Ken Annakin’s The Longest Day (1962) is really much more of a producer’s movie than it is a director’s personal vision. In this case, the producer happened to be Darryl F. Zanuck, the visionary film pioneer who made a star out of man's best friend - Rin Tin Tin - at Warner Brothers before transforming 20th Century-Fox into a premiere production facility in the mid-1930s. However, by the mid-1950s, as old Hollywood was reluctantly giving way to changing technologies, the advent of television and meddling government intervention in the way things were run, Zanuck tired of his role as studio executive. Instead, he retired from the fray to explore independent productions in Europe. The move was only partly fuelled by artistic integrity.
Zanuck had, for some time, been estranged from wife, Virginia after his latest extramarital affair with Bella Darvi became public fodder in the gossip tabloids. Retreating to Europe, Zanuck continued to produce a string of films under a distribution deal with Fox. Although many of these movies were artistically sound, virtually all proved disappointing at the box office.
However, in the spring of 1960, Zanuck encountered the novel, The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan – a sprawling true-to-life recanting of WWII’s Normandy invasion. It was a project destined for Zanuck to realize on film; not only for its comparable mid-western sensibilities, but also because Zanuck had served in the military during the war and therefore had an innate understanding of the topic. But Zanuck’s film would not be just another war movie. It would become a balanced examination from all sides with each nationality speaking its own language with the aid of English subtitles.
The initial scenes in the movie set up what are largely fictional relationships between the ensemble cast, relying more on each actor's star power than the screenplay by Cornelius Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and Jack Seddon to draw out our sympathies. These include Richard Beymer as Dutch Scholtz, whose wily poker playing earns him enough money to send home to his mother: only shortly thereafter we learn that his mother has died. Richard Burton has a nice little walk on as an embittered Allied pilot who has to inform another flyer that his best friend has died in a crash.
Roddy McDowell is briefly glimpsed as 4th infantry's careworn Private Morris. Red Buttons is John Steele, one of the few Allied survivors of a botched paratrooper decoy that turns into a Nazi ambush at Sainte Mere-Eglise. Veterans John Wayne and Robert Ryan enjoy buddy/buddy chemistry at play as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort and Br. Gen. James Gavin respectively. Gert Frobe and Curd Jurgens make for a formidable pair of Nazi cohorts...and so on. There are too many cameos to list. Suffice it to say, Zanuck's film is richly populated with a cornucopia of Hollywood's finest blended into an international cast.
To say that The Longest Day became a personal obsession with Zanuck is a gross understatement. Instead of the traditional narrative structure, Zanuck chose the then revolutionary documentary-style – dividing the work among four directors including Gerd Oswald, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki and Ken Annakin; each responsible for a varying perspective on the war and its fallout.
Zanuck further hedged his bets for success by populating the film with no less than 43 star performances; among them – Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Peter Lawford, Sean Connery, Rod Steiger, Richard Todd and Mel Ferrer. For the teen audience, Zanuck secured the services of then heartthrobs Paul Anka, Tommy Sands, Sal Mineo and Fabian. Finally, Zanuck also cast his latest romantic fling, Irina Demich as Janine Boitard – a free French resistance fighter who used her obvious sex appeal to turn Nazi heads in the wrong direction while her brother smuggles refugees across the border.
It’s important to note that The Longest Day is not a star vehicle for any of the aforementioned performers. Rather, it is an ensemble film, brimming with cameos richly layered one to the next, fostering a rare verisimilitude for the wartime experience. Despite various setbacks incurred during production (including a money shortage and near cancellation of the project by the Fox board of directors midway through production), Zanuck’s film endures as an impregnable, action charged masterwork that miraculously never loses its emotional center amidst its fury, spectacle and sensational carnage.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray incarnation has been lauded and criticized by reviewers; the latter uncertain that the overall smoothness of the image isn't the result of heavy handed DNR (digital noise reduction). By this reviewer's eye, the image is astounding, easily head and shoulders above Fox's 2-disc Cinema Classic standard DVD release from 2002.
There are stark differences in image quality between the standard and Blu-Ray offering. Whereas the DVD seemed a little too dark with lower than expected contrast levels, the Blu-Ray seems to have a brighter gray scale that reveals greater detail throughout. The B&W image is breathtaking with razor sharp clarity. Black levels are crisp, deep and solid. Age related artefacts and grain seem to have completely vanished from the image - a cause for some critics to assess that this Blu-Ray presentation does not recreate accurately the theatrical experience. This reviewer disagrees - for the following reason.
Any motion picture represented on anything but actual film stock is only an approximation of the actual theatrical experience. What studios ought to be focusing on when restoring a vintage title for the home video market is not so much an exact representation of the film's opening night (because depending on where you are that presentation can differ greatly), but rather providing the consumer with an image that as close to possible replicates the clarity, contrast and rendering of fine details that the medium of Blu-Ray itself can offer.
If that means going back into the archives and digitally omitting and/or cleaning up things like wire harnesses and/or other SFX backdrop mattes to bring them in line with contemporary audience levels of expectation, but that would probably not have been visible to the naked eye during theatrical projection, then so be it. There. Enough said. The audio on Fox's Blu-Ray has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital with an inherently tinny sound that is not very natural sounding, but does contain some directionalized dialogue and effects which prove startling.
Extras include an audio commentary on disc one. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD and include four featurettes, an interview with Annakin, audio commentaries and AMC’s Back story, plus the film’s theatrical reissue trailer and a stills gallery. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)