Vernon Wharton adored ‘The Longest Day.’ His wrinkled fingers would grasp the arms of his creaky La-z-Boy and his eyes would light up as if two decades of fatigue were being lifted from his frail bones. It wasn’t just his favorite movie, it was a catalyst that would send him digging through thousands of fading memories stretching back to the Great Depression. Sure, the name Vernon Wharton probably doesn’t mean anything to any of you, but I was sitting on his knee when I was just knee-high to everyone else on the planet. Vernon wasn’t just my grandfather, he was the man who introduced me to war films. Every thanksgiving -- after the kids’ table was emptied and the adults gathered in the kitchen to gossip about the neighbors -- I nabbed a spot on my grandfather’s lap and watched ‘The Longest Day.’
Brought to life by four directors, a half dozen film crews spread across the world, and dozens of international movie stars, ‘The Longest Day’ still stands as one of the most sweeping, epic productions in cinematic history. Based on a novel by Cornelius Ryan, the film tells an all-encompassing account of the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy from the perspectives of the US army, the British military, the German defensive units, and the Free French Forces (FFL). It features complex set pieces and authentic locations, military consultants comprised of actual generals who fought at Normandy, and the native languages of all the actors. The film went on to garner six Academy Award nominations and three Oscars. To call ‘The Longest Day’ a significant film is a gross understatement.
So how did the film hold up for this now-thirty-year-old kid? Better than I expected. I was pleased to find that most of the performances in ‘The Longest Day’ have aged well, even if the majority of the film’s recognizable actors vanish before getting the chance to sink their teeth into their roles. The historical battles have also been meticulously recreated with an authenticity that’s often missing from many catalog war classics. Sure, soldiers still clutch their bloodless chests and spiral far-too-gently to the ground, but the unit tactics and battalion strategies that populate their movements are sound and realistic. Best of all, the film really sets itself apart from the crowd every time its camera leaves the American army and focuses on the British, French, and German forces. These scenes not only reveal the complexities of the Normandy invasion, but drive the idea home that most of the men who fought in D-Day were simply doing their jobs and fighting to save their fellow soldiers.
Unfortunately, the impressive breadth of the production doesn’t lend itself to tight pacing or an absorbing story. There’s so much happening in ‘The Longest Day’ -- so many characters coming and going, so many subplots appearing and disappearing -- that I had a difficult time sitting patiently through the whole ordeal. I appreciate the directors’ attention to detail, but I had the nagging feeling that someone should have stepped in and pulled back on the creative reigns a bit. It doesn’t help that each director brings a slightly different tone and thematic drive to their scenes, leaving the production as a whole feeling disjointed and spotty. Honestly, nostalgia and memories of Thanksgivings with my grandfather are probably the only things that kept me rooted in my seat for the duration of the film.
’The Longest Day’ is a lofty epic that has a lot of great ideas compacted into a very small space. I found myself itching to watch ‘Patton’ again simply because that film covers the same amount of ground but keeps its focus on a single individual. As much as I wanted to reconnect to a film from my childhood, I was continually distracted by the shortcomings of such a sprawling production. While students of history and fans of classic war films may find something to love in ‘The Longest Day,’ I simply endured its length and marveled at its lofty ambitions.
As I sat evaluating ‘The Longest Day’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, a single phrase continually echoed through my mind: Digital Noise Reduction. Apparently someone at Fox decided an early ‘60s war epic would sell more copies if it resembled something the Pixar folks had put together. I wish I was exaggerating.
From the opening shot to the closing credits, skin textures and fine details aren't just haunted by a waxy appearance, they’ve been completely plasticized by an over-exuberant grain scrubber in a bottom-rung production house. At times, it looks as if the actors have been painted onto the screen while, at others, the same actors look as if they’ve been superimposed onto CG-enhanced backdrops. Depth has been erased, the foregrounds don’t naturally coexist with the backgrounds, three-dimensionality has been compromised, and the filmic nature of ‘The Longest Day’ has been sullied. By comparison, the piddling level of DNR applied to ‘Patton’ seems like a complete non-issue. I’m usually quite forgiving when a transfer doesn’t have any other debilitating issues aside from DNR, but it’s so offensive and obvious in this case that I have to protest.
Is there an upside? The contrast of the black and white imagery is strong, blacks are incredibly deep, and shadow delineation is quite revealing. There is no crushing, artifacting, or edge enhancement to speak of. In fact, this Blu-ray transfer offers a remarkable upgrade over the DVD, making its standard definition counterpart look as if it belongs in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Even so, that’s not saying a lot. DNR doesn’t usually get me in a huff, but my grandfather would roll over in his grave if he saw this travesty. ‘The Longest Day’ doesn’t look like a film anymore… it looks like a cartoon.
’The Longest Day’ features a relatively impressive DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that only suffers from the inherent limitations of its aging source. As one would expect from a film originally released in 1962 with a magnetic stereo mix, this multi-channel remaster lacks an immersive soundfield, any semblance of rear speaker aggression, and the LFE resonance of more recent war films. That’s not to say the track is entirely underwhelming… just dated and shallow. On a more positive note, dialogue is crisp, prioritization is precise, and directionality is respectable (especially considering the front-heavy nature of the mix). There were only a half dozen scenes in which lines sounded looped, muddled, or were drowned by other elements in the soundscape. More importantly, the battle scenes pack a decent punch with reasonably healthy gunfire and hearty explosions.
All in all, while I wasn’t bowled over by the mix or its attempts to rattle my home theater, I also didn’t encounter any serious technical issues. Ultimately, fans of early war epics won’t hesitate to embrace such faithful results and will probably have an easier time accepting the track’s narrow soundscape and clipped effects than the rest of us.
(Note that the original subtitles were replaced with more aesthetically pleasing text during the remastering process and appear overtop of the image.)
Fox has loaded the 2-disc Blu-ray edition of ‘The Longest Day’ with every extensive supplemental feature that appears on the newly released Special Edition DVD. While the documentaries and featurettes are presented in standard definition on a DVD-9 disc, fans will discover a wealth of production information that should keep them busy for days.
’The Longest Day’ is an overstuffed beast that still manages to deliver some solid performances and a detailed account of D-Day. The Blu-ray edition, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess. While it includes a generous collection of supplemental material and a decent DTS HD MA track, its video transfer collapses under the weight of a hideous, rubbery application of DNR. With better technical attributes, I might have recommended giving this one a spin. However, considering how awful Fox’s new transfer makes the film look, I strongly suggest you rent this one long before considering a purchase.