There are hundreds of war films out there in the world, but only a handful are ever considered to be all time greats. 'Apocalypse Now' is probably one of them. 'The Deer Hunter' is a different but equally great take on the Vietnam War. But what about World War II?
If you're a fan of classic films, you probably have a special place in your heart for 'Dambusters' or 'Schindler's List'. 'The Bridge on The River Kwai' is unique. But if you're looking for a genuinely brilliant World War II film from more recent times, you'll want 'Saving Private Ryan'.
This 1998 movie, directed and produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, is pretty much the benchmark for war films. It won five Oscars, and everybody's seen it. Despite that, there are a whole number of interesting facts that almost nobody knows about the film; and here they are!
The Ammunition Was Made Out Of Wood
The battle scenes in 'Saving Private Ryan' are both epic and realistic. A number of World War II veterans who saw the movie when it was first released all agreed that it's the most convincing depiction of the battlefield ever recorded for the big screen. Everything looks vivid and visceral, and so you naturally assume that every piece of kit worn by ever soldier is authentic and of the time.
That's not actually the case. You'll see many soldiers carrying reams and belts of ammunition shells during the shoot-out scenes, but they're not made of steel. They're actually carved from wood. That's not been done for safety reasons - carrying empty shells would have been safe - it was because the steel bullets were too heavy for actors to carry. The real soldiers of the real war had no such luxury!
Matt Damon Owes Robin Williams For His Role
'Saving Private Ryan' came along at a critical time for Matt Damon. He was already a rising star, but he was mostly known for his own productions, and his work alongside best friend Ben Affleck. As 'Saving Private Ryan' went into pre-production, Damon was finishing up the movie 'Good Will Hunting' with Robin Williams.
Spielberg took a trip to the set of 'Good Will Hunting' to see Williams, who was a good friend of his, and was introduced to Damon for the first time. Having been impressed by both the charisma and performance of the young actor when he visited the set, a mere two weeks later Spielberg phoned Damon and asked him if he'd be interested in appearing in the movie. The rest is history. Would Damon have made it to the A-List anyway? Almost certainly, but a helping hand on the way never hurts!
The Colors Had To Be Tweaked To Keep People Happy
Spielberg wanted his war film to be gritty, dark and bleak. That meant keeping colors cool and dark. War isn't a happy place to be, and the legendary director thought that a bright color palette would send the wrong message, so his original draft of the film looked deliberately washed out.
Unfortunately, his vision didn't play well with TV audiences. It was fine on the big screen in the cinema, where it was considered to be part of the film's experience, but didn't look as strong thematically on television. When the movie premiered on television, two separate cable firms contacted the studio to report that viewers thought the colors looked so bad that there must be a fault with the film; and so, the whole color scheme was re-done for future broadcasts. There's no accounting for taste!
At One Point, The Film Featured A Real German Veteran
When a movie is expected to achieve global success, it's dubbed into various different languages to ensure it remains accessible no matter where it's seen in the world. That means there are versions of 'Saving Private Ryan' dubbed into almost any language you can imagine.
One of those languages is German, and those responsible for the German language version decided to go with authenticity as their watchword. For one of the more prominent German soldier parts in the film, they contacted a real German World War II veteran. He initially agreed to the part, but when he started work he unfortunately found the whole process too traumatic and had to pull out because it was upsetting him. That's a shame, but it speaks volumes for how realistic the film must be if a survivor of the real war considers it to be too close to the bone for him to come anywhere near it.
The Film Was Intended For An Audience Of One
'Saving Private Ryan' was made more than twenty years ago. Despite that, and despite all of the incredible film franchises that Steven Spielberg has been involved in over the many decades he's been involved in movies, it's still considered to be one of his greatest-ever works. That's especially impressive when you take into account the fact that he didn't even think about the wider audience when he was making the film. In fact, he was only looking to please and pay tribute to one man.
Spielberg's father, Arnold Spielberg, is a U.S. Army veteran, having served in the Signal Corps and seen action in Burma during World War II. The only reason Spielberg wanted to make a war film at all was to pay tribute to his father, and all of the brave men like him who had fought for the freedom of all of us during that war. We owe one of the best films of all time to the simple fact that a son wanted to make his dad proud.
Spielberg Didn't Really Know Who Matt Damon Was
Here's a brief overview of all the films that Matt Damon had been involved in before 'Saving Private Ryan; 'Good Will Hunting', 'Chasing Amy', 'The Rainmaker', 'Mystic Pizza', and 'Courage Under Fire'. Despite that, prior to that chance meeting through Robin Williams, Spielberg had never seen or heard of the actor before. We guess we now know a lot more about Spielberg's own viewing habits!
The fact that he didn't know who Damon was actually appealed to Spielberg, though. He wanted a fresh face for his film; having cast Tom Hanks in the leading role he wanted the rest of the actors to be fairly anonymous so that they didn't become distracting. In his own way, he believed he was giving Damon his big break. That may not quite be true, but it's still a pretty cool story.
Tom Hanks Wasn't Spielberg's First Choice
It's impossible to image 'Saving Private Ryan' without picturing Tom Hanks in his iconic role as Captain John H. Miller. It's been a defining role for Hanks in a career that, even back then, was already full of them. Hanks and Spielberg have worked well together on numerous occasions, and you'd naturally assume that Hanks was the first person Spielberg called when he decided he was going to make the film.
He wasn't. Perhaps concerned that Hanks wouldn't be seen as 'tough' enough to play the part, Spielberg actually considered Mel Gibson first. Gibson had strong action movie credentials and had only recently had a smash hit in a similar role in 'Braveheart'. When he couldn't get Gibson, he tried to get Harrison Ford's attention, but was unsuccessful with that, too. We're not saying that neither Gibson nor Ford would have been able to play the part admirably, but can you imagine anybody other than Hanks in the helmet?
Matt Damon Wasn't First Choice Either
You may have guessed this already, but we'll make absolutely sure. Even though Spielberg was enamored with Matt Damon from the moment that Robin Williams first introduced the two on the set of 'Good Will Hunting', Damon wasn't the first person Spielberg though of for the role. Preparation for the movie was still at an early stage, but there was another name already in the frame for Damon's part.
That name would be Neil Patrick Harris. At the time, Harris would have been a fresh-faced newcomer to the movie world, arguably not even as well-known as Damon himself was. Harris is known and loved by audiences as the star of the long running sitcom 'How I Met Your Mother'. Would 'Saving Private Ryan' put his career onto a different path? Would Damon have ended up in the sitcom instead? Who knows; it was one of Hollywood's many 'Sliding Doors' moments!
India Originally Refused Permission For The Movie To Be Shown
One of the major issues that faces every Hollywood studio - especially those who make blockbusters - is trying to account for the various tastes and restrictions of different boards of censors around the world. What's fine in America may not be fine in China. Sometimes, what's fine in the United Kingdom isn't fine in America! Because of that, big movies often end up with many different editing cuts, all done to please a different set of censors.
At one point, India wasn't going to approve any version of the film. They considered it to be too violent and too gory and refused permission for it to be screened in their cinemas. That all changed when India's Home Minister was sent a copy of the movie to watch himself at home. Needless to say, he loved it, understood its importance, and overturned the decision to ban it.
The Crew Were Encouraged To Dislike Matt Damon
Part of the premise of 'Saving Private Ryan' is that many of the soldiers don't think the rescue mission is a great idea. Ryan is just one soldier; and not even a particularly important soldier; and so why should so many of men risk their own lives for the chance of saving his? That sentiment is crucial to the film, and Spielberg wanted to make sure it came across on screen.
In order to achieve that, he put the full cast - and all the extras - through rigorous and physically draining military training over a period of many days. The only person who didn't have to go through the training was Damon, who stood and watched. Treating Damon as a 'special case' was a masterstroke by Spielberg, as it created a real sense of resentment that made everyone's performance that little bit more convincing.
Billy Bob Thornton Was Supposed To Be In It, Too
The list of names who were supposed to be in this film, but didn't end up making it, is something of a 'who's who' of Hollywood all on its own. You can add Billy Bob Thornton to that list, too. Thornton was originally slated to appear as Sgt. Mike Horvath; the role that eventually went to Tom Sizemore.
Sizemore's lucky break came from one of Thornton's phobias. When he agreed to play the part, he hadn't realized quite how realistic Spielberg intended the combat scenes to be. Specifically, he hadn't realized that he's be required to walk into the sea off the coast of Omaha Beach. That was a pretty big deal for Thornton; he's aquaphobic, meaning he has a mortal dread of being submerged in water! He was forced to pull out, and Sizemore got a major career opportunity.
Theaters Had To Agree To A Special Provision In Order To Show The Movie
Spielberg, as you've surely realized by now, went all-out to make 'Saving Private Ryan' as great as it could possibly be. We've already talked about how he washed out the color palette to make everything seem grim. He went just as far with the sound. War is a loud, disorientating and terrifying landscape, and the director wanted that to come across to the audience. A huge amount of time was spent on getting the sounds of war just right.
Because of that, Spielberg required every movie theater who screened the film to agree that they'd show it at maximum volume. Every shot, every explosion and every airplane screaming overhead had to be heard just as it would have been heard by the soldiers on the ground, thus immersing the audience in the movie. That's great for the audience watching the film; not so great for the audience watching a kid's movie in the next room!
Real Guns Were Used In The Movie
We said the ammunition carried around by the actors playing soldiers was made of wood, but we didn't say anything about the guns. They were as real as real gets, and all of them were time-appropriate for the film. Not only that, but the sounds they made were real, too. The sound engineers were given a very unusual task when they were making this film!
In order to achieve the gunfire sound effects, Spielberg arranged for World War II era guns to be located, fired and recorded for authenticity. Therefore, every time you see or hear a gun being fired on screen, you're also hearing exactly what it would have sounded like on the battlefield; real guns, making real sounds. When directors go this far with a labor of love, the results are usually incredible. Spielberg's obsessive attention to detail drove this movie to the point of greatness.
The Actors Were Verbally Abused During Their Military Training
The training that the cast (other than Matt Damon) were put through wasn't just physically tough, it was mentally tough, too. Spielberg wanted every soldier who appeared on screen to be able to understand the mindset of a World War II soldier, and so they had to be treated as such. That meant the real soldiers who were brought in to perform the training were exceptionally tough on them.
All of the cast were only allowed to refer to each other by their character's names. Their real names were left at the door. The trainers didn't even use their character names; they simply referred to each and every one of them, from Tom Hanks down to the smallest bit-part, as 'turds'. Soldiers on the front line in World War II certainly didn't feel special or unique, and so the cast had to know exactly how that felt.
The Actors In The Omaha Beach Scene Spent A Month In The Water
When you watch any work of recorded fiction on screen, whether it's TV or movie, it's extremely unlikely that you're seeing the first take of any individual scene. Scenes are shot and re-shot, with different focus and different emphasis, over a period of many hours. Sometimes, the same scene can be recorded over and over again for days. In the case of 'Saving Private Ryan' and the famous Omaha Beach scene, that period ran into weeks.
Every day, they filmed the scenes again, moving a little closer to the beach each time. Spielberg and the producers wanted the cast to get the real feeling of frustration, slow progress and physical exhaustion that came with this kind of warfare. When all was said and done, the actors involved in that scene had been at the beach every day for four weeks.
Matt Damon Wasn't Even Second Choice
Matt Damon was really, really lucky to end up in this film. Not only does he owe the part to Robin Williams and Steven Spielberg being friends, but yet another well-known actor dropped out of the production in order to open the door for him. Edward Norton, who in 1998 was as much a newcomer to the movie world as Damon was, was also in the frame to play Private Ryan.
Ultimately, Norton had to choose between the role, and a larger part in 'American History X' and went with the latter. A year later he got the lead role in 'Fight Club' and his career continued to go from strength to strength. So much success in the acting world seems to depend on being in the right place at the right time. Damon almost got this role by default because Spielberg couldn't find anyone else to do it!
France Wasn't Really France
Such was the dedication to truth and authenticity in this film, it's easy to assume that every location that's used in the movie was simply filmed in its real-life counterpart. However, that's not always possible. A lot has changed since World War II; especially places that were heavily damaged by bombing and gunfights. That's especially true in France, where heavy modernization and repair work was carried out after liberation. Because of that, it wasn't possible to film the French scenes in France; France just doesn't look like that anymore!
Instead, a specially-constructed shell town was built just outside of London, England, and filming took place there instead. That means every single one of the ruined buildings you see in those scenes has actually been uniquely created to look that way. It's convincing - and we imagine it was also very expensive!
It Proved That R Ratings Can Be Big Draws
The R rating is a troublesome thing to deal with for the people who make movies. Whilst some genres; especially horror films; benefit from being rated R so they can deal with adult themes and include scenes that just wouldn't be appropriate for a younger audience, there's inevitably a financial impact. Locking some of the potential audience out means you don't get their money, and so box office success is harder to achieve.
It might have been tempting for Spielberg to edit the more violent and gory scenes out of this film to keep it away from an R rating and ensure as many people could see it as possible, but instead he chose to give us an accurate portrayal of the horrors of war. He was rewarded for it. 'Saving Private Ryan' was a #1 at the box office. It would take sixteen years before any other R rated film would achieve that position; 2014's 'American Sniper'.
11 Million Dollars Was Spent On One Scene
'Saving Private Ryan' is believed to have cost $70m to make; that would still be considered a fairly large budget now, but in 1998 it was huge. It therefore seems astonishing that $11m of that budget was spent on one scene, but that's what happened. You may even have guessed which scene it was already; that month-long shoot at Omaha Beach.
There were over 1000 extras involved in shooting the scene. That goes some way to explaining the cost, but then we have to factor in that these weren't just any extras. They were soldiers from the Irish Army Reserve, who had to be paid appropriately for their time. On top of that, around 30 of the extras were amputees, who were given purpose-built prosthetics to wear for their scenes, all in order for the prosthetics to be destroyed during battle scenes. The idea was to show the audiences graphic depictions of the kind of injuries real soldiers received in battle.
Tom Hanks Pushed Back Against Spielberg
By this point, you've surely understood how much this film meant to Steven Spielberg, and how obsessive he was about making it correctly. Everything was done in accordance with his vision for the production. It would take an exceptionally brave man to answer back to Spielberg and disagree with anything he was trying to do; which must make Tom Hanks an exceptionally brave man.
There's a memorable scene in the film where Hanks' character Captain Miller tells some of his troops what he does back at home. It's a window into the character's soul, and a reminder that every soldier we see has a real life away from the nightmare they've found themselves in. Hanks didn't agree with some of the script's dialogue, feeling that some of the details the character was supposed to reveal were inconsistent with what we'd already been told. Amazingly, Spielberg agreed, and allowed Hanks to give his own take on the tale instead.
Some Of The Boats At Omaha Beach Were Relics
You'll see very few things on screen during 'Saving Private Ryan' that aren't correct for their time period or location. The guns, uniforms, locations and sounds are all as authentic as they could possibly be. Obviously, given the amount of time that's passed since the Second World War, many of the vehicles, planes and ships that were used at the time are long since obsolete, and have been scrapped. 'Many' doesn't mean 'all' though.
Spielberg found out that two landing craft of the type that were used in the Omaha Beach scenes were still intact, and in theory still sea-worthy. They were museum pieces, but Spielberg had them brought out of storage and tested. They were still capable of doing the job they were designed to do, and so they were used for filming. Even some of the vehicles seen on screen in this movie are war veterans!
Making The Movie Almost Required A Completely New Invention
If you watch any action or war film that's been made in the past decade, you'll notice that the camera shakes around a lot. That's especially true during battle scenes when explosions go off. The thinking behind it is that shaking the camera drives home the scale of the impact for the viewers. It's an easy thing to achieve with 21st century methods but wasn't so common back in 1998.
Spielberg wanted his cameras to shake when bombs went off, and believed he'd found a solution. He attached two drills to the sides of the camera and turned them on when he wanted them to shake. They worked just fine, but one of the younger production assistants pointed out to him that shaker lenses had already been invented and were available. Spielberg learned something that day. Even so, you have to salute him for his ingenuity!
There Was A Second Rule Theaters Had To Follow
Actually, we wouldn't mind if every movie theater in the world did this for every movie. There's nothing worse than settling down to watch a film, only to have latecomers walk in when the movie has already started and break the atmosphere. 'Saving Private Ryan' is a completely immersive movie that creates a vivid world and draws its viewers in. Keeping that feeling is integral if the film is to have its desired effect on the people watching it.
Spielberg didn't want any of that atmosphere to be lost, so he made every theater showing his movie make a promise; when the movie had started, nobody was to be allowed in. The doors were closed, and if you arrived late it was too bad, and you'd have to wait for the next showing. Keep the volume up, and keep the doors closed. We don't think that should be too much to ask!
A Famous Military Historian Found It All Too Much
If you're interested in military history, you may have seen or read the work of Stephen Ambrose. He was one of the world's foremost experts on warfare, and unsurprisingly Spielberg consulted him when he was putting his masterpiece together. If you want to make something authentic, it's wise to seek the opinions of those who know the most about your subject matter.
Spielberg wanted to make sure he'd got the film just right, and so arranged a special screening of the movie for Ambrose before the general public got to see it. Twenty minutes in, Ambrose walked out. It's not that he hated the film; quite the opposite. It was so realistic and so intense that it impacted him profoundly. He took a pause to compose himself and prepare his mind to endure the rest of what he was going to watch, and then went back in to finish the job. Needless to say, he gave it his seal of approval.
Some Of The Film Happens In Real Time
In fiction, things have to happen quickly. Many movies and TV shows show events that happen over the course of long periods of time; years, in some cases; but for the purposes of getting everything done, that time has to be condensed. Otherwise we'd all be sat in cinemas for months on end! Real-time works of fiction tend to be fairly unique, which was one of the appeals of Kiefer Sutherland's '24'.
Although it wasn't possible to make all of 'Saving Private Ryan' in real-time, Spielberg wanted the audience to get a sense of the ebb and flow of a real battle, and so as many of the sequences as possible play out in real-time as possible. Because of that, when Paul Giamatti's character announces that 'the streets have been quiet for around 45 minutes', exactly 45 minutes of the film have elapsed.
One Of The Things People Found Unrealistic Was Actually Real
Despite the astonishing lengths that Spielberg went to in order to make sure the battle scenes came across as 'real', it's impossible to please everybody. There's a scene in 'Saving Private Ryan' where a group of Rangers hurl mortar rounds with their bare hands. Some people - including some military veterans - took issue with that depiction, claiming it was unrealistic and could never happen on a real battlefield.
They were wrong, though. It actually did. US Army veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Charles Kenny can vouch for it. He threw plenty of mortar rounds with his bare hands during a battle in 1943 and lived to tell the tale. Spielberg had heard about Kenny's legendary feats and included the scene as a small tribute to his bravery. All of the normal rules go out of the window in a war situation, as Kelly's story proves.
Tom Sizemore Was Dealing With Personal Problems During The Movie
Tom Sizemore was never supposed to be in this film at all. As we already know, Billy Bob Thornton had his part, and only dropped out because he physically couldn't do the beach scenes that were required of him. That opened the door for Sizemore, but Sizemore was a man who was already fighting battles of his own.
Sizemore had a serious drug problem; one that plagued him both before and after the making of 'Saving Private Ryan', but not during. Spielberg warned him when he was hired that he'd be blood tested every single day during filming, and if he failed once, he'd immediately be fired from the cast, and his role would be re-shot by a replacement. Sizemore's part required 58 days of filming; replacing him would mean a lot of additional work both for Spielberg and for all the other actors involved in shooting his scenes. Thankfully - for this time, at least - Sizemore was able to stay clean.
The Film Was Appreciated By Real Movie Veterans
At the time the film was made, there were many actors who'd actually served in World War II who'd seen action during the Second World War. One of them was James Doohan, better known and loved by audiences all over the world as Montgomery Scott from the 'Star Trek' universe.
Before becoming an actor, Doohan was part of the Royal Canadian Artillery, and was involved in one of the war's most famous incidents; the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Doohan had the chance to see the film before it was released to the public (Spielberg was very keen for as many veterans as possible to see the film and provide feedback before he completed his final edit), and reserved special praise for both the film and its director, noting how rare it was for a movie to actually show what battlefield conditions were like instead of toning them down or romanticizing them.
CAFT Actually Has A Meaning
This is one for military aficionados, and those who really know their military language. Anything that has a long title tends to get abbreviated to an acronym in the military; it isn't desirable or practical to shout extended directions over a battlefield and so if something can be shortened, it will be. One of those abbreviations is 'CAFT', which those who've seen the movie will remember being repeated over and over again by Hanks as Captain Miller.
'CAFT' actually has a real life meaning. It stands for 'Commander: Amphibious Task Force'. You may have already noticed that the true acronym for that would be 'CATF', but as 'CATF' is impossible to pronounce for the human tongue, the last two letters get switched around. There were a number of such task forces active during the Second World War, and they would obviously have had major roles to play during beach landing missions.
50 Minutes Of The Film Are Taken Up By Two Battles
'Saving Private Ryan' is quite a long film. The final edit is 169 minutes long, which gives it a running time of over two and a half hours. Fifty minutes of that running time is taken up by just two battle scenes. Like we said earlier on, Spielberg wanted the major battles to run in something close to real-time, because he believed that was the best way to depict the real-life experiences of the soldiers facing the battles.
At the start of the film, we see some of the events of the Battle of Normandy. It's a physical, grueling and unrelenting opening to the movie, and sets the tone for what's to come. It lasts for twenty-five minutes. Having prepared the audience to cope with such a scene, the movie ends the same way, with the battle to save Ramelle at the film's climax also lasting for twenty-five minutes.
The Confusion Of War Is Shown In The Film
Centuries ago, there was no confusion over who was on whose side during a war. Soldiers often wore brightly colored uniforms that distinguished them from their opposition, and so the chances of being confused for an enemy soldier were minimal. Since the transition to comparatively more modern warfare, that's changed.
Uniforms during the Second World War were broadly the same color on every side, and the constant built up of mud and blood only added to the confusion. Therefore, if you spoke in a foreign tongue, you'd be assumed to be an enemy. You might recall a scene in the film where two men shout something in a foreign language before being shot, presumed to be German soldiers. They're actually Czech, and were shouting 'Please don't shoot me, I am not German, I am Czech, I didn't kill anyone', but tragically nobody can understand them, and they're executed. Such incidents were sadly not uncommon during the war.
Matt Damon Made Up One Of His Most Compelling Scenes
Matt Damon, as Private Ryan, doesn't have a great deal of screen time compared to the other major roles in the film. He's been captured, after all, and the focus is all on his rescue, and the people risking their lives to rescue him. That means there wasn't a huge amount of scripted dialogue for Damon. He didn't let that stop him making an impression, though.
You may recall a scene in which he tells a story about spying on his brother. It's touching and provides us with a rare insight into his character. It's also completely improvised. None of the dialogue was in the original script, and Damon made it all up on the spot. Spielberg watched it back when making the edit, loved it, and decided to keep it. We guess that's what happens when you include great writers within your cast.
Spielberg Wouldn't Relent On The R Rating
Earlier in the list, we talked about how sensational the film's box office performance was for an R rated picture. It was a risk on the producer's behalf to go ahead with the film at that rating, knowing it would limit the chances of making enough box office money to pay for the elaborate production. The studio was nervous, and pressured Spielberg to make cuts in pursuit of a lower rating.
Spielberg, correctly, outright refused. He eventually tired of being asked, and told the studio that if they forced him, the only cuts he would make would result in an NC-17 rating; meaning that no children below the age of 17 would be admitted, and the effect on the box office would essentially be the same. The studio finally got the message and backed off. It was undoubtedly the correct call. It might be gruesome, but without the more horrific scenes the film just wouldn't be the same.
It Was The Last Major Picture Of Its Kind
As 'Saving Private Ryan' was being made, times were changing in Hollywood. New technologies were making both the recording and editing processes more sophisticated, and the analogue age was giving away to the digital age. The internet had been born, and the world would never look back. Spielberg would go on to make plenty of films using these new technologies, but not until after his passion project was complete.
All of the editing on 'Saving Private Ryan' was done on a non-digital system. In real terms, that means it was done manually, with tape reels being cut and then glued back together to complete the edit. It's an intensive work of labor that seems almost unthinkable today, when you can just highlight the parts you don't want and select 'cut'. Some more films were made using old school methods after 'Saving Private Ryan'; and the occasional one is still made today as a curiosity; but this was the last movie made using the old-school method to win an Oscar.
Tom Hanks Won The Respect Of The Real Military
Tom Hanks was already a huge star when 'Saving Private Ryan' was released, but the movie still did wonderful things for his career. It won him a whole raft of awards, and nominations for many more, as well as making him a lot of money and earning rave reviews from critics. In top of that, it also did something that meant a great deal to the actor personally.
In 2006, Tom Hanks was inducted as an honorary member of the US Army's Ranger Hall of Fame; an honor awarded solely because of his performance as Captain John Miller in his film. The Rangers felt that Hanks' honest, brave and sincere performance had been a fine representation of what every US Ranger should aspire to be, and therefore it was worthy of recognition. The award meant a great deal to Hanks; military causes are close to his heart, and he's served as the chairman of the D-Day Museum Campaign.
A Military Adviser Made A Cameo Appearance
'Saving Private Ryan' has the grain of military truth running right through it. It was made to honor a real soldier, the cast were trained by real soldiers, and the extras were largely made up of real soldiers. There were also many real soldiers involved as advisers to the film, helping Spielberg to ensure that his scenes stayed close to the truth.
One of those advisers actually ended up on screen in a small role. An older man with a moustache appears as a War Department Colonel at one point to advise General George C. Marshall not to send a rescue party after Private Ryan. If you're going to have a senior military figure in your film offering advice and giving orders, you might as well go with someone who truly knows what he's talking about! The movie is loosely based on real life events involving the capture and recovery of a private, and there were those involved in those events who didn't feel the exercise was wise.
The Bullet Holes Were One Of The Few Uses Of CGI
Wherever it was possible, the effects used in 'Saving Private Ryan' were physical. Even in modern films with the best digital graphics in the world, it's usually possible to tell the difference between a CGI explosion and a real one. We're just not quite there yet with digital animation. In 1998, the differences would have been even more obvious, and so almost everything you see on screen is real.
Even with Spielberg's commitment to hyper-realism, it wouldn't be possible to actually shoot the cast, and so a little digital trickery had to be employed to provide realistic bullet holes! All such effects were added on in the edit, using a process known as Industrial Light and Magic. The effects may seem simple by modern standards, but to employ such techniques in the late 90s without them obviously seeming fake was quite an achievement.
Some Veterans Struggled With It
As we've already seen, many veterans who saw this film were impressed with the realism shown on screen, and the sincerity of the message. It's an incredibly powerful film that stays with you for a long time after the final credits roll. However, we've also seen that it was briefly too much for a seasoned military historian, who had to pause his viewing to recover from what he'd just seen.
That was also true for some of the veterans invited to see it; especially those who'd lived through the real-life conflict. Many old soldiers suffer from flashbacks and post-traumatic stress, and the film was so realistic that it triggered some of those symptoms. The Department of Veterans Affairs set up a special free-call telephone numbers for veterans to phone if they found themselves feeling anxious or upset after watching the movie.
Omaha Beach Wasn't Actually Omaha Beach
The Omaha Beach scene is a major point of 'Saving Private Ryan', which is why we've spent a lot of time discussing it in this list. There's one more important detail you should probably know about it though; what you're seeing on screen isn't actually the real Omaha Beach at all! Although the real Omaha Beach still exists, and largely looks the same as it did during the Second World War, the trustees of the Beach have severe restrictions on what can be filmed there, and how that filming can happen. Those restrictions made it impossible for Spielberg to achieve what he wanted to achieve.
Unwilling to be defeated, Spielberg instead went to a remote beach in Ireland, and created an exact replica of Omaha Beach there; just as he'd created a clone French village just outside London. The production crew on this film actually built a whole town and a whole beach, and nobody could tell them apart from the real thing. Incredible!
The Strange Dirt Ceremonies Actually Happened
One of the oddest things going on in the background of the film happens in the dirt and in the mud. Occasionally in the background of scenes; and one or two times front and center; you might notice soldiers scooping up dirt with their hands and putting it into small tins, before writing the name of the country on the lid and pocketing them.
Both then and now, this behavior is actually common in soldiers serving abroad. They take a little of the dirt beneath their feet back home with them, as a memento of where they've fought; a little like how you might buy a picture postcard of a place you've visited on vacation. That may seem like an odd hobby, but given the conditions that the soldiers of the time were facing we think it's fine for them to indulge the occasional quirk if it helps them to stay sane.
Spielberg And Hanks Were Pitched The Film At The Same Time
Although Spielberg was heavily involved in the film's final script, he didn't start it off. The first draft of 'Saving Private Ryan' is the work of screenwriter Robert Rodan, who'd sent it to several top Hollywood names in the hope of getting his project made. One of them was Steven Spielberg, who received it through his agent and of course loved it. Another of them was Tom Hanks.
After being unable to land Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford, Spielberg found out that Hanks was reading the same script at the same time as him. He contacted Hanks to find out what he thought of it, and after discovering that Hanks was just as keen to get the movie made as he was, they agreed to work together and turn the dream into reality. Thus, one of Hollywood's great partnerships was formed.
Michael Madsen Was Nearly Sgt. Horvath
Looking back, this would have been a strange piece of casting! When Billy Bob Thornton dropped out, a new Sgt. Horvath had to be found quickly. We already know that Tom Sizemore ended up playing the part, but that he had drug issues at the time which put producers off the idea of using him. Spielberg wouldn't have had Sizemore at the top of his list, and instead contacted Michael Madsen to see if he could persuade him to take the part.
Madsen would no doubt have put his own unique twist on the part, just as he has done with every role he's ever played, but for whatever reason he decided it just wasn't for him. He did still have a role to play though; it was his conversation with Spielberg that persuaded the director to take a chance on Sizemore; Madsen assured him that he'd be ideal for the part and recommended him strongly. Spielberg took the advice.
Vin Diesel Was In The Movie
Somehow, this always gets overlooked. Apologies if you're one of the people who noticed him, and are wondering why we're pointing it out, but many people have no idea that the 'Fast and Furious' and 'XXX' action movie star was in 'Saving Private Ryan', even though they saw him with their own eyes!
To be fair to those who didn't recognize him, he does look dramatically different in the film to the way we know him now. He was young, and it was only the third film role of his career. Spielberg had seen him in his second film, 'Multi-Facial', which he'd written, produced and starred in himself. The performance made an impression on the director, who offered him a small part as Private Caparzo in his war epic. Diesel was paid a total of $100,000 for his role. That's nothing compared to the big money he gets from his major franchises now, but we're sure it was helpful to a young actor at the start of his career.
There Is No Ramelle
This is something of a curiosity. For a film so obsessed with its locations and its accuracy, one of the most significant theaters of combat in the entire film is completely made up. There is no Ramelle. There has never been a town in France called Ramelle, and no Battle of Ramelle ever happened.
This is at odds with everything else we see in the film. The Normandy Landings certainly happened, and every other geographic location which is either seen or name-checked on screen during 'Saving Private Ryan', so this is the only thing that's been made up. Nobody seems to know what prompted the decision to go with a fictional location. Perhaps because there was no real Private Ryan, Spielberg thought it would be disrespectful to the real battles of World War II to show fictional events happening during one of them?
Edward Burns Used The Names Of His Real Friends
There are a number of emotionally affecting scenes during 'Saving Private Ryan', and the film effects different people in different ways, but most people would agree that the scene in which Rieben reads out the names of fallen soldiers from their dog tags is one of the most devastating. It brings home the toll of the human loss during the conflict.
Edward Burns, playing Rieben, wanted to do the scene justice, and truly convey how much serving soldiers would be hurt by the loss of their friends and colleagues. With that in mind, he ignored the fictional names on the dog tags and instead used the names of his real-life friends and loved ones. He felt it would help him to both understand and express the heartbreak of losing somebody that he cared about, and finding out in such a manner.
Spielberg's Perfectionism Knew No Bounds
We've gone into a lot of detail about how much this film meant to Steven Spielberg, and the incredible lengths he went to in order to make sure the look and feel of the movie was authentic. Here's yet another example of that dedication from the legendary filmmaker.
Spielberg took his cues for the movie's visual style from the newsreel-style films that were shown in cinemas during the 1940s to keep the public informed of events and progress during the war. He modeled the sets and the style from the way those newsreels were presented. He even went so far as to change the lenses on the cameras, so they'd deliver a result that appeared more like old fashioned newsreels. That was part of the reason that the colors of the original edit look so washed-out.
Four Real Life Brothers Loosely Inspired The Plot
As with all great stories, there's a pinch of truth to the story of 'Saving Private Ryan'. In this case, it comes from the true-life stories of the Niland brothers; four Irish-Americans who served during the Second World War, and only two of whom survived the conflict. Their stories are also partially told by the epic 'Band of Brothers' TV mini-series.
Sergeant Fritz Niland was the rough inspiration for the character of Private Ryan. Fritz fought during the Normandy Campaign and survived the events of D-Day. During the days after D-Day, he traveled to see the 82nd Airborne Division to see his brother Bob, only to find that Bob had been killed in action. The second brother, Preston, was killed during the D-Day landings. Fritz believed he was the only survivor from the family until he found that his third brother, Edward, had been captured by the Japanese and held as a Prisoner of War in Burma before being rescued in 1945.
The Beach Scenes Weren't The Most Expensive
Surprise! When we told you that the Omaha Beach scene cost $11m of the movie's entire $70m budget, you probably assumed that was the most expensive scene in the entire film. It wasn't. The D-Day scene managed to not only match but exceed it, coming in at a total cost of $12m.
The reasons for the incredible cost are largely the same as they were for the Omaha Beach scenes; the sheer number of trained extras and military personnel required for the shoot, as well as all of the real military equipment and the special effects. D-Day is arguably the best known of all the battles in the Second World War, playing a decisive role in the outcome of the war and the final defeat of the Nazis. Nothing less than perfection would do for Spielberg when it came to recreating it, and as with anything, perfection costs a lot of money.
Blood Came By The Barrel
The scenes in 'Saving Private Ryan' that depict battlefield injuries are by far and away the most difficult to watch. Even twenty years after the movie was made, they remain some of the most gruesome and convincing representations of battlefield injuries ever committed to film, and it takes a strong stomach to watch them without looking away. By their very nature, mortal or grievous injuries produce massive quantities of blood. That meant enormous amounts of fake blood were needed for the film to achieve the realistic effect it set out for.
When we say 'enormous', we really mean it. In the opening scene alone, forty barrels of fake blood were used. To give you an idea of what that looks like, the average barrel contains 42 gallons. That works out as 190 liters. Multiply 190 by the 40 barrels, and that's 7,980 liters of fake blood used in one scene alone!
It Was Never Supposed To Be A Blockbuster
Despite everything; the budget, the obsessive level of detail, the processes which the cast went through and the absolute commitment to making things 'real', Spielberg was convinced that the movie wasn't going to be a hit and had warned the studio not to market it like a blockbuster. Spielberg wanted to make a war film for war veterans like his dad, and never dreamed of an audience beyond that.
Spielberg's belief was that the film would just be too intense for the average movie-goer. He thought there would be too much horror and too much violence for a regular audience to tolerate, and he also believed that it would put off a number of influential critics. He was wrong. As it turned out, people were willing to endure the horror because they believed in the story, and Spielberg had made what may just be the greatest war movie ever filmed.
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