From the Stars and Stripes archives

Stop the war — he picked up the wrong helmet

Cliff Robertson, on the set of "Up from the Beach" in Cherbourg, France, in 1964.


By JAMES GUNTER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 8, 1965

FOUR HUNDRED French soldiers dressed like American GIs went into action to recreate a World War II beachhead scene on the Normandy coast for a new 20th Century Fox movie.

On signal, smoke and flame poured from old German bunkers which still rise from the dunes. Wrecked civilian cars and trucks of more than 20 years ago were set afire. A fierce wind whipped smoke across the area in front of the Cinemascope camera.

French hotspur drivers roared down a dirt road in old U.S. tanks. M1 riflemen streamed over the sand. Semaphore signalmen messaged out to sea. Men wearing the patch of the 90th Div loaded stacks of ammunition boxes into trucks, and strapped casualties on an ambulance jeep. A row of stretcher cases began receiving make-believe plasma from suspended bottles.

Then, right in the middle of the whole shebang, they had to stop the war.

The military adviser for the film spotted a French rifle carrier, who appeared too young to shave, wearing the helmet insignia of a bird colonel.

"He just picked up the wrong helmet," said retired Army Lt Col Thomas Farnsworth, who saw the silver eagle emblem and signaled for a retake.

A bearded, French-speaking assistant director standing on a wooden platform near the camera screamed into a microphone and fired a Very pistol flare to grind the movement to a stop.

"My job is to see that there's nothing in the picture that is militarily wrong," said Farnsworth, who was stationed in Orleans, France, when he retired from the Army a year ago and stayed on there.

"Up From the Beach," the title of the film, is Farnsworth's first experience in making movies.

"I got the job through a friend of a friend," he said. "They were looking for a military man who could speak French."

The retired officer made the invasion 20 years ago at Omaha Beach, farther to the south from the point selected for this movie scene, with the 79th Div which took possession of Cherbourg.

"I think I fired the first personal round into Cherbourg with a bazooka," said Farnsworth. "I was shooting at some Germans who were coming out of tunnels. Then I got hit in the belly and went to the hospital for six weeks."

Dressed for the cold wind in a navy blue peajacket and sailing cap, Farnsworth was constantly on the move as he surveyed the widespread film location.

"Paint those red oil drums Army green," he ordered.

A workman protested that it was a black-and-white picture and the color wouldn't matter. Farnsworth persisted, and soon the drums were sprayed.

During breaks, the French soldiers suddenly lost their American look by removing heavy helmets and donning comfortable berets. They received an issue of wine with lunch.

A girl in a red coat and black stockings worked at putting black smudges on the faces of the soldiers who were drawn for three days of special duty from French artillery, infantry and tank units in the Cherbourg area. They were supposed to camp in the beach area, but the strong wind drove them into a nearby village at night.

Someone said the weather probably was similarly overcast and windy when the Normandy landings were made June 6, 1944.

By this time, the war was readied once more. The bearded man on the wooden stand shouted instructions to start the smoke. Then he called out a French countdown and fired another flare into the air. The soldiers looked like GIs again as the beach view turned to lively confusion.

"Up From the Beach," starring Cliff Robertson, Irina Demick and Red Buttons, will in a sense be a continuation of "The Longest Day," another 20th Century Fox picture on the D-Day landings. The new screenplay picks up on D-Day plus one with a story of two American soldiers and their dealings with a captured German officer and a group of French civilians who arrive in the midst of battle to welcome their liberators. The script is based on a novel by George Barr, "Epitaph for an Enemy."

"The actors are relatively unimportant in a big military operation scene like this," said Robert Parrish, director of "Up From the Beach." "It's a matter of logistics. You have to be sure that every piece of equipment gets into the picture."

"Up From the Beach" did not receive official Department of Defense support, so the filmmakers could not use genuine American troops and had to scrounge for equipment. The French army provided much of it — the tanks, for example, which are used by the French but were made in America. All they had to do was paint on the U.S. markings.

Cliff Robertson and Red Buttons pose for a photo on the set of "Up from the Beach."

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