This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #112 (October 1998).
The most evocative battle scenes ever put to film. A powerful study of humanity in the face of madness. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has been heralded as a masterpiece of historic cinema. Ian Nathan meets Tom Hanks and the gallant men who endured sheer hell for the sake of absolute realism...
When military historian and D-day veteran Stephen E. Ambrose, from whose memoirs Steven Spielberg drew historical inspiration, first watched Saving Private Ryan he lasted about 20 minutes. Then he waved a hand, called for the projectionist to halt the film and strode purposefully for daylight. He needed to compose himself, to gather in the storm of memories and emotions that swirled around his head. Then he returned to the cinema and watched the rest of the film without a break.
Spielberg's magnum opus World War II movie opens with a passage of combat verisimilitude unprecedented in cinema history. Watching the Omaha beach landing of American troops on the blustery day of June 6, 1944, we are served a blood and gut-spitting range of cinema vérité that would make Sam Peckinpah blanch. A terrifying ordeal of handheld camerawork depicting soldiers exposed to the alien extremes of absolute carnage.
For Ambrose, it was a sight he never thought he would witness again and the footage was too much to bear. The numbing clarity with which bodies are fragged and flayed by the unending hail of German machine gunfire, heads imploding, limbs torn away, men vomiting in terror and nausea over the gunwales of Higgins boats pitching over the surf to the fatal beach. Soldiers clutch at their spilled intestines crying out for their mothers as the sea is turned blood red. It is a 24 minute sequence of unalloyed horror, shot with almost documentarian closeness.
By the man who made E.T.
War is hell. We know that. The brazen psychological soup of enough Oliver Stone movies have hammered it home. But World War II, the big gun heroism of Wayne and co., wresting battered Europe from the tyrannical Nazis? It was glorious, it was sweeping, the only red you ever caught were the alternate stripes on the US insignia. Omaha beach, let Spielberg tell us, was a fuck-up. An organisational disaster that cost untold lives. Heroism? Heroism was simply staying on your feet and keeping your sanity intact. The cost, both physical and psychological, was beyond counting. Saving Private Ryan would like us to at least try and understand that.
"The second wave of D-day, which is what we were, the ramps go down and it is hell on earth, you're stepping over fallen comrades, there are bodies everywhere, with heads blown off and entrails floating away."
Tom Hanks The casting of Tom Hanks is the key. Cinema's favourite everyman, the movie star one-off whose cherub cheeks and curly hair are the very antithesis of gung-ho, except that's what the war has made him - Captain Miller, the strident leader whose emotions are buried deep beneath his armoured frame.
War can do that. War is also starting to pull him apart.
The story, written by Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home), has Miller's squad commissioned to search behind enemy lines for the last remaining of a quartet of Ryan brothers. It's a PR mission, high command trying to put a brave face on the sacrifice of Mother America's boys on the altar of freedom. Miller's boys, however, aren't too enamoured with the notion of risking eight good men for one.
A million metaphorical and a good few thousand literal miles from the shattered Gallic towns of Europe's theatre of war (as recreated behind a former aerodrome in Hertfordshire), the cast are holed up in a swank Pasadena hotel, an early 20th century terracotta monument to hush and delicacy that demands "slacks" and shirts with collars for dinner. They are here to thump the tub through a morning of press interviews. However, there is much more to say today than the deliberate pressing of "favourable soundbites" to promote their latest - this film experience has gone much further 'than the usual role-on role-off process of filmmaking. A set of pampered actors have got a profound taste of history and in succession the quasi-soldiers talk loud and proud about the genius of their director, the power of the subject matter and the tortures of boot camp.
Instead of rehearsal, Spielberg required his "boys", including Captain Hanks, to go on a pre-shoot boot camp and get a taste for the hardship of the military life. Headed by Captain Dale Dye, army advisor and 21-year Marine veteran who saw combat in Vietnam, Beirut and the Gulf (add bullet wounds, shrapnel scars and three Purple Hearts), it pushed them to the limits of their endurance. Pack-laden six mile runs, zero comforts, threadbare food supplies, the full monty of living-it-rough life experience with due shivering, vomiting and total physical and mental breakdown.
According to Dye, a man unfazed by Hollywood glamour who referred to the stars simply as "Turd!", they had a responsibility to the memory of those who fought and died on the Normandy beaches over half a century before. But such were the hardships suffered that days into the camp, a conference was held and rebellion mooted. They were actors surely.
What they would be doing was acting, none of this art-as-life torture. They took a vote. Two fingers home, one finger stay put. All but one were in favour of packing up and heading for the nearest five star joint for a hot bath and room service. The one dissenter was Tom Hanks.Funnily enough, they stayed put.
Spielberg and his squad plan their mission on the cliffs above Omaha Beach.
"I loved it!" booms the double Oscar-winner with a deliberately big cheese grin. "They all wanted to quit and I said, 'No'.' The actual boot camp was very cold and it was very miserable and it was very humiliating. It was exhausting, we didn't get much sleep. We worried about getting sick and we worried about getting hurt, but we were never worried about those being the six most worthwhile days that we could have spent. It was our rehearsal, our preparation."
Tom Hanks is back to his old self this morning. Ebullient, humorous, the consummate pro attired in a shirt and jacket, he seems pukka at this whole press rigmarole, plonking himself down at the table and taking up the questioning with voracious appetite.
"It brought us together as a cast," he continues on what transpires to be one of the film's major talking points, "which was reflected in every element of the film. I can tell you from the first day of shooting we were not at the mercy of costume guys helping us with our stuff or munitions guys talking us through our weapons. We had already done it and were standing in formation next to the camera. The mindset of Captain Dale Dye is the proper stuff. It is the fact that you are so tired but you keep going, you keep advancing, no matter how exhausted you are you get by on a couple of hours' sleep. That's who these guys are. I wished it had gone on a couple of weeks."
Dye, whose company Warriors Incorporated has previously monitored battle-veracity in Platoon, Outbreak and Forrest Gump, is devoted to eradicating phoniness from the movies' depiction of war. Hence his" training" errs on the tough side ("Deprivation is what soldiers live with constantly," says Dye). The eight men in the rescue platoon - Hanks ("Turd Number One"), Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns and the coterie of little known indie brats: Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg and Giovanni Ribisi - were thrown into a rain-soaked English wood (location unknown) and treated like scum.
"We get there, we set up our tents and it starts raining and it doesn't stop raining for seven days," recalls Burns, the droll New Yorker who plays Private Reiben, the droll New Yorker and the squad's primary dissenting voice. "It is 30 degrees at night and you are in a soaking wet tent, a soaking wet uniform, with a soaking wet blanket wrapped around you."
"Steve was very even-tempered, no matter how graphic or horrifying it was, he never lost his cool."
Tom Sizemore Dye randomly ordered "atomic" sit-ups, "caterpillar" push-ups and simulated Nazi attacks - often just as the Turds had finally got to sleep. If anyone referred to a colleague by anything but their character name there were push-ups, if they made movie talk, push-ups, called their gun a "gun" and not a "weapon", yes, more push-ups.
"You had to keep your weapon no more than three feet away from you," adds Burns. "If you went over and talked to someone without your weapon, Captain Dye was in your face screaming."
They were pushed to breaking point, the Turds had had enough. They were sick and tired. Literally.
"There were no comforts of home," bemoans Pepper, the God-fearing sharpshooter Private Jackson. "It was just 1940s technology and the rations that the men at the time ate which looked like cat food."
Mutiny was inevitable. A democratic vote to put an end to the hell. If they carried on like this they weren't going to be fit enough to start the film. But Turd Number One elected to stay.
"At that moment we got this huge respect for him in real life, " claims Diesel (Private Caparzo). "We were all exhausted, we all wanted to leave and here was this guy who was a superstar, who doesn't have to be here, voting to stay. That's when we adopted him as our captain. He said, 'Guys, 20 years from now, you'll look back on this and wished to God you had finished it.' To this day, we are all extremely grateful that we did."
It had imbued in them the soldier-focus, they now acted and behaved as the tightknit unit Spielberg had envisioned. Throughout the shoot, all the actors would come to think of themselves as American troops not American stars.
"We went out a bunch of pansy actors," smirks Burns, "and we came back, not like soldiers, but as close as you can get in seven days. We did a good job."
On the last day of boot camp, Captain Dye had a speech ready for his soldiers. They were all feeling confident, they were happy and drinking beer before the captain spoke.
"See these strings I wear on my arm," he said, pointing out a set of strings tied around his wrist. "They are to remind me of the soldiers that I lost in active duty, I have a huge emptiness in my heart for these soldiers. The efforts that you have to put in to being soldiers, to being authentic, the pride that you put in fills some of that emptiness because their voices will go on through you."
US troops fight their way across the wide expanses of Omaha Beach on D-Day.
On The Beach
Saving Private Ryan used Robert Capa images as its inspiration
Seeking the utmost accuracy in his portrayal of the D-Day landings, Steven Spielberg turned to the incredible work of Robert Capa - the photojournalist who landed with the Normandy invasion. Capa is one of the most famed World War II correspondants, having also shot the fighting in Africa, Sicily and Italy. On June 6, 1944, he leaped from his Higgins boat and began taking photos, depicting the turmoil, death and courage of the American troops. He took nearly 40 rolls of film. However, when these were sent to New York for processing, a young, inexperienced individual left them drying for far too long, ruining one of the 20th century’s most valuable pieces of reportage. Three rolls were salvaged, and these took on the almost surreal, peculiar bleached-out look that became synonymous with the brutality and devastation of that day in history...
They started with D-day. After an extensive search, the perfect beach was found on the Irish coast. Transformed into Omaha with the addition of Belgian gates, iron hedgehogs, pillboxes and mortar craters, the scene was set for Spielberg to recreate history. Basing his vision on the famous Robert Capa photographs (see sidebar, page 120), Spielberg strove toward absolute realism - he called it "combat photography" - with precise timing and carefully measured art.
"There were very specific decisions that were made," explains Hanks. "For example, first wave of D-day or second wave of D-day? The first wave is different, the ramps go down and there is nothing but empty beaches in front of you, getting fired upon. The second wave of D-day, which is what we were, the ramps go down and it is hell on earth, you're stepping over fallen comrades, there are bodies everywhere, with heads blown off and entrails floating away. What was difficult was that eventually all of those props, all of those dead bodies, all of that weaponry became second nature."
"I think Steven wanted to depict the fact that D-day was a complete screw-up," says Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Horvath - his face full and serious with wide threatening eyes - a vital role; the reliable friend and confidant to Hanks' Miller, like Ernest Borgnine to William Holden's Pike in The Wild Bunch). "You know, it was the ingenuity of the common GI and the common Marine that carried the day."
The chilling D-day was just for starters, punctuated throughout with brutal skirmishes and vivid fillips of gunplay, the film climaxes in a small but devastating battle to hold a seemingly insignificant bridge in a blown-out French town. It is a masterpiece of sustained action where every explosion and every shot ricochets into the stalls with a visceral shudder.
"The actors all had to be Johnny-on-the-spot," recalls Matt Damon, who plays Private Ryan, the titular and symbolic rescuee, "not fumble lines or anything - the shots were so long and carried through. One shot in a morning would involve 15 explosions, eight stunts, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and on top of that you have to get your line right. It put the pressure on."
In one scene, Burns has to pass a live grenade to Sizemore. Explosions are going off, extras are falling dead everywhere, Burns yanks the pin and tosses the grenade over Sizemore's head. That shot, he quipped, probably cost more than his 1995 directorial debut The Brothers McMullen.
And all the while Captain Dye was right beside the camera making sure that actors acted like soldiers.
"It was almost a vacation, to tell you the truth," Hanks chuckles at the ease of working with his friend Steven Spielberg. "I had just completed the teleseries From The Earth To The Moon which was like the better part of three years working as a producer. And That Thing You Do! was more or less the same. To just be an actor again was like a selfish privilege. I could get Steven any time I wanted and say, 'Hey, I've got this great idea.' I got to just worry about being Captain John Miller. I got to take naps. We were out in the woods of England and Ireland. It was really quite lovely."
Hanks may, understandably, be more laid-back about working with the cinematic demigod. As for his co-stars, well, ask a guy how it feels to work with Spielberg and a rather predictable stream of hyperbole pours forth.
"The main thing I learned is how little I know about filmmaking," says Burns who, since The Brothers McMullen, has also directed She's The One. "Steven Spielberg has got an encyclopaedia of knowledge regarding filmmaking and film history. Watching the guy work from someone who thinks he is a director is awe inspiring. The guy is uncompromising in getting his vision across."
"Steve was very even-tempered," claims Sizemore. "No matter how graphic or horrifying it was, he never lost his cool."
Sizemore, more than any of the others, recognises the scale of being in a Spielberg film, especially one so potentially emotive. Such was his desire to take part, he snubbed the opposition World War II flick, resurgent director Terrence Mallick's Pacific-set The Thin Red Line.
"My thoughts of working with Steven were that perhaps we wouldn't have the chance to be as collaborative as it was," says Adam Goldberg (Private Mellish). "I thought he would be somewhat less approachable than he actually ended up being. He really looked to us to flesh out our characters, allowed us to improvise, implored us to improvise."
"It was something that surprised us all how totally organic and improvisational it was," adds Pepper. "It was almost like he was shooting a monstrous big budget independent movie."
For a bet, while on set, Matt Damon tried to follow everything Spielberg did in a day, shadowing him all the way.
"I gave up after half a day," the newborn superstar laughs. "I knew this was the chance of a lifetime to learn and absorb everything I could. We started' in the morning and he was talking about where to put the camera and choreographing all this stuff. I'm learning all this stuff and it was like my brain was getting heavy. And about half a day into it, I had to sit down and he was still marching around. He is this combination of God-given talent, incredible work ethic and this well of energy that he can draw upon that put me to shame. I mean, I wanted to call for oxygen."
Captain Miller (Hanks) tries to convince Private Ryan (Damon) to leave his squad in Ramelle and head back to the coast.
When Spielberg cast Damon he was a struggling, earnest young man who would fight to be recognised at a family gathering let alone by half the known world's teenage girls. A few months after wrapping, and Damon was one of the most sought-after young men in America. Even Lady Luck loves a Spielberg movie.
Matt Damon is all smiles. Crowned with a faded pink cap emblazoned with the letter G (apparently, he "purloined" it from bestbud Ben) and turned out in comfortable civvies, he bounces in, presenting Empire with his best all-American display of molars. He's the darling-boy of Hollywood casting agents (alongside Ben). He's also got an Oscar (with Ben), - is dating Winona Ryder (Ben's seeing Gwyneth Paltrow) and along the way he gets a pivotal role in a Steven Spielberg movie (Ben got the Jerry Bruckheimer hoopla of Armageddon). He should, by all accounts be cock-of-the-north, emitting the smug purr of the cat who, indeed, got the cream.
"I came away with a certain amount of guilt about my generation."
Matt Damon Except he's not. For all those who resent success in every form, especially the young, pretty, highly pampered, lucrative and swift variety, Damon is, unfortunately, a genuine kind of guy. There's nothing like exposure to the immediate, horrific realities of war to rub off any budding arrogance. Although he wasn't that popular with his fellows. As the eponymous Private Ryan, the mission's symbolic target, it was thought appropriate that Damon should not have to roughhouse it with Miller's men. So, he sat around his hotel while the others went off with Captain Dye and got all grubby.
"I wasn't invited to the boot camp," he says sheepishly, well aware his co-stars have been chiming on about it all morning. "It was a great ploy on Steven's part because what it did, since the film is about these eight guys who are looking for one guy, they are risking their lives for this one guy and a resentment breeds among them for this one guy. The boot camp couldn't help but foster a kernel of resentment, because while they are sleeping face down in the rain they were well aware that I was at home in bed. So, by the time I show up on set and flippantly ask, 'Hey, guys how was boot camp?', that resentment is right there. It created that separation."
It was Robin Williams who introduced Damon to Spielberg. They were rehearsing Good Will Hunting in Boston and the director came to town to shoot some sequences for Amistad. Williams took Damon with him when he paid his pal a visit.
"Steven said, 'Weren't you in Courage Under Fire?' 'Yeah, I was in it.' He said, 'Hey, you were really skinny.' I said, 'Yeah, I lost a lot of weight for that movie.'"
Two weeks later the phone. rattled and Damon was Private Ryan. Apparently Spielberg and his wife had been watching Courage Under Fire and had considered the fresh-faced Damon perfect for Ryan but far too skinny (Damon played a traumatised heroin addict).
"It was total serendipity and yet another reason I owe my first born to Robin Williams . . ."
Medics desperately try to save a soldier's life amid the bombardment on D-Day.
WAR IS HELL
They read, interviewed veterans and watched endless documentaries. They nearly died at boot camp. They endured the physical hardships and a physically complicated filmmaking process.Yet, still nothing could have prepared the actors of Saving Private Ryan for the first time they watched the completed film.
"I was surprised and shocked," remembers Hanks, "I didn't think it was going to be as much of everything as it is. I didn't think it was going to be as graphic, as emotional or as cerebral. I didn't think the psychological drama of the characters was going to be as powerful. I thought it was going to be a much more objective movie to get into. I was really surprised that the movie got under my skin as much as it did."
"It's called the last good war," muses Sizemore. "I think Steven wanted to show that even though there was a very identifiable enemy, a force that needed to be stopped, which was the German army and Adolf Hitler, there is no such thing as a good war."
"It gave me a perspective," is Damon's verdict. "I came to understand that I don't understand what it was like for these people. It brought it home in an important way. I came away with a certain amount of guilt about my generation, the notoriously apathetic Generation X who can be seen everyday on talk show television lamenting the fact they weren't breast-fed long enough. It really puts it into perspective, these were really ordinary guys, they weren't career soldiers, it's not like Rambo."
No, it's not like Rambo. At all.
This article was first published in Empire Magazine Issue #112 (October 1998).