Wayne's name appears last on the credits, while still meeting the separate billing clause of his contract. Many of the older cast members had actually fought in World War II, some even having taken part in the D-Day landings. They looked at Wayne's refusal to enlist--he sought and was given a deferral because he was married and had a family--with a fair degree of disdain.
The scene of the French commando assault in Ouistreham was filmed in the nearby town of Port-en-Bessin. A building seen in the background of the long tracking shot is painted with the words "Bazar de Ouistreham". A local resident has indicated that this sign originally said "Bazar de Port-en-Bessin", but the town name was painted over to say "Ouistreham" for filming, then restored to say "Port-en-Bessin" after filming. As of 2013 the paint of the lettering on the building is still visible but has faded on the town name portion so that both the "Port-en-Bessin" and "Ouistreham" lettering can now be seen.