Saving Private Ryan
"I've had an obsession with World War II," confessed Spielberg in an interview conducted during the production of the film. His father fought in the Burma campaign in World War II as a radio man in a fighter plane. As a young teen, Spielberg and his friends created World War II adventures on super 8 film. He'd previously touched on the war in such films as 1941 (a homefront comedy, 1979), Empire of the Sun (a child's-eye view of survival in an internment camp, 1987) and his acclaimed Holocaust drama Schindler's List , but Saving Private Ryan was his first classical war film, a platoon drama about the experience of American soldiers in combat.
The script was inspired by a true story: the Niland family had lost three of their four sons to the war. The War Department, still remembering the five Sullivan brothers who all died while serving on the same battleship (which led to the policy of preventing siblings from serving together), was not going to let it happen again. They sent a platoon to pull the fourth Niland son out of harm's way; he was a young soldier who had parachuted in with the 101st on D-Day. Robert Rodat's script fictionalizes the particulars but draws upon real history to tell the story of the soldiers who land on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The real-life landing was a slaughter. The pre-invasion barrage had failed to knock out the dug-in German guns and heavily-entrenched soldiers on the hills above the beach and the Germans slaughtered the first wave of American soldiers.
Spielberg transformed the scene into the film's most visceral and memorable accomplishment: the shell-shock of the brutal, bloody, in-your-face chaos of American soldiers hitting the beach on D-Day. The unrelenting barrage of exploding shells and pelting gunfire on a beach littered with the bodies and limbs of American soldiers hits the audience like an assault on the senses. "I tried to be as brutally honest as I could with what I had," explained Spielberg. Bullets tear through air, water, flesh; men stagger about, lost and limbless; explosions shatter the dull scream of war; soldiers bleed, fall, and die, just so many bodies in the detritus of battle. Spielberg's razor-sharp images are charged with panic and his camera is almost too alert as it takes in the shocking information overload. War has never been portrayed as so intimidating, so terrifying, so arbitrarily destructive. It may be the closest Hollywood has ever come to recreating the combat experience, thanks in large part to Spielberg's brilliant orchestration of the chaos. The experience sent some veterans reeling into vivid flashbacks and stunning audiences into an awed, aghast, and humble silence.
Tom Hanks is quietly authoritative as Captain John Miller, whose platoon Ð Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Privates Reiben (Edward Burns), Jackson (Barry Pepper), Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Caparzo (Vin Diesel) and Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) Ð survives the harrowing landing and is given a new, unconventional mission: to head behind enemy lines to find and retrieve Private James Ryan (Matt Damon).
Hanks was a longtime friend of Spielberg but they had never worked together on a film before. Coming upon the same script independently, they discussed the possibilities and decided to collaborate. The collaboration was so successful, and the subject matter so compelling, that Spielberg and Hanks reteamed to produce the mini-series Band of Brothers (based on the book by Stephen Ambrose) for HBO. For the young soldiers in the platoon, Spielberg (who has always had a knack for discovering young talent) went looking for unfamiliar faces to inhabit characters that were at once familiar war movie types and individual personalities. Good Will Hunting  had yet to elevate Matt Damon's star when he was cast as Ryan, a small but essential role in the film. Adam Goldberg was best known for his role in Dazed and Confused , Giovanni Ribisi was a TV veteran who had played a small role in Tom Hanks' directorial debut That Thing You Do! , Jeremy Davies was a talented actor in a few American Indie productions (Spanking the Monkey, 1994), and Barry Pepper and Vin Diesel were virtual unknowns when Spielberg cast them. You'll also see Paul Giamatti in a small role as an officer; the exposure gave his struggling career a major boost. To prepare his actors for their roles, Spielberg turned to war veteran turned war movie consultant Dale Dye, who acted as drill sergeant for a six-day boot camp and crash course in physical training, weapons training and military culture.
The Omaha Beach invasion was staged on the coast of Ireland. Vintage landing crafts were brought in from all over the world. Hundreds of members of the Irish Army were hired as extras and hundreds of guns were loaded with blanks for the actors and extras on the front lines of the film (the rest were issued rubber guns). The actors wore earplugs to protect them from the noise of the explosives and ordnance used to create the spectacle of the German assault on the landing. Computer effects were used to add background explosions and fill out long shots with more soldiers and chaos. For the film's other major location, a French village set, the company built their own village in a rural field in Hatfield, just North of London. They actually constructed real, functional buildings and then destroyed them to create an authentically war-scarred look.
Spielberg reteamed with Janusz Kaminski, his regular cinematographer since Schindler's List. "Very early on in the process, we both knew that we did not want this to look like a Technicolor extravaganza about World War II. We wanted it to look very much like color newsreel footage from the 1940s, which is highly desaturated and very grainy and extremely low tech." The camerawork was all handheld in the combat scenes, to evoke a quality of combat newsreel footage as well as the jittery immediacy of the action. Kaminski had special lenses made to defuse the image slightly and sent the negative to a lab to further leech the color out. "There's virtually not a single shot that shows a blue sky." The skip-frame effects, created in post-production, added a stuttery visual quality and added to the sense of adrenaline-charged immediacy.
Saving Private Ryan was one of Spielberg's most acclaimed films. "This film simply looks at war as if war had not been looked at before," wrote New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who described the film as "the ultimate devastating letter home." Roger Ebert declared: "Saving Private Ryan says things about war that are as complex and difficult as any essayist could possibly express, and does it with broad, strong images, with violence, with profanity, with action, with camaraderie." It earned five Academy Awards, including Spielberg's second Oscar® for Best Director and Janusz Kaminski's second award for Best Cinematography. It was nominated for eleven awards in all, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and remains one of the most celebrated films about the American soldier experience in World War II.
Producers: Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn, Steven Spielberg
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Robert Rodat
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Art Direction: Daniel T. Dorrance (supervising art director); Tom Brown, Ricky Eyres, Chris Seagers, Alan Tomkins; Mark Tanner (uncredited)
Music: John Williams
Film Editing: Michael Kahn
Cast: Tom Hanks (Capt. John H. Miller), Tom Sizemore (Sgt. Mike Horvath), Edward Burns (Pvt. Richard Reiben), Barry Pepper (Pvt. Daniel Jackson), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Stanley Mellish), Vin Diesel (Pvt. Adrian Caparzo), Giovanni Ribisi (T-4 Medic Irwin Wade), Jeremy Davies (Cpl. Timothy P. Upham), Matt Damon (Pvt. James Francis Ryan), Ted Danson (Capt. Fred Hamill), Paul Giamatti (Sgt. Hill), Dennis Farina (Lt. Col. Anderson).
by Sean Axmaker