Culture

A Hollywood Dream Crushed at Normandy

A view from inside a gun bunker at Longues, Normandy

A view from inside a gun bunker at Longues, Normandy

Normandy.

The word brings to mind many things, but for many of us it means but one thing: D-Day. Hollywood has taken the event and made it a continuing part of our collective lives.

We have jumped into Normandy with the Band of Brothers, and shared the confusion, terror, loss, humor, and more that went with that jump. We’ve shared the day, and it’s aftermath, through Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan. In addition to those blockbusters, you also have Ike: Countdown to D-Day, D-Day, the Sixth of June, D-Day The Total Story, and a host of lesser films.

Yet, only one movie has focused on the day and captured the public’s imagination: The Longest Day. This 1962 movie has moved from the big screen to being a staple of classic movie and history channels. In it, one sees the different pieces of the operation — from both sides. It’s treatment of the Germans is far more even-handed than one might expect, though it is clear who are the good guys and who is not. The cast is impressive, with Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Robert Ryan, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Red Buttons, and many more.

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I’ve watched the movie for years, and in covering Normandy this year I set out to visit every major site depicted in the film. From the “Pegasus” bridge to St. Mere Eglise, I gleefully toured the more than 50 miles of beaches and interior landing zones and compared reality to the movie in my stories. I didn’t expect things to match up too much, after all, we are talking Hollywood here and even in something like this movie liberties would be taken.

Yes, a paratrooper really did get stuck on the steeple of the church in St. Mere Eglise. There is today a mannequin hanging in a parachute from the steeple, both recreating the event and in honor of those who jumped in that day. One window of the church is dedicated to those who landed on D-Day and began the liberation of France.

Yes, more than one unit was led into battle by a piper. From the beaches to the assault and holding of the Pegasus bridge, pipers led the way.

Yet, I was unprepared for what happened to one particular dream.

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In the movie, one of the Germans became a favorite character and someone I wanted to meet. In the movie, Major Werner Pluskat is awakened to go to a bunker on the Normandy beaches to see what, if anything is going on. His character is sympathetic, as we see him move from somewhat grumpily going forward with his dog (a nice touch to make him even more sympathetic) to terrified as he sees the fleet and it opens fire shelling his position. His scream of “They’re coming at me!” in response to an almost bored question from someone safely at the rear evokes laughter and sympathy, particularly from veterans.

A consultant to the movie, you could tell that Pluskat had fun with the role and had a bit of fun with how the movie portrayed some of the German rear-echelon. That was something I could appreciate on several levels, and added to the desire to meet him. Sadly, he passed away before I had that chance. One dream down, but I still had the memories of him and that amazing line.

Camping not far from Omaha Beach, I met several historians who come to Normandy each year. They took me under their wings, as it were, and introduced me to proper bunker “diving” and an amazing level of detail about the landings. We explored old bunkers, trench lines, and more. In the process, they totally crushed a dream.

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First, I found out that Pluskat’s command bunker was not the massive concrete structure depicted in the film. It was a log and sandbag structure. Okay, no big deal, they just used some of what remains in filming, right? Well, it seems that there may have been a much bigger “substitution” if you will. Such as, it is now believed he wasn’t really there when the landings started.

Several of the surviving German veterans of his command have written that he was not there as claimed. In fact, they put forward that he had gone to Paris, to take some visiting “ladies” back and did not return until well after the landings had begun. Even worse, some report that they had no idea where he was, and could not find him to get orders. This is a claim that a growing number of historians believe is true, and they are calling into question a number of his other claims as well.

The character I had liked so much in the movie turned out to be just that: a character. Worse, the man behind the character turned out to be far less than he claimed. That was indeed a disappointment.

Between that and other things I learned, I can never watch The Longest Day in the same way again. I’m not as bad as a couple of the historians who refuse to watch it because of the large number of errors in it. I can appreciate it as film, as fiction loosely based on reality. That reality is far more fascinating, and I am already working to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the landings so I can share more of that reality. Meantime, think I’m going to move my copy of the movie into the fiction section of the DVD collection.