Well, I’m in the middle of my first week of living on my own, in a house that I own. I’m planning on doing some sort of “Adventures in home ownership” blog post this weekend, possibly turning it into a weekly series for at least this month. But for now, it’s time to introduce my first movie theme month. Although I do plan on doing more larger scale blogathons in the future, I want to mix it up every now and then with theme months. I figured I’d start off with a theme month that also ties into fellow blogger Eva’s D-Day blog event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy beach invasion.
Without further to do, let’s kick off this war movie theme month. I’m planning on looking at one war movie each week, hopefully with some variety in terms of the style of war movie, and in which war the movie is looking at. Of course, I am still planning another WW2 movie, but I’ll leave that hidden gem as a surprise until it comes up.
When one thinks of war movies, very few enter peoples’ minds more than Saving Private Ryan. Despite being a hard R-rated movie, and the fact that it’s intentionally disturbing, it was the second highest earning movie released in 1998. It also earned itself 11 Academy Award nominations and came away with 5 wins.
It’s no surprise that the movie turned out well though. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg in the middle of his prime, with John Williams composing the soundtrack. Tom Hanks, also in his prime, takes the movie’s starring role as Captain John H. Miller. The movie features a star studded cast in general, both with established movie stars and several up and coming actors who would eventually become headliners in their own rights.
The idea for Saving Private Ryan was sparked as early as 1984, when eventual writer Robert Rodat’s wife gave him “D-Day, June 6, 1994: The Climactic Battle of World War II”, a best-selling book by late historian Stephan E. Ambrose. It spoke in detail the dedication of the soldiers on the frontlines on June 6th, mentioning a number of the casualties by name. He noticed one family in particular, the four Niland Brothers (Americans of Irish descent). Two of them were killed in combat, and another was presumed killed. Fritz was sent back home after the apparent death of his three brothers. Of course it eventually turned out that the fourth brother, Edward, was in a Japanese POW camp and ended up surviving the war as well.
Meanwhile, Spielberg had shown interest in WWII throughout his career. Two of the Indiana Jones movies took place shortly before WWII. He’d also directed 1941, a comedy taking place shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Empire of the Sun, a movie about an American soldier in a Japanese POW camp, and Schindler’s list. If you don’t know about Schindler’s list, go see it now. In an interview with American Cinematographer, Spielberg said,
“I think that World War II is the most significant event of the last 100 years; the fate of the baby boomers and even Generation X was linked to the outcome. Beyond that, I’ve just always been interested in World War II. My earliest films, which I made when I was about 14 years old, were combat pictures that were set both on the ground and in the air. For years now, I’ve been looking for the right World War II story to shoot, and when Robert Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan, I found it.”
Tom Hanks immediately expressed excitement over the role. “Steven and I have always wanted to work together.” Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson were both also considered for the role, but as much as they would have been fine, Hanks just seems like the better fit for this particular movie. The two of them ended up co-producing the Brothers In Arms TV series later. Other cast members include Matt Damon in one of his earlier serious roles, Vin Diesel in his breakout role, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore (who’s been in a number of war movies), and actor/comedian Paul Giamatti. There are plenty more noteworthy stars, but I’ve got to stop somewhere.
To help prepare for filming, most of the cast went through a shortened, condensed boot camp. They were driven hard physically and emotionally. They were taught battlefield tactics and how to handle weaponry. They were taught code words actually used during the Second World War. And yes, they were pushed just as hard as actual soldiers in boot camp.
The filming of the 20-minute long D-Day sequence cost over $12 million on its own. Spielberg wanted a near exact replica of the beach at the time of the invasion. He even wanted the same kind of sand. While brief moments were filmed at the actual beach, most of it was filmed in either California or Ireland. Over 1,500 extras were used in filming the sequence, most of which were members of the Irish reserves. Actual amputees were used to portray soldiers that had lost limbs during the invasion. The sequence was also not storyboarded, as Spielberg wanted to film the invasion in the moment, to decide then and there where to point the camera.
The result is a visceral experience that almost makes you feel like you’re actually there. It’s haunting. It’s disturbing. It’s up there with the most effective filmmaking moments in history. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Hanks noted,
“The first day of shooting the D-Day sequences, I was in the back of the landing craft, and that ramp went down and I saw the first 1-2-3-4 rows of guys just getting blown to bits. In my head, of course, I knew it was special effects, but I still wasn’t prepared for how tactile it was.”
The rest of the movie focuses on Captain Miller’s squad searching for Private Ryan on a “Public Relations” mission. Throughout the entire mission, you hear a variety of opinions on whether their mission is worth it or not. There’s a good amount of humour to balance out the movie’s overall dramatic, somber tone. There’s a general look at how the invasion of France is going. As much as the movie’s opening D-Day action scene is easily the most disturbing in the movie, there are other action sequences that are not for the squeamish.
Saving Private Ryan isn’t for everyone, not even for those who enjoy war films. It’s realistically gory, with prolonged shots on soldiers dying very painful deaths. It delves into the psychological damage that an intense war does to soldiers, whether it causes them great despair, or turns them into monsters on the verge of shooting their own countrymen. Many WWII veterans described Saving Private Ryan as the most realistic depiction of warfare they had ever seen. Some D-Day veterans even left the theaters in the middle of the D-Day invasion scene, unable to handle the flashbacks it brought them. PTST counselors advised veterans not to watch it if they felt themselves psychologically venerable, after visits to these counselors spiked after Saving Private Ryan released.
But if you think you can handle it, Saving Private Ryan is an important film. It shows the horrors of war while respecting those who fight them. While not without its inaccuracies, it’s a very faithful portrayal of the Normandy Invasion and the following week. It ended up winning 5 Academy Awards, including Spielberg’s second Best Director Award (the first went to the previously mentioned Schindler’s List), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Other nominations include John Williams’ soundtrack, Tom Hanks for Best Lead Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Makeup, and of course the big one, Best Picture.