THE LONGEST DAY: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox, 1962) Fox Home Video
The movie that revitalized the B&W war epic and brought Darryl F. Zanuck back to 2oth Century-Fox - a movie mecca very much under siege in his absence - director, Ken Annakin’s The Longest Day (1962) is very much a byproduct of its producer’s elephantine ambitions rather than a vision of the overriding arc of its director. In this case, the producer happened to be Zanuck, the visionary who, among his list of accomplishments, had made a star out of man's best friend - Rin Tin-Tin - at Warner Brothers before assuming the bridal over at Fox, and, in just a few short years, to take it from fledgling to A-list Hollywood major. However, by the mid-1950’s, as old Hollywood was reluctantly forced to surrender its autonomy to changing technologies, diverging audience tastes, skyrocketing costs and the onslaught of free entertainment on television, not to mention meddlesome government intervention, soon to force a divesture of assets, Zanuck had sincerely tired of his role as studio executive, though decidedly, not showbiz. There were, in fact, too many perks that came with the title of ‘showman’ not the least, an endless stream of plucky young hopefuls, in front of whom the proverbial carrot of stardom could be dangled in exchange for a little R&R on the casting couch. So, Zanuck retired – sort of, to pursue his passion…no, not that one – rather, making movies abroad, orchestrating a distribution deal with his old alma mater, now under the ‘new management’ of Spyros P. Skouras. Zanuck’s decision was only partly fueled by artistic integrity.
Indeed, Zanuck had, for some time, been estranged from his wife, Virginia after his latest extramarital affair with Fox contract beauty, Bella Darvi became public fodder in the gossip tabloids. Darvi, who possessed a killer figure and pretty face, though not much else in the way of genuine talent – and certainly, never enough to promote her as the next ‘Garbo’ as Zanuck had once promised – left the studio shortly after Zanuck, though interestingly, not in disgrace. In fact, she proved something of an aphrodisiac to the Italians, who emphasized her ‘charm’ and chose to look the other way where past indiscretions were concerned. Retreating to Europe, Zanuck continued to produce indie-funded/indie-made movies under a new distribution deal with the studio. Only some were artistically sound. But virtually all proved rather disappointing at the box office. Then, in the spring of 1960, Zanuck encountered the novel, The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan – a sprawling true-to-life account of WWII’s Normandy invasion. It was a project destined for Zanuck to realize on film, not only for its comparable mid-western sensibilities, aligned to his own, but also as Zanuck had served in the U.S. military during the war and, therefore, possessed an innate understanding of his subject matter. However, Zanuck’s movie would not be just another war movie. Indeed, it would become a balanced examination from all sides with every nationality speaking its own language with the aid of English subtitles.
The initial scenes in The Longest Day are a setup for what are largely fictional relationships between the ensemble cast, relying more on the picture’s all-star names above the title to augment the screenplay, also by Ryan, ably assisted by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and Jack Seddon. The roster of talent assembled by Zanuck was impressive to say the least, including Richard Beymer as Dutch Scholtz, whose wily poker-playing earns him enough money to send home to his mother. Only shortly thereafter, do we learn that Dutch’s mother has died. Richard Burton had a nice little walk-on as an embittered Allied pilot who has to inform another flyer his best friend did not survive a crash. Roddy McDowell was briefly glimpsed as 4th infantry's careworn Private Morris. Red Buttons was John Steele, one of the few Allied survivors of a botched paratrooper decoy that turned into a Nazi ambush at Sainte Mere-Eglise. Veterans, John Wayne and Robert Ryan enjoyed some adversarial buddy/buddy chemistry as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort and Br. Gen. James Gavin respectively. Gert Frobe and Curd Jurgens made for a formidable pair of Nazi cohorts...and so on. There are too many cameos to list. Suffice it to say, Zanuck's efforts could easily afford him the ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ award for most star cameos in a war movie, The Longest Day - richly populated with a cornucopia of Hollywood's premium blend – a real/reel international cast.
To suggest that The Longest Day became a personal obsession with Zanuck is a gross understatement. Instead of the traditional narrative structure, Zanuck chose a ‘then revolutionary’ documentary-style approach to unfurling his narrative – 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 picture 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 cast his latest romantic fling, Irina Demich as Janine Boitard – a free-French resistance fighter, who uses her ample sex appeal like a fly swatter, to turn Nazi heads in the wrong direction while her brother smuggles refugees across the border. It is important to note The Longest Day is not a star vehicle for any of the aforementioned performers. Rather, it is an ensemble piece, brimming in bit parts richly layered one to the next, sometimes several in a single shot, fostering a rare verisimilitude for the wartime experience. Despite various setbacks incurred during production (including a money shortage and near cancellation of the project), Zanuck’s movie endured, going on to be considered as an impregnable, action-charged masterwork that miraculously never lost its emotional core amidst all the fury, spectacle and sensational carnage.
The backstory to The Longest Day is somewhat more fantastic than the movie itself. Despite its all-star roster, the screenplay is rather light on business and, instead, tends to move its various talents about the Cinemascope proscenium, simply to connect the dots on a direct path to its already foregone conclusion. Zanuck had completed about two-thirds of the picture when his petition for more funds from Fox was politely declined. Unaware of the debacle unfolding back in Hollywood, and, half way around the world – in Rome – Zanuck boarded a TWA to L.A. and hit the members of the board with a resounding display of inner corporate sponsorship. Indeed, Zanuck was disgusted by Skouras’ handling of the studio’s finances, even more obscenely appalled by how much waste had been incurred on the elephantine production of Cleopatra (1963) still shooting in Italy. Indeed, it was due to Cleopatra’s cost overruns, Skouras had been forced to literally shut down Fox, suspending all other productions in the blind hope Cleopatra would become the mega hit necessary to pull Fox from the brink of foreclosure. Hitting the Board of Directors where it hurt, and, furthermore, tearing into Skouras like a fox (pun intended) into a fat little pheasant, Zanuck promised his financiers two things: first, a reprieve from ‘Chapter 11’ with The Longest Day, and second, never again to allow ‘his’ studio to fall into such obscene mismanagement. The Board agreed. Skouras was out. And Zanuck assumed his old position as Fox’s undisputed mogul – a variation on the old palace coup that remains legendary to this day.
Premiering The Longest Day in France, Zanuck spared no expense to show off – hiring Edith Piaf to give a command performance from the Eiffel Tower as part of his lavishly appointed after party that drew an A-list of luminaries from the influential spheres of politics, entertainment and sports. The gamble paid off. While Cleopatra’s numbers were impressive – with tickets sold months in advance – the intake paled to that picture’s whopping $40 million dollar outlay. What saved Fox from a total fiscal implosion was not the public’s ravenous fascination with the movie, nor even the illicit Taylor/Burton love affair that, in tandem with Cleopatra’s more modestly staged debuts in London, New York and Los Angeles, helped tip the scales in its favor; rather, Zanuck’s shrewd showmanship on The Longest Day – internationally hailed as a masterpiece by the critics and selling out around the world – thus, helping to heal all the hemorrhaging and restock the studio’s coffers with badly needed funds. Viewed today, what is most impressive about The Longest Day, apart from its roster of hand-picked talent, is its exceptional attention to authenticity. The movie hired former Axis and Allied military consultants, many of who had lived through D-Day, to reenact their roles for the movie. These included ex-German Generals Günther Blumentritt and Max Pemsel, American Gen. James M. Gavin, Deputy Chief of Staff at SHAEF, Frederick Morgan, John Howard (who led an airborne assault on the Pegasus Bridge), Lord Lovat, Commander of the 1st Special Service Brigade, Philippe Kieffer (squadron leader during the assault on Ouistreham), Marie-Pierre Kœnig (in charge of the Free French Forces during the invasion), German Maj. Werner Pluskat, Josef ‘Pips’ Priller, and, Lucie Rommel, the widow of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Given Zanuck’s formidable expenditure of time and talent, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science was rather circumspect in accolades bestowed – only 2 – for Best Cinematography to Jean Bourgoin and Walter Wottitz, and, Best Special Effects to Robert MacDonald and Jacques Maumont.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a waxy nightmare. In its infancy of adopting hi-def technology (remember, the powers that be at Fox thought DIVX and then HD DVD were going to be the front-runners of the future) the studio chose to fall back on a time-honored tradition of applying heavy grain removal to their home video releases. In the days of DVD, over-indulgences with Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) seemed prudent. After all, DVD’s lack of clarity, coupled with the shortcomings of most ‘tube’ TV’s still in use, hid a lot of sins and DNR was perceived as a way to homogenize film-based images, making them more palpable for viewing at home. Fast forward to 2020 and the results are – well – disturbing at best. The Longest Day has had not only all of its grain, but most of its fine details expunged. Even in close-ups, everything looks as though an Adobe Photoshop soft filter has been liberally applied to diffuse, blur and otherwise obfuscate image detail to the nth degree. What is here is pretty awful and Fox ought to have long ago rectified this oversight with a new video master derived from a 4K scan.
Compared to the DVD, released in tandem with this Blu-Ray, the hi-def image is infinitely brighter. However, contrast appears to suffer from this boost. There are no deep and enveloping blacks. As the aforementioned heavy DNR has completely wiped out grain and detail, it has also obliterated all age-related artifacts. Fox fares better with the audio - 5.1 Dolby Digital with an inherently tinny sound, but otherwise, accurately recreating the experience of viewing this movie at the show. This is a 2-disc affair, with an audio commentary accompanying the feature on Disc One. Extras on Disc Two are comprised of direct imports from the DVD release – still on DVD – and include four extensive featurettes on the making of the movie, an interview with Annakin and AMC’s Back story, plus the film’s theatrical reissue trailer and a stills gallery. Bottom line: The Longest Day is a classic – yes. It does not hold up as well as some others, but is very much worth a second glance – just not as it remains on this Blu-ray. Pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)