24 July 2013

Saving Private Ryan 15 year anniversary guest post

Saving Private Ryan Historical Accuracy

Fifteen years ago, on July 24th, 1998, one of the most realistic portrayals of World War II ever put to film was released. Saving Private Ryan caused more than a stir when it premiered - in fact, the film was so realistic that it caused a spike of PTSD cases reported by real life D-Day and WWII Veterans. Many counselors began to advise veterans who were “more psychologically vulnerable” to avoid the trip to the theaters.

The film, which starred the phenomenal actors Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns and, of course, Tom Hanks, as well as household names like Matt Damon and Vin Diesel in minor roles, was too much of an unwanted trip down memory lane for many who had experienced war first-hand. For those not involved in the war, however, Saving Private Ryan provided the first cinematic experience that was anywhere near close to the true horrors of war. Let’s look at the two main reasons the film was so successful, and accurate, in portraying the grisly reality of World War II: the opening battle scene, and the considerable efforts that went into it from behind the camera.

The Opening Scene

    The first 27 minutes of the film were dedicated solely to the depiction of the Omaha Beach assault, which took place on D-Day June 6, 1944. The scene, which was shot on Ballinesker Beach in Ireland, was realistic and intense enough to be named the “best battle scene of all time” by Empire magazine and ranked number one on TV Guide’s list of the 50 greatest movie moments.

So how was it accomplished? The scene cost a whopping $12 million to create, and involved around 1,500 extras, many of whom were members of the Irish Reserve Defence Forces. To play the German soldiers, members of local reenactment groups (for example, the Second Battle Group) were cast. Along with these extras, approximately twenty to thirty actual amputees stepped up to more realistically portray American soldiers that had been maimed during the landing. Tom Sanders, the production designer, transformed the beach by building the defensive Belgian gates and even tracking down any remaining World War II-era landing crafts, called Higgins boats. Perhaps most importantly, Spielberg chose not to storyboard the sequence. He wanted purely spontaneous reactions and for “the action to inspire me as to where to put the camera.”

    The scene, and the rest of the film as well, stayed true to the weapons that would have been used during World War II. For example, the M1 Carbine was used by Allied forces and in the film Sergeant Mike Horvath, Private Toynbe and most of the paratroopers use them. On the other side, the film’s German forces used the the MG 42, or “Maschinengewehr” in German, which is a 7.92 universal machine gun that was developed in Nazi Germany and entered service in 1942.

    Spielberg also used techniques such as having hand-held cameras follow the men, placing the audience squarely in the shoes of the men receiving fire. He peeled the protective coating off the camera lenses used, making the colors more closely resemble the cameras used in the ‘40s, and even ensured that the men acted with complete faithfulness to the historical events, right down to the portraying the sea-sickness experienced by many of the soldiers as the landing crafts moved toward the French shoreline.

The Men Behind the Camera

    There’s no denying that Tom Hanks is an outstanding actor, with a resume that includes Forrest Gump (1994), Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004), just to name a few films, and the supporting cast in Saving Private Ryan is no different. It was director Steven Spielberg, however, who brought on an already demonstrated interest and experience with World War II themes. Spielberg had already previously directed 1941 (1979), Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993) and the Indiana Jones series, all of which deal with World War II either directly or indirectly.

Aside from the breathtaking opening scene, Spielberg also received high praise for the unique “knife fight” scene between Private Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and an unnamed German soldier. Mellish is killed with his own knife, pushed slowly, excruciatingly into his chest by the German soldier who whispers (translated to English), “Give up, you don’t stand a chance! Let’s end this here; it will be easier for you like this!” We are forced to watch as Mellish shakes and takes his final breaths before the German leaves the room. The scene was wonderfully directed, Spielberg seems to have caught the slowness of death, as well as the physical exertion necessary to take the life of another human being. There is no simple “bang, you’re dead!” in Saving Private Ryan, only gruesome, agonizing departures.

    Another man due some credit for his behind the scenes work is Tom Struthers, in charge of choreography. His skill was so exceptional, in fact, that he has since been recruited to work on the films Inception (2010), D-Day (2013), and The Dark Knight Trilogy (2012). Struther’s stunt strategy is one based off of authentic fighting styles. “I had to make sure the actors were trained to fight like soldiers, not superheroes,” said Struthers when discussing his newest project, D-Day. We’re pretty sure he used a similar tactic on Saving Private Ryan.

Before even reaching Struthers, the cast of Saving Private Ryan were trained by former U.S. Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye, who made the actors eat rations and crawl and sleep in the mud and dirt. During training, Dye put the actors through actual camp, calling them only by their character names and drilling into them the basics of soldiering, which included persevering when you have absolutely no desire to do so. When asked about the experience, Hanks later said, “I think he was trying to instill in us the idea that when you think you can’t go any farther, you can. You just have to decide to do it, which is exactly the situation in which many of the men involved in the Normandy invasion found themselves.”

Saving Private Ryan is still one of the most visceral representations of the horrors of World War II ever made, and fifteen years after its release, the hand-held, first person combat camera introduced in this film has become the standard way to depict combat in movies. Between the weapons, extras, its historical accuracy, and the film’s unique emotional resonance, it will likely continue setting the standard for war movies for another fifteen years, and beyond.

About the Author:

Spencer Blohm is a television and movie blogger for Direct4TV.com, where he covers everything from profiles of actors and directors to reviews of new releases and retrospectives on forgotten classics. He spends his free time reading, and watching films and documentaries about whatever historical events happen to capture his attention at that moment. He lives and works in Chicago, with his cat, Rupert.


  1. Very interesting reading some of the background to the film. I can recall watching it at the time of release and it was one of those films which just made me think wow! The thing about it is its one of the few "war" films which doesn't in some way or other dum down or glorify the combat. Its dangerous, bloody, undignified and horrifying. Only Band of Brothers (also Spielberg and hanks as a producer I believe) gets close.

  2. I always felt that 'The Thin Red Line' (1998) handled a lot of the aspects of being a soldier a bit more accurately. Being set in the South Pacific, it's not as iconic as Normandy.
    It also dealt more with mental aspects of the individuals, and the sharp contrasts between being in a lush beautiful jungle paradise that can erupt into a brutal, brief struggle for life and death, then go back to quiet again.
    It's also much more of an 'art' film, with several tempo and pace changes.

    both are glimpses into what WW2 was like

  3. I was 14 when I saw SPR for the first time, my dad rented it on VHS and we watched it together. It has a lot of really good scenes, I probably like the "shell shocked" captain Miller crawling up on the beach moment the most - alongside Upham watching his squad members attacking that radar station uphill through a sniper sight. Also love that scene when captain Miller enrolls Upham and this guy starts collecting his typewriters, dropping them and making a mess - followed by Miller handing him a small stump of a pen LOL!

    1. First time I deployed to combat I thought about that beach scene and hoped it wouldn't be as bad as that! It wasn't, that fully, but I don't think much in recent history has been as intense as that.

      I really liked how they handled the "downtime" as the guys made the best use they could out of the little they had. Getting back from a patrol and having four a hours until the next one is something I remember all too well. And as for what you mentioned about Upham and his sniper rifle...sometimes all you can do is watch your buddies and its the worst feeling in the world. I have a picture of my buddy running up a road to a humvee that just got blown up by an IED, you can see the pieces of asphalt falling down around him. I just happened to be be parked with A good view of it and was messing with my camera when it went off.

    2. My grandfather told me stories before he died when I was REALLY young when he saw me playing war when I was a kid. He said war wasn't fun and I should understand what really happened....he told me stuff about D-day being trapped on the beach pinned down in the sand with machine gun fire (he ended up on one of the landings that didn'g go well), a medic grabbed him he was shot in the butt with a bullet digging a fox hole. He ended up helping the medic out. He told me about his buddy getting shot in the stomach and still running in shock before he died. He said he face was pock marked from not being able to wash with fresh water. Told me stories about sending guys out to grab bodies to strip them of ammo, food, meds and anything else they could use. Some f'd up stuff.

  4. Thanks for your service Bush Craft! And great review An. I'm going to go watch the movie tonight, in reverent fashion.

  5. Really interesting article. I think they used the same sort of preperation for the actors in Band of Brothers.

  6. I really enjoyed going through this post.
    Thank you so much for sharing the same.


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