From the EW archives: Saving Private Ryan: Message in a battle
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks take on World War II in harrowing new drama
The following is the cover story from the Jul. 24, 1998 issue of EW.
STEVEN SPIELBERG HAD ONE OVERRIDING MISSION. STOP. TO MAKE THE MOST REALISTIC FILM POSSIBLE ABOUT THE HORRORS OF COMBAT. STOP. FOR THIS TALE OF 8 SOLDIERS SENT BEHIND ENEMY LINES TO RESCUE ONE MAN, THE DIRECTOR SUBJECTED HIS STARS TO RAIN, RATIONS, PHYSICAL AND MENTAL ABUSE—ALL IN THE NAME OF ‘SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.’ STOP. HIS MESSAGE? STOP. WAR IS HELL ON EARTH. STOP.
This is how you die.
When a bullet hits you on a field of battle, your knees buckle. Your stomach contracts. If the slug hits your brain, you flop to the ground like a mannequin. You don’t squeal, “Oh, my God! I’ve been shot!” You don’t throw your arms in the air like a Broadway dancer. You don’t die, says Steven Spielberg, “in slow motion, with a blood bag coming out of the front of your chest and a huge fireball behind you, shattering a plate of glass and then tumbling almost acrobatically into a perfect air-bag landing. That’s not how it is.”
In Spielberg’s new movie, Saving Private Ryan, people die. Normally, that wouldn’t make much of a ripple in the pop consciousness. Ever since Spielberg’s own Jaws, summer movies have been swimming in cartoon carnage. But Saving Private Ryan opens with a tableau of World War II violence that’s so raw, so real, and so sustained—it takes place on the blood-soaked sands of D-Day’s Omaha Beach, and it lasts nearly half an hour—that it blows every previous Hollywood treatment of combat to smithereens. “In other war movies, when an American GI gets hit, the commanding officer can write home that he never knew what hit him, that he didn’t suffer,” says Stephen Ambrose (Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers), the historian whose books provided Ryan with some of its grisly detail. “Well, it almost never happens that way. What you get is your guts coming out of your stomach, and you’ve gotta stuff ’em back in. You want morphine and you want water and you want your mother and you want a cigarette. In Spielberg’s movie, that’s what happens.”
Fairly or not, Spielberg is known as our Merlin, the man who conjured up the “sense of wonder” school of filmmaking. Giddy, saucer-eyed, gold-dusted fantasias like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park have turned him into the 20th century’s wizard of the box office. But Saving Private Ryan—the story of eight American soldiers sent into Nazi territory to rescue the only one of four brothers who’s still alive—completes a 180-degree turn that began with the darker spells of Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List. “I think people stopped trusting me about 10 years ago,” says the 51-year-old director and mogul. “I really don’t feel people expect from my movies the same kind of Disney enchantment that they ascribed to me back in the ’70s and the first half of the 1980s.” Spielberg went into Private Ryan, he says, “assuming the role of a combat cameraman, not assuming the role of an artist.” He had one credo: “I wanted to achieve reality.” So he sent the actors to boot camp.
The pain began before dawn. Eight men were sleeping in a forest somewhere in England. Their tents were so small that their feet stuck out at the end, so each man woke up with a sharp kick to the heel. They’d been asleep for three hours. Their socks were wet. Their spines were cold. “You had this skinny little f—ing thing they called a blanket, which wasn’t fit to cover a squirrel,” says Tom Sizemore. “You could either put it on top of you or put it under you. If you put it on top, you’re sleeping on the ground. And the ground — you could literally feel it suck the heat out of your body.”
The men were actors, but as they climbed out of their tents, they came face to face with a man hired to make them miserable: Capt. Dale Dye. Dye is a retired 21-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He saw combat in Vietnam and Beirut. He’s the bearer of bullet wounds, shrapnel wounds, and three Purple Hearts. After working as a consultant on Oliver Stone’s Platoon in 1985, Dye, 53, built up a company — Warriors Incorporated — devoted to removing any trace of phoniness from war movies, most of which Dye considers “the biggest collection of rotten dogs— I’ve ever seen in my life.” He has a high tolerance for pain and a low tolerance for fraud. “Yes, my training is tough,” he says. “It’s particularly tough if you’ve never faced deprivation. Because deprivation is what soldiers live with constantly.”
First, Dye deprived the actors of their names. He referred to them as “turds.” As one of Spielberg’s closest compadres and the winner of two Academy Awards, Tom Hanks got special treatment: He was Turd No. 1. Joining him were the guys who make up his squadron in Ryan: Sizemore — the brute dynamo from Heat and Natural Born Killers — and indie stalwarts Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, and Vin Diesel. Hours before, most of them were luxuriating in the balmy bliss of Southern California; suddenly, for six days and nights in a stinging British rain, their lives became a dirty labyrinth of agony and abuse. “We weren’t allowed to know where we were,” Sizemore says, “for fear that we would leave.”
Each day began with the captain’s special brand of calisthenics, things like “atomic sit-ups” and “caterpillar push-ups.” Then came a run, sometimes as long as five miles. Then, says Dye, “I may feed ’em, I may not, depending on whether they pissed me off or not.” Not that anybody wanted their rations. “It was dog food,” says Sizemore. “Beef livers with onions in a can. You open it up and it looks like vomit.”
Much of the day was spent in training: cleaning and loading weapons, advancing in formation, learning how to brandish a bayonet. In the dead of night there were simulated Nazi attacks. Through it all the turds were forced to call each other by their character names and to pretend they were living in the 1940s. If somebody uttered the title of a contemporary movie — Forrest Gump, say, or The Brothers McMullen — Dye extracted a round of push-ups. “I had to get that street crap out of their dialogue,” says Dye. “If Vin Diesel said, ‘Yo, Captain!’ I dropped him like a f— in’ bad habit.” If one of the turds referred to a “gun” rather than a “weapon,” more pain ensued. “Your gun is in your trousers, lad,” Dye explains. “If you want to play with that, see the boys down in Venice Beach.”
Meanwhile, Matt Damon was AWOL. On purpose. Since Damon plays Private Ryan — the soldier the squad is hunting for — Spielberg wanted to lock him out of the octet’s haggard, hollow-eyed camaraderie. “They started to harbor that kernel of resentment, ’cause I wasn’t there,” says Damon, who was cast long before the hoopla of Good Will Hunting. “These guys are lying facedown in the mud, and I’m, you know, in a bubble bath in America. When I showed up on set, a lot of that resentment just translated right onto the screen.”
Halfway through boot camp, the turds began to get sick. Ankles twisted. Morale crumbled. “After about three or four days, the guys are like, ‘All right, look, we got it,'” says Burns. “‘We’re not gonna learn anything else here.'” (Real Marine Corps boot camp, of course, lasts 13 weeks.) “The idea was for us to resent being there,” says Diesel, “just like a soldier would resent being in the war.” The plan worked: The turds opted for mutiny. Seven voted to quit. One didn’t. Turd No. 1 insisted the suffering was crucial to playing a soldier. “You can read books and see all the documentaries,” Hanks says, “but you’re still not going to have a palpable understanding of how tired and cold and wet these guys are, and how heavy this equipment is, and how long it actually takes to walk three kilometers with all this stuff hanging from you.” They voted a second time and chose to stick it out. Apparently two Oscars carry some clout.
Good thing, too. Around the campfire each night, Dye was revealing some of the hard psychological laws of combat — laws that would govern their behavior onscreen. How to die, for instance, and how to watch your buddy die. “You establish a bond that might be closer than your relationship with your wife back home,” says Ribisi. “You go through two years of training with this guy, you’re telling him secrets, he’s your confidant. And the day comes, it’s show time, you step out of the bush — and he gets shot.”
“He drops like a wet sand bag,” says Dye. “You go to him. He makes one gasp, pukes a little bit, and dies. He’s your best friend. What do you feel?”
The actors took their guesses: sadness, rage, grief. Dye shot back, “Bulls—, bulls—, and bulls—.” Then he told them: “You feel joy. You feel joy that that guy got it and you didn’t. And shortly thereafter, shame. And turds, you will carry that shame with you the rest of your life.”
It’s safe to say that Steven Spielberg is obsessed with World War II. The son of a veteran who manned a radio aboard a B-25 bomber in Burma, Spielberg has gone back to the early ’40s — that wellspring of valor and villainy — in follies like 1941 and masterpieces like Schindler’s List. One of the first movies he shot, Escape to Nowhere, was a scrappy epic of the front line in which firecrackers doubled as bullets. Spielberg was 14 when he made it.
He was 24 when he first visited the D-Day cemetery in Normandy. Spielberg was in France to promote Duel, the hot-asphalt made-for-TV thrill ride that got a theatrical release in Europe. “On my first free day I got in a car and I went to Omaha Beach. I spent a whole day there,” Spielberg remembers. “I saw something I’ll never forget. I saw a man walking ahead of me with his entire family. The man collapsed upon seeing all the crosses and Stars of David, and he began to sob uncontrollably, and his family had to help him to his feet. That’s how this movie starts: It starts with something I actually observed happening right in front of me in 1972.”
Coincidentally, a communion with the dead inspired Robert Rodat to write the screenplay for Saving Private Ryan. In a New Hampshire village called Putney Corners, there’s a monument to men who died in conflicts from the American Revolution to the Vietnam War. The 39-year-old Rodat, known mostly for the kiddie flick Fly Away Home, noticed that eight members of the same family had perished in the Civil War. After a little research, he changed the time frame to WWII and hunkered down to write a script — mostly fiction, although there’s a real-life model in Band of Brothers.
In a way, Rodat went to boot camp too. He wrote 11 drafts for producer Mark Gordon (Speed) before Gordon even submitted the script to Paramount, the studio that would eventually split the $65 million tab with DreamWorks. He had to work fast. Gordon and Levinsohn were locked in a race with two other WWII films in the Paramount pipeline: Bruce Willis’ Combat and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s With Wings As Eagles. “Then us, this dark horse,” says Gordon. “Really what it became about was whose movie gets put together first.”
Ryan broke out of the pack as soon as Hanks and Spielberg signed on. To shave close to $40 million off the budget, the actor and the director sacrificed their salaries in exchange for a slab of the profits. (More than losing money, they worried about sullying an old friendship by turning it into a job. “This could’ve been like Ricky and Lucy going into business with Fred and Ethel,” says Hanks.)
Rodat’s tour of duty was just getting started. “I’m not an auteur,” Spielberg says. “When I make a movie I’m on a team.” So to whip the script into fighting trim, Spielberg tapped a squadron made up of Rodat, Hanks, Gordon, producer Gary Levinsohn, and DreamWorks executive Walter Parkes to duke it out over every comma. “We talked about Ryan being dead,” Hanks says. “We talked about Ryan being wounded and not being able to be moved. We talked about Ryan being an oaf, a boor, a guy that we all hated. We talked about Ryan being the greatest, neatest, coolest guy we ever knew. We talked about getting Ryan and the adventure being how to get him back to the front line. We talked about every conceivable thing.” (Along the way two writers — Out of Sight‘s Scott Frank and The Shawshank Redemption‘s Frank Darabont — were brought in as anonymous reinforcements.) Like Dye, Hanks had a low tolerance for fraud. “We had guys cracking wise on the beach at Omaha,” he says. “I got news for you, man: Nobody cracked wise on the beach at Omaha.”
The team met in the spring of 1997 in Los Angeles, but Spielberg’s face loomed over the table on a 1984-style Vivex screen, beamed in from his house in the Hamptons. “It was a kind of Jetsonian superconference,” says Hanks. “When you first sat down, all you did was laugh at how goofy it was, but eventually you forgot about the hardware.” One day the screen went black. “The technicians were desperately trying to get it to work. Everyone was panicking,” says Levinsohn. “Finally, Steven opened his mouth and pulled out the camera. It had been inside his mouth. All of a sudden his face came on the screen, and he said, ‘Is that better?'”
Spielberg’s visage loomed even larger once the cameras started to roll. There’s a scene in Ryan where Jeremy Davies melts into a puddle of fear while climbing a staircase; there’s another scene where a German soldier straddles an American and sinks a dagger into his heart while whispering into his ear. Neither moment was in the script; Spielberg made them up on the spot. “There were a lot of things that weren’t in the script that just seemed to be natural discoveries,” he admits. At one point Hanks, playing a quiet captain who erects an iron shield around his private life, was supposed to launch into a long, juicy speech. On the spot, Hanks decided to cut it. “It was a monologue any actor would kill to have, because my character finally got to drop this whole mantle,” he says. “But I didn’t want to drop the mantle. If you have that moment where, okay, now we’re going to let our hair down, it would just cheapen the character and compromise the integrity of who he is throughout the entire movie.”
That impulse to get it right seemed to guide each step of the process. Ian Bryce, Ryan‘s line producer, scoured every yard of coastline in Western Europe — on foot and by helicopter — hunting for a beach that copied the cliffs, sand, and tides of Omaha. (He wound up picking Wexford, on the east coast of Ireland, where a few of Eisenhower’s regiments had prepped for D-Day by experimenting with landing craft in the ’40s.) Bryce bought Allied landing boats from a dealer in the California desert. He tracked down tanks in the Czech Republic. He found a yard full of Nazi gear in London.
By the time Spielberg was staging the deafening, blood-soaked bedlam of the battles, actors were having a hard time remembering they were actors. “If it wasn’t pouring rain, the sun was beating down on our four layers of wool,” says Pepper, who plays a Southern-fried sniper. “We used this glucose-based blood, and horseflies and hornets would be attracted to that.”
“Hot shells would land in your shirt and clank against your helmet,” says Hanks. “You couldn’t stop. You had to just keep going.” Sizemore twisted his left ankle. It swelled up to the size of a softball. He kept going. Burns grabbed a rifle the wrong way and blistered his hands. He kept going. “Blood was gushing and everything,” Damon remembers. “But the worst part about it was Dale Dye. ‘Maggot, what are you doing picking that rifle up by the barrel!? Don’t you know any better, soldier?!'” Somebody gave Burns an ice cube. There was no time for mistakes.
On another occasion, Burns had to pass a grenade to Sizemore so that Sizemore could hurl it into a German bunker. “Steven calls action, 2,000 extras start moving, the explosions start going off, Germans are falling and dying, I pull the pin and toss the grenade,” Burns says. It went straight over Sizemore’s head. Cut. “Blowing that shot probably cost more than The Brothers McMullen,” Burns quips.
While cameras captured the massacre at Omaha — “the worst possible place on earth to be at that moment,” as Rodat puts it— Dale Dye gazed down at the battlefield. “It hit me in the gut,” he says. “I mean, I know what a meat grinder Omaha was. But seeing it, God, it was like a blow to the belly.”
Months later, alone in a movie theater in New Orleans, Stephen Ambrose would have the same reaction. Ambrose has spent his career talking to thousands of veterans of World War II. He knows the slaughterhouse of D-Day as well as anyone. (Later, after the movie was essentially done, Spielberg paid tribute to his expertise by listing Ambrose as a consultant.) But as Saving Private Ryan unspooled, Ambrose begged the projectionist to switch it off for a few minutes. “I was just stunned,” he says. “I was crawling under my seat. The projectionist was all worried, and I said, ‘No, I just gotta recover. I gotta walk around a little bit.'”
Ambrose considers Saving Private Ryan “the best war film ever made,” but his queasy reaction brings up the movie’s Achilles’ heel at the box office: its violence. The film is so gory that the producers are making a classic Hollywood sacrifice. There’s to be no party after the red-carpet premiere.
Spielberg spent much of last winter tangled up in the plagiarism lawsuit that surrounded Amistad, and he clearly wants to sidestep another media minefield. “That was troubling to me only in that people seemed more interested in asking me questions about the lawsuit than about the content of Amistad,” he says. “But, you know, we live in sensational times, and many magazines and newspapers are sold based on their sensational reportage.”
When Ryan landed an R rating from the MPAA, murmurs in the press suggested it was only Spielberg’s imperial clout that had helped it dodge an NC-17. Spielberg disagrees. “Nobody 14 years old or under should see it,” he declares. “But if you can fight in a war — a lot of the kids who died on Omaha Beach were 17 years old — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeing this picture. I’m not sure that any of those 17-year-olds who landed on Omaha Beach in 1944 were prepared for the fusillade of violence that came pouring down on their heads.” Spielberg defends the gore by arguing that “I would be doing an extreme disservice to veterans if this was simply one more movie that glamorized World War II.”
“Is it gruesome?” Hanks says succinctly. “It is gruesome, because war is.” Even so, Hanks has a way of making World War II sound like the perfect plot for a big-ass summer blockbuster: After all, he says, “a few million people got together and decided to save the world.”