War Classics on Blu-ray disc

The Longest Day
Battle of Britain
A Bridge Too Far
The Sand Pebbles

Five classic war movies have been released on Blu-ray in editions that do each of these films justice but which aren't necessarily the greatest versions or even the best examples of the Blu-ray medium. In fact, while some (A Bridge Too Far and The Sand Pebbles, for example) are surprisingly good, others (such as the spartan Blu-ray of Battle of Britain), leave much to be desired.

The Longest DayThe Longest Day

While it lacks "Saving Private Ryan's" gut-wrenching realism or emotional punch, this 1962 epic is an excellent companion piece to "Ryan," putting Spielberg's story into context in the overall D-Day picture.

Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and shot by three different directors (one American, one British, and one German), the three hour film tells the "whole story" of the Normandy invasion, from before the go ahead was given until after the famed landings on the beaches. In fact, the beach landings that begin "Saving Private Ryan" don't happen until "The Longest Day" is two thirds over.

The movie gives us all sides of the invasion, featuring a lot of German perspective filmed in German (with English subtitles), views from the French populace and underground (subtitled), and a wide variety of Allied views - from paratroopers and glider troops to fighter pilots, "the brass" at the top and, of course, the grunts who assaulted the beaches and cliffs of Normandy.

The screenplay, which Cornelius Ryan based on his book of the same name, covers some of the preparations for battle, and follows many of the events. It's a much "cleaner" view than that of "Saving Private Ryan," and in that way is a more traditional war movie than Spielberg's epic.

But "The Longest Day" is an epic on its own, featuring incredible views of the air and sea armada that went to France on that fateful day. The views of the massing ships and waves of aircraft are spectacular (the film won Oscars for its special effects and cinematography), and the shots of thousands of soldiers landing on the beaches couldn't be shot on a conventional budget today without the use of digital special effects.

The cast is a veritable "Who's Who" of the period, and there's no mention of them in the opening credits (or "credit;" only the title is displayed on screen near the movie's beginning), perhaps so people don't spend the next three hours keeping tally of the stars who keep appearing. But there's a bunch of them (some 50 international stars of various magnitude are on hand, from John Wayne to Gert Frobe). Their egos appear to have been held in check and they give their all to the production.

 This Blu-ray version features 1080p video and the black and white image looks very good.

Audio is dts HD 5.1 Master lossless Audio, and it's fine considering the film's age.

Extras included with this two disc set include an audio commentary by historian Mary Corey and another one with director Ken Annakin. Disc two kicks off with "A Day to Remember," as well as "Longest Day: A Salute to Courage." You also get the AMC Backstory: The Longest Day, "D-Day revisited," "Richard Zanuck on The Longest Day," the trailer and a photo gallery.

Fans of "Saving Private Ryan" who haven't seen "The Longest Day" really should view the older film to get a broader perspective of the events that helped form the world in which we live today. Because we should never forget what those ordinary heroes did for us.

The Longest Day, from 20th Century Fox Home Video
178 minutes, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, dts HD 5.1 Master lossless Audio
Starring 48 International Stars
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, Written by Cornelius Ryan, based on his book
British Exterior Episodes Directed by Ken Annakin, American Exterior Episodes Directed by Andrew Marton, German Episodes Directed by Bernhard Wicki


George C. Scott won (and refused) the Best Actor Oscar for his outstanding portrayal of U.S. General George S. Patton, the famed World War II army general who was a military genius and also a bit of a loose cannon so far as his superiors are concerned. But despite his rough edges and politically incorrect mien, he was proved right militarily, usually at least, and as the movie shows, if the Allied forces had used him to his potential rather than making him a sacrificial lamb on the altar of political correctness the war may have been won even earlier.

But at this point in time it's pointless to second guess such things, though it never hurts to learn from history.

Who'd have thought political correctness was around in the 1940's?

Scott is riveting as Patton, who we see early on in North Africa where he goes after Nazi Field Marshall Rommel (the so-called Desert Fox). The movie follows him across Africa and through Sicily and the invasion of France and Germany and the eventual fall of the Third Reich. It's an apparently fairly honest look at the man, warts and all, including his famous temper and his insubordination. And also his vision.  

Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote the screenplay with Edmund H. North sharing the credit, and later won an Oscar for it. Other Oscars included Best Picture and Best Director, and it's easy to see why the film was so honored: this is one of the great biopics, one of the great war epics and and even one of the great "just plain stories" of human nature, bravery, duty and honor.

Karl Malden also gives a solid performance as General Omar Bradley, who starts out as Patton's junior then ends up commanding him, and Michael Bates is also very good as the flamboyant Field Marshall Montgomery – with whom Patton is in competition throughout the movie. 

The 1080p widescreen picture (aspect ratio 2.2 to one) is really nice, with excellent, sharp detail and good blacks. Audio is dts HD Master Lossless Audio it's also very good, considering the age of the source. The subwoofer loses the most, and it's a little hollow sounding overall, but you'll still get to feel the explosions, just not as much as if they had used a good low frequency effects channel track that didn't exist in 1970 anyway.

Extras abound on the two disc set, from an introduction by Francis Coppola to a running commentary, again by Coppola. Disc two features the documentaries "The Making of Patton," "History Through the Lens: Patton – A Rebel Revisited" and "Patton's Ghost Corps". There's also a production still gallery accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's outstanding musical score, a behind the scenes still gallery with audio essay, and the original theatrical trailer.

Patton, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
171 min. 1080p (2.20:1, 16x9 TV compatible), dts HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio
Starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden
Produced by Frank McCarthy
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Battle of BritainBattle of Britain on Blu-ray

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

So said Winston Churchill after the Battle of Britain, referring to the RAF and other allied air and ground personnel who faced overwhelming odds yet managed to beat back the Nazi war machine and help keep Britain free.

Battle of Britain is from producer Harry Saltzman, of early (and best) James Bond movie fame, and it’s a wonderful motion picture that is not only an interesting historical epic but which also features spectacular aerial footage that aviation fans will want to have in their collection.

It’s 1940 and France is falling to the Nazi onslaught and British fighter jocks head back home just before the German forces reach their French bases. They take up their positions at bases in Jolly Olde, awaiting what they expect will be the inevitable German invasion. They’re ready and willing, but being outnumbered about four to one by the Nazi air force, are they able to defend Blighty?

An all star cast takes us through these and subsequent events, a cast that includes such giants as Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Michael Caine, Curt Jurgens, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw and Susannah York (who looks great in uniform!). There’s a lot of depth to this talent, and for the most part they get to exercise their acting chops with a substantial storyline that for the most part eschews excessive soap opera stuff and concentrates on the strategies, tactics, and pluck of the characters.

The summer of 1940 has been called Britain’s finest hour, and this movie shows some, though by no means all, of the reasons why. There’s a documentary called Finest Hour that makes a good companion piece to Battle of Britain, but for sheer entertainment you can’t beat this version. Spectacular shots show the type of damage being inflicted upon England by the Nazis, whether it be airfields or London being bombed, and we get some great aviation footage as well.

The London bombing shows the stiff upper lip of the British people, whether huddled in the tube or in supposedly safe havens, one of which brings the true cost of war home to one of the movie’s pilot heroes.

Battle of Britain, the BLu-ray, has received a good treatment, and though the picture is generally very good we’d have love to see the kind of painstaking restoration done to it that other movies, including some in this gang of war movies, are getting in this digital age.

The picture is presented in 1080p widescreen, 2.35:1,and looks good for the most part, but there are also many grainy scenes. Audio is DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround featuring Sir William Walton's Score Mix, and the original English Dolby Digital Mono. Not surprisingly, the DTS track is the best but the volume is quite low. That said, once you crank it the Rolls Royce Merlin engines (among others) come through very well, and MGM has done a very good job of the 5.1 remix: planes zoom around the room in a most rewarding manner.

Unfortunately, there is not a single bonus feature accompanying the movie. The stuff from the special edition DVD has been dumped here, which is really disappointing.

Battle of Britain, from MGM Home Entertainment
132 min. 1080p widescreen (2.35:1, 16x9 TV compatible), DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio
Starring Harry Andrews, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Curt Jurgens, Ian McShane, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Nigel Patrick, Christopher Plummer, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Robert Shaw, Patrick Wymark, Susannah York
Produced by Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz
Written by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex, directed by Guy Hamilton

A Bridge Too FarA Bridge Too Far on Blu-ray Disc

Richard Attenborough's epic telling of the tragedies that can be caused by excessive hubris is another great war film. The director supposedly used the actual locations of the World War II events, where the Allies executed Operation Market Garden, a supposedly easy-to-accomplish mission that turns out to be anything but easy.

In less than two weeks, thousands of men lose their lives after the Allied brain trust orders a daring air drop behind enemy lines, a surprise attack that will let the Allied troops capture and hold key bridges until their buddies fight their way to them through enemy lines. The casualties put today's war on terror into perspective; some people who don't think we ought to be "over there" complain about the high cost "in blood and treasure" of a war that has seen fewer Allied military personnel killed in its entirety than in this one battle in WWII.

A Bridge Too Far, with its excellent script by William Goldman, is another star-studded event, with Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Elliott Gould, Hardy Kruger, James Caan, Edward Fox, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Liv Ullman, Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde and many more along for the ride.

The film features some epic scenes, such as wave after wave of airplane heading for the drop and some beautifully mounted battle scenes and one heartwarming but frustrating scene in which the Allied troops hurrying to meet their goal are slowed down by crowds of grateful civilians newly liberated. The throngs are doing their best to make the troops feel loved and welcome, but as much as they appreciate it the troops are behind schedule and don't need to be slowed down any more.

The Blu-ray release was the first opportunity we've had to see A Bridge Too Far and we're glad to report that it's a very worthwhile experience in the home theater. The 1080p picture is presented at 2.35:1 and the picture is very clean, sharp and colorful. There's some grain, but it isn't too bad.

Audio is DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround and the sound quality is very good as long as you aren't hoping for lots of surround.

This is another Blu-ray that could use a bunch of good extras.

A Bridge Too Far, from MGM Home Entertainment
176 min. 1080p widescreen, 2.35:1, dts HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio
starring Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Elliott Gould, Hardy Kruger, James Caan, Edward Fox, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Liv Ullman, Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde
produced by Joseph E. Levin and Richard P. Levine
written by William Goldman, directed by Richard Attenborough

The Sand PebblesThe Sand Pebbles on Blu-ray Disc

Steve McQueen stars in the only disc in this gaggle that isn't set in World War II. Rather, The Sand Pebbles is set in 1926 China, a time in which the country is being wracked by internal conflict, catching the crew of the USS San Pablo in the middle.

McQueen's Jake Holman is an engineer, a man who just wants to run his engines and let the rest of the world, and especially the military, pass him by.

But that isn't about to happen on "The Sand Pebbles", a U.S. Navy gunboat on patrol in the Yangtze River which sees officers and crew slacking off while hired Chinese do their work.

As the studio says: "Directed by Hollywood icon Robert Wise (West Side Story) and nominated for eight Oscars, the definitive naval epic THE SAND PEBBLES (1966, Fox) stars Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Mako and Candice Bergen and follows a defiant sailor as he clashes with foreign culture as well as his own superiors during the 1926 Chinese Revolution."

The Sand Pebbles weaves the stories and lives of its characters together in a marvelous, epic way. The movie is gorgeous, with big shots that remind one of David Lean, and Steve McQueen gives the performance of his career.

The Blu-ray disc is gorgeous, too. Presented in 1080p at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the picture is sharp, the colors are rich and the blacks are first rate. This movie looks magnificent, as it should.

Audio is dts HD 5.1 Master Lossless, and it's also very good considering the analog source.

Fox has piled on the extras, too, including a commentary by Robert WIse, an isolated musical score track with commentary by music producer Nick Redman, historian Jon Burnlingame and screen writer & film historian Lem Dobbs. There's also a trivia track, 13 deleted “Road Show" scenes, the original trailer, The Making of Sand Pebbles featurette, Steve McQueen Remembered featurette, Bob Wise in Command featurette, China 1926 featurette, A Ship Called San Pablo, The Secret of the San Pablo (narrated by Richard Crenna), and radio documentaries (narrated by Richard Attenborough): Changsha Bund and the Streets of Taipei, and A Ship Called San Pablo.

An excellent presentation that gives us hope for many older movies as they make the move to Blu-ray.

The Sand Pebbles, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
179 min. 1080p, 2.35:1, dts HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio
Starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Mako.
written by Robert Anderson, directed by Robert Wise

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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