Timing is everything. It was crucial to the success of Operation Overlord–better known as D-Day–and it’s always been important in the movie industry. Some very good films managed nothing but Oscar snubs because they had the misfortune to be released the same year as an even better film.
That’s what happened in 1962, when David Lean’s epic tale of “Lawrence of Arabia” swept past Darryl F. Zanuck’s equally epic story of the D-Day Invasion. “Lawrence” received 10 nominations and took home seven statues, while “The Longest Day” won two Oscars out of five nominations. What they had in common, though, was that each won for Best Cinematography. Jean Bourgoin and Walter Wottitz were honored for the black-and-white camerawork they did for “The Longest Day,” while Freddie Young earned Best Cinematography, Color for his work on “Lawrence.”
At the time, these two sprawling films about monumental figures and moments in the history of nations and warfare were among the most hyped pictures moviegoers had ever seen–possibly even more than “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” But they lived up to the hype, and the paying public walked away impressed by both films. So did critics, who mostly pronounced them four-star successes.
Both films are still powerful, though the color cinematography and focus on biography has made “Lawrence” weather the sands of time a little better. For a war film, “The Longest Day” will seem a little tame to audiences accustomed to more graphic violence–especially when a film like “Saving Private Ryan” deliberately seeks to realistically and accurately depict the confusion and messy carnage of the landing at Omaha Beach. But “The Longest Day” remains the best dramatized historical account of the entire D-Day invasion.
Zanuck was part of a camera crew that landed on the Normandy beaches a day after the invasion, while writer Cornelius Ryan was there on June 6th, working as a war correspondent. Ryan based his book (and then screenplay) on personal accounts that he solicited from men who participated in the largest invasion the world had ever seen. Some 2700 ships dropped 156,000 Americans, British, French, and Canadian soldiers onto a 60-mile beachfront in a battle that everyone knew would determine the outcome of World War II. And Ryan tells the story from all angles. That was one of the things that made this film distinctive, and it’s still one of the things that gives it heft. The cameras go into the war rooms of the Allies and the Germans, but we also get the individual stories of soldiers on both sides who are just doing their duty. It’s one thing to hear an American officer telling his superior he doesn’t like the drop zone because if they overshoot they’ll land right in town and be “sitting ducks.” But it’s quite another thing (and one of the most memorable scenes in the film) to see the parachute of Private John Steele (Red Buttons) snag on a steeple and leave him hanging there to witness the rest of his unit mowed down by German machine gunners. As he holds his breath, wondering what to do, so do we. Rather than the bloody violence we get in a film like “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s moments like that, interwoven with tactical sessions, that give “The Longest Day” its emotional weight.
The film boasts an international cast and “48 stars,” but not one of those stars earned an Oscar nomination. Not John Wayne as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, not Rod Steiger as a destroyer commander, not Robert Ryan as Brig. Gen. James M. Gavin, not Eddie Albert as Col. Thompson, nor Richard Burton as Flight Officer David Campbell. Not Sean Connery as a jocular Pvt. Flanagan, nor Henry Fonda as Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., or Curt Jurgens as Maj. Gen. Gunther Blumentritt. The stars are completely dwarfed by the magnitude of the story, as were the real men who took part in the invasion. Like “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970), which dramatized behind-the-scenes strategies and blunders related to Pearl Harbor, “The Longest Day” is a narrative patchwork that uses subtitles and supertitles to introduce us to various characters and situations, and incorporates native languages with subtitles. The Germans speak German, the French speak French, and it all adds to a sweeping sense of realism.
It was almost unheard of, but Zanuck used three directors to simultaneously shoot the film in France, with the British narrative episodes directed by Ken Annakin, the American exterior episodes handled by Andrew Marton, and the German episodes shot under the auspices of Bernhard Wicki. Structured similarly to Ryan’s book, the film shows us the soldiers on all sides who wait, knowing something big is about to happen, then the nighttime aerial assault with paratroopers leading the way, then the landings on five different Normandy beaches at daylight. And at 178 minutes, it all feels like real time. “The Longest Day” is still an absorbing story, which explains why it outsold “Lawrence of Arabia” at the box office. Though WWII veterans will scoff at some of the Hollywoodized moments, it’s still a moving and thorough account of one of the biggest battles the world has ever known, and a compelling entertainment.
“The Longest Day” looks fantastic in 1080p, transferred to a 50-gig disc (AVC/MPEG-4/23mbps) and presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. But the funny thing is, it’s SO sharp that you really notice shots where natural exteriors were replaced by screens running different footage. There’s a 3-dimensionality you just don’t see with black-and-white films that’s absolutely stunning in some frames. On the flipside, with three directors and external conditions varying on location, you also get a number of sequences where the light is so harsh that it washes out the contrast and makes the black levels look deficient. A number of scenes probably could have used some digital tweaking, rather than presenting the film as it was shot. But the interiors will seem especially amazing, with the controlled lighting showing just how good this 1962 film looks in Hi-Def. Shot in 35mm CinemaScope, “The Longest Day” looks better than ever. The film won an Oscar for Special Effects, and there’s a lot going on visually. If you have it on DVD and you’re a fan, you’re definitely going to want to upgrade.
The featured audio is an English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio, and it’s surprisingly compatible with the old look of the black-and-white images. When the bullets start flying, all of the speakers wake up. It’s a dynamic soundtrack that falters only in some scenes where the bass seems a little soft and in several sequences when the music crescendos a little too boldly. Additional audio options are an English Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround and Spanish and French Mono, with subtitles in English (CC), Mandarin, and Cantonese.
The previous DVD release had zero extras, so that’s another reason war film buffs are going to want to upgrade. This Blu-ray release features an intelligent commentary from director Ken Annakin and a second commentary from historian Mary Corey who draws distinctions between fact and the film’s fictions (which are surprisingly few). Both commentaries aren’t exactly lively–in fact, there are a number of dead spaces on each–but they’re both detail-rich and worth watching.
The commentaries are on Disc 1, with the rest of the bonus features loaded onto a second standard definition 25GB disc:
Annakin turns up again on a short feature titled “A Day to Remember: A Conversation with Ken Annakin,” during which he speaks more about the experience of filming than some of the technical aspects that dominated his commentary track. Then there’s “AMC Backstory: The Longest Day,” an episode made in 2000 that weaves together clips with talking heads and a behind-the-scenes drama about how this film was the make-or-break feature for Fox, given the whopping drain that “Cleopatra” produced on the studio’s finances. It’s another interesting feature. So is “The Longest Day: a Salute to Courage,” a 2001 mini-documentary that’s narrated by Burt Reynolds which gives another “making of” perspective intercut with recollections of real-life heroes from D-Day.
In 1968, Zanuck returned to the Normandy beaches to film “D-Day Revisited,” and that feature is also included here. It employs shots from the film to show the “then” of the big battle intercut with color footage of the area as it appeared in the late Sixties. Rounding out the bonus features is the original theatrical trailer and a gallery of still shots.
There are some cornball moments that will remind war movie lovers of the patriotic films that came out in the Fifties, but “The Longest Day” remains a powerful epic and the best Hollywood film to tackle a complete overview of D-Day. And boy, does it look fantastic in Hi-Def.