(NOTE: If you haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan, this post does include spoilers. However, a good way to spend Memorial Day is to watch it, since it brings home the sacrifices of soldiers.)
The movies always presented a pristine version of war. Decades ago director Sam Fuller, who’d been at Omaha Beach on D-Day, was asked why he didn’t make a movie about the invasion. He responded that no one wanted to see a beach covered in blood and guts. Late in his career Fuller did make a movie that touched on D-Day, The Big Red One, but it followed the form of the movies before it – all the main characters survive. All that changed in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. For once, the gut-wrenching terror, capriciousness, and brutality of war were showing on the screen.
Saving Private Ryan was written because a father took his newborn baby for a walk. Screenwriter Robert Rodat was living in his home state of New Hampshire on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1994. His first child had recently arrived, and the proud papa pushed the baby’s stroller around town. When he stopped at the town’s war monument, he looked at the names of the residents who’d died in battle since the Revolutionary War and was struck by how many surnames were repeated. Looking at his child, he imagined what it would feel like to lose his child in a war. The seed for Saving Private Ryan was planted.
Families have suffered multiple casualties in war on the same day. There’s a mention in the film of the five Sullivan brothers who served on the light cruiser USS Juneau and were all killed in action when it was sunk. An integral piece of the movie is Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby, consoling her on the loss of five children in the Civil War, an actual document. (It’s said that truth is the first casualty in war; in fact, three of the Bixby children survived.) The loose basis for Ryan was the experience of Frederick “Fritz” Niland, a German-American from upstate New York. He and his three brothers enlisted and were placed in different regiments, one going to the Pacific while Fritz and the other two went to Europe. Those two brothers were killed when they and Fritz participated in D-Day. At the same time the brother in the Pacific was reported missing and presumed dead. Fritz was pulled out of combat and returned to the States where he served out the war as an MP. Happily, the MIA brother had in fact been captured and survived the war.
Rodat approached producer Mark Gordon (Speed, The Day After Tomorrow) about the project. Gordon liked it, though he had Rodat do eleven rewrites before he accepted the script. Gordon brought the project to Spielberg, who’d been looking to do a war picture. When he was a kid making films with his father’s Super 8 camera, he’d done a short war story called “Flight to Nowhere.” He’d circled the war with Schindler’s List and the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies (we’ll forget about the comedy 1941, which is best), but he’d never dealt with actual battle sequences. Rodat was on the set throughout the filming as there were constant revisions to be made. Scott Frank (Out Of Sight, Get Shorty) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) also did uncredited work on the script.
Gordon got Tom Hanks interested in playing Capt. Miller, though not without effort. He’d been friends with Spielberg ever since The Money Pit, which Spielberg produced, but both men were concerned that working together would ruin that friendship. However, the project appealed to them, and they discovered they worked well together. Spielberg later directed Hanks in both Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, and they collaborated to produce Band of Brothers and The Pacific, two miniseries that built on what Ryan started.
The casting of Miller’s unit was integral for the success of the movie. Spielberg and casting director Denise Chamian filled the roles will people from the world of independent film. Ed Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish), and Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo) all wrote, directed and acted in their own movies. Giovani Ribisi (T-4 Medic Wade) had acted in Goldberg’s film, as well as in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Jeremy Davis (Cpl. Upham) had starred in Spanking The Monkey, the first feature by David O. Russell (American Hustle, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), while Barry Pepper (Pvt. Jackson) had worked mostly as a supporting actor on television. For Sgt. Horvath, Michael Madsen was first considered, but he passed on the project and instead suggested his friend Tom Sizemore (Heat, Natural Born Killers).
Spielberg had Technical Adviser Capt. Dale Dye take the primary cast for a week of military training. Dye was a twenty-year Marine veteran who’d come up through the ranks and served in Vietnam and Beirut before coming to Hollywood, Most of the actors thought it would be like camping, except for Hanks who’d worked with Dye on the Vietnam scenes for Forest Gump. Dye put them through an abbreviated boot camp that was so intense midway through most of the actors were ready to walk away. Hanks took the lead like a real Captain Miller and got them to stay.
One actor purposefully spared this week was Matt Damon. Spielberg wanted the other actors to resent him, just as their characters resented Ryan. Spielberg wanted an unknown actor in the role, and chose Damon after Robin Williams introduced the two during the filming of Good Will Hunting. However, between the casting and the release of the film, Good Will Hunting and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker were released, and Damon became one of the hottest actors in Hollywood.
The sun-faded American flag that both opens and closes the film is a brilliant metaphor for the fading memory of D-Day. Harrison Young, who plays the older Ryan, hadn’t had a credited roll in films until he was 61 years old in 1991, but before his death in 2005 he garnered 74 credits as a supporting actor. Kathleen Byron, who plays his wife, was a veteran of the British cinema and had appeared in Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus in 1947; Ryan was the last movie she would do. They did not film the scene at the actual military graveyard in Normandy, as that would desecrate the land. Instead the set crew created the “graveyard” in a field in England. These scenes are the only ones in the film with normal color. For 1944, Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski washed out 60% of the color to create sharper images.
At first, Spielberg thought the movie would be a boy’s adventure story, but interviews he did with veterans about their experiences changed his view. Author Stephen Ambrose (“Undaunted Courage,” “Citizen Soldiers”) also provided background for the movie. The pivotal attack on Omaha Beach was scheduled to be filmed at the end of the shoot, but instead Spielberg moved it to the beginning. He didn’t story-boarding the scenes, as he always did in his movies, choosing instead shoot like a newsreel taking in the action as it happens. It took 4 weeks and $11 million to shoot the sequence chronologically.
Originally Spielberg planned to shoot in England, but a request for Army personnel as extras was refused. Instead he moved the Omaha Beach sequence to Ireland, where the Irish Army provided 2500 men. They’d similarly cooperated with Mel Gibson when he filmed Braveheart. The location manager found a section of coastline that was a perfect match for Omaha Beach, and even the weather cooperated with heavy seas and damp cold days, just like the actual invasion. When you see actors throwing up while approaching the beach in the Higgins landing craft, that’s not acting; they were really seasick. Ten of the landing craft used in the film had been operational in WWII.
The metal and wooden barricades on the beach were there because the Germans expected the invasion to happen at high tide. They wanted the Higgins boats to get hung up on the barricades, and many had mines attached to their tops to blow up the craft. Instead the invasion happened at low tide and the barricades provided some cover for the soldiers.
Industrial Light and Magic later digitally added the bullets flying throughout the scene. About twenty amputees were hired to portray the soldiers who lose their limps. The sequence captured the reality of the invasion, and several veterans complimented Spielberg on its realism. One of them was James Doohan – “Scotty” on Star Trek – who as a young man came ashore on D-Day at Juno Beach with the Canadian Army. On the other hand, British actor Richard Todd, who was also at D-Day and later starred in The Longest Day, thought the movie was rubbish. Saving Private Ryan used 40 barrels of fake blood in the course of filming of D-Day.
Near its end, after the Americans break through the German defenses, two soldiers try to surrender to two Americans, and are instead shot dead. The surrendering soldiers actually speak Czech and say that they were forced into the German Army by the Nazis but they hadn’t taken part in the battle. The German Army had what they called Ost (East) Brigades, which were made up of captured Poles and Czechs.
The filming of Omaha Beach changed the movie. It was as if the voices of those who died called out and demanded that their story be told honestly.
Several actors who have since become stars were featured in small roles in Ryan. In the sequence following the invasion where secretaries are writing to inform families of the loss of their loved ones, the deaths of the three Ryan brothers is discovered. It’s brought up the chain of command to a Colonel who’s lost an arm. That role is played by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”). Dale Dye, the technical advisor, also appears as the white-haired Colonel when the situation is explained to General of the Army George Marshall (played by Harve Presnell). One of the voices reading the casualty letters is John de Lancie, who played Q on “Star Trek – The Next Generation.”
In the window of the Ryan home in Iowa is a white banner with a red border and four blue stars. WWII families hung those banners in the window to show how many in the family were fighting the war. For those who died, their stars were changed to gold.
Originally the soldiers began the trip to the village of Neuville by jeep, but the sequence when they lose the jeep (and most of their ammunition) was cut. Captain Miller later mentions the loss of the ammo. The half-destroyed village was constructed in England where the filming continued after Ireland.
After Caparzo is shot by a sniper, Jackson takes out the German with a shot through the man’s telescopic sight. This is based on an actual occurrence, though it took place during the Vietnam War. The Marine sniper who made that shot was Pvt. Carlos Hathcock.
Two other actors who’ve since become stars appear during the Neuville scenes. The sergeant who guides Miller and his soldiers across the divided town is played by Paul Giamati, 5 years before his breakthrough roles in American Splendor and Sideways, and the wrong Ryan is played by a very young Nathan Fillion (“Castle”).
The rally point details how the Airborne invasion went wrong, with misdrops all over Normandy. FUBAR (f**ked up beyond all recognition) was a term used by WWII soldiers, as well as FUBB (f**ked up beyond belief), though the most common was SNAFU (Situation normal – all f**ked up). When Ed Burns reads the names on the dog tags during this scene, all the names are of friends of his.
After the attack on the radar site and Wade’s death, the soldiers debate whether to kill Steamboat Willie (Joerg Stadler). Willie is saved when Captain Miller finally tells the others what he did before the war. Rodat had originally written a much longer speech, but Hanks asked Spielberg if he could edit it, since he felt his character wouldn’t talk so much about himself. The shorter speech is what’s in the film.
The Battle of Ramelle
After Miller and his men find Ryan among the paratroopers holding the bridge in Ramelle, and Ryan refuses to leave until reinforcements arrive, there’s a sequence where they’re preparing for the German counterattack. One thing they make are “sticky bombs” to disable the tanks. While this is a fiction, it’s based on the British S.T. Grenade, which was designed to stick to tanks and then blow up. Unfortunately, the grenades had a habit of sticking to the person throwing them, with tragic results.
Once the preparations are completed, the soldiers are stuck waiting for the attack. Ryan tells Miller a long story about his brothers from the last night they were all together. That story was improvised by Damon, and it sounded so guileless that it was effective.
There was no battle of Ramelle, the climax of the film. (The sequence lasts almost exactly as long as the D-Day invasion, forming bookends for the film.) The Germans did counterattack at Normandy, but the fight took place on causeways, not in a town. The production used the same set that they used for Neuvelle, just shot from different angles, and the bridge spanned a three-foot deep canal that was dug for the film.
The small motorcycle with tank treads, called a Rabbit in the film, was an actual German vehicle used to tow artillery. It was built by a one of the companies that, after the war, merged to form Audi. The German tanks in the film were dressed-up Russian T-34s. While they look similar, the treads are quite different.
When Mellish is killed in the knife fight with a German, he can’t understand what the soldier is saying to him. The German is actually telling him to give up, that they can end it here and that it will be quick. When Upham captures soldiers at the end, including Steamboat Willie (who has shot Miller), Upham tells them to put their hands up and drop their weapons. Willie says he knows this soldier, and Upham tells him to “hold his snout.” Willie says “Upham,” as if they were still friendly, and Upham shoots him, then tells the other soldiers to get lost.
Miller’s final words (“James, earn this. Earn this.”) are simple and devastating, not just for the older Ryan when we return to the graveyard, but for the audience as well. How can anyone earn the sacrifice of another person’s life? As it says in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”
As with almost all of Spielberg’s work, the score for Saving Private Ryan was written by John Williams. It beautifully blends a martial feel with a requiem. The final music over the credits gives it the richness of a full symphony orchestra along with a chorus, provides a final resolution for the film. It’s not so much triumphant as an acknowledgement of sacrifice that honors those who were lost in the war.
Saving Private Ryan was a risky movie. The level of violence was unlike anything put on film before. Spielberg said at the time that he was making a movie that John Wayne wouldn’t like. It was in many ways the antithesis of all the war films made before it. The only flag waving in it is the faded old Glory at the opening and the closing. The budget was kept small to minimize the risk for investors. Armageddon, which was released the same summer, cost twice as much to make, as did the 1998 version of Godzilla. In the end, though, Ryan beat them both to become the highest grossing film of the year.
When the finished movie was screened for Stephen Ambrose, he was overcome with emotion midway through the D-Day sequence and they had to stop the film. After a while he returned and complete watching the film. Other veterans found the scenes disturbing enough that the VA set up an 800 number for them to call for help with their reactions. However, the film also became a way for vets of WWII to finally talk about their experiences during the war with their families. For the first time fathers were able to open up to their children and tell what had happened to them.
The movie was banned in Malaysia because Spielberg wouldn’t cut the violent scenes. He was afraid the MPAA would give the film an NC-17 rating because of it, but he was determined to not make any changes. The film was almost banned in India, but the Culture Minister personally screened the film and, seeing its merit, approved it to be shown.
Ryan’s summer release may have hamstrung it at the Oscars. While it did win Spielberg another Best Director Oscar, along with statues for Film Editing, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects, it lost out on Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love. Tom Hanks lost Best Actor to Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful, and John Williams’ score lost to that film as well. Ryan was the last film edited in the old way on film to win the Best Editing Oscar; from then on the winners have all been edited digitally. It was also the last film released in the old Laserdisc format for home video.
While Life Is Beautiful is pretty much forgotten now, and Shakespeare in Love is rated as one of the most embarrassing Best Picture wins, the power of Saving Private Ryan remains, and the film is just a stunning today as it was sixteen years ago. It blew away the myth of a good war. As Miller says in the film, “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me…I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” That is something every soldier faces, and some never do make it home.