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.
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.
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 his memoirs Christopher Lee recalls being rejected for a role in the movie because he didn't look like a military man (Lee volunteered to fight in the Winter War of 1939 before serving in the RAF, RAF Intelligence, the Special Operations Executive (SOE)- precursor to MI6, and the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) - precursor to the SAS during World War II).
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", took the opportunity caused by the long delays to take a cameo role of an RAF pilot.
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.
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 World War II self.
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.
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.
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 dollar 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.
20th Century Fox was taking a real gamble making this film. At ten million dollars, 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 forty million dollars. 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.
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 dialogue 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.
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.
According to several German veterans, Major 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.
The piper who played the bagpipes as Lord Lovat's commandos stormed ashore is played by the late Pipe Major 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.
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.
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.
Due to the massive cost overruns on the film Cleopatra (1963) (which was filming concurrently), 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.
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.
Richard Todd (playing Major 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). Captain 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.
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, he regained control of the company he founded, ultimately finishing this picture and getting the production of "Cleopatra" under control.
Throughout the film a drum can occasionally be heard in the background. It hits three high notes and fourth that is lower as in "bim, bim, bim, bum". These represent the three dots and a dash of the Morse code "V", as in "V for Victory".
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.
When leading the assault at Pegasus Bridge, Richard Todd (Maj. Howard) cries, "Up the Ox and Bucks." He and his men belonged to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. This regiment was formed in 1881 by the merger of the 43rd and 52nd Regiments of Foot, first raised in 1741 and 1755 respectively.
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.
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 dollars for his role (when the other famous actors were being paid 25,000 dollars). Wayne got his requested salary.
There was some controversy over the casting. At 54, John Wayne was 27 years older than Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort had been at the time. At 52, Robert Ryan was 15 years older than General 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 1963-98.
A colorized version of this film, in pan/scan 4:3 ratio, was released on VHS in 1994, the 50th anniversary of the invasion, but met with almost total resistance by serious film enthusiasts who preferred to see it in B&W and in its correct, original wide screen ratio.
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 just a single black actor. He's an extra, and he can be seen on a landing craft (around 1 hr 48 mins) in the film, right in the middle of the frame.
During the scene, in which Brigadier General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) is complaining to Colonel Thomson (Eddie Albert) about the weather, and the number of men being cooped up, Thomson turns to the adjutant and orders him to turn down the radio. The song playing on the radio at that moment is an instrumental of the 1943 Cole Porter tune, "Don't Fence Me In".
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.
Contrary to what is shown in this movie many of the German soldiers posted to Normandy at the time of the landings were young boys from the Hitler Youth and old men from reserve regiments as the main regiments had been moved due to the disinformation fed to German high command by the allies. Many veterans would report that the faces of the teenage boys they had to kill haunted them into old age.
John Wayne (a very conservative Republican) and Robert Ryan (a very liberal Democrat) had managed to put their political differences aside when they made Flying Leathernecks (1951), but they did not get along at all while making this film.
Although American Film Institute Catalog of feature films, 1961-1970, identifies 'Dewey Martin (I)' as 'Private Wilder,' and claims his part was cut from the final release print, he does indeed appear with Roddy McDowall on the beach, and his rank is that of a Sergeant (insignia on his helmet) and is also so addressed McDowall.
Fox executives were nervous when Darryl F. Zanuck decided to film this in black and white. When he was asked how audiences would distinguish it from newsreel footage, Zanuck replied, "Don't worry, I'll put a star in every shot!".
Adolf Hitler had invaded France in May 1940 to force an end to World War II and the Anglo-French economic blockade. France and the British Commonwealth and Empire had declared war on Germany in September 1939 following the invasion of western Poland.
Even if Adolf Hitler had released the Panzers that were being held in reserve it is unlikely they could have made any difference without control of the skies, as the failure of the Ardennes Offensive later demonstrated.
This was one of several high-profile projects which John Wayne took in the wake of the extremely expensive The Alamo (1960). He had used his own funds to help finance the project, and he was in desperate need of a quick payday.
Elmo Williams was credited as associate producer and coordinator of battle episodes. He later produced another historical World War II film, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), for Darryl F. Zanuck. That film also used a docudrama style, although it was in color. It depicted the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The Rupert paradummies used in the film were far more elaborate and lifelike than those actually used in the decoy parachute drop (Operation Titanic), which were simply canvas or burlap sacks filled with sand. In the real operation, six Special Air Service soldiers jumped with the dummies and played recordings of loud battle noises to distract the Germans.
The casino featured in the Ouistreham sequence was in fact a hotel in the town of Port-en-Bessin a town on the Normandy coast which marked the dividing line between Gold and Omaha beaches. At the time of filming the hotel was due for demolition and was destroyed as part of the production. The site is now a car park and is marked by an information board.
Jack Hedley joked that the scale of this production was so large , and the resources at Darryl F. Zanuck's disposal so vast, that Zanuck was probably the third or fourth most important power in the world at that time.
In the film, three Free French Special Air Service paratroopers jump into France before British and American airborne landings. This is accurate. Thirty-six Free French SAS (4 sticks) jumped into Brittany (Plumelec and Duault) on June 5th at 23:30, (operation Dingson). The first Allied soldiers killed in action were Lieutenant Den Brotheridge of the 2nd Ox & Bucks Light Infantry as he crossed Pegasus Bridge at 00:22 on June 6th, and Corporal Emile Bouétard of the 4th Free French SAS battalion, at the same time in Plumelec, Brittany.
The United States Sixth Fleet extensively supported the filming and made available many amphibious landing ships and craft for scenes filmed in Corsica, though many of the ships were of (then) modern vintage. The Springfield and Little Rock, both World War II light cruisers (though extensively reconfigured into guided missile cruisers) were used in the shore bombardment scenes, though it was easy to tell they did not resemble their wartime configuration.