Older Articles
South China Morning Post
Saturday Review
August 1, 1998

SPIELBERG THE MASTER OF REEL WAR
Steven Spielberg approached Saving Private Ryan in much the same way as a documentary film-mkaer. The result is an authenticity, from rifles to uniforms, that has impressed even historians.
By David Cohen
It is hard to call any Steven Spielberg film a surprise success. After all, the man's movies have grossed more than US $5 billion. If money is the measure, he is easily the most successful filmmaker in history.

But Spielberg's last film, Amistad, foundered at the box office despite plenty of star power and some good reviews, and few in Hollywood had especialy high expectations for his next project, Saving Private Ryan. True, it would star Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, but it was a grim World War II epic with no romance to draw women and too much violence for children.

Somehow, though, Saving Private Ryan turned out to be a critical and popular favourite, collecting a box office gross of US$30.1 million in its opening weekend. It earned rave reviews, made the cover of Newsweek for its frank re-examination of World War II, and even has a chance to outstrip Armageddon and become the biggest box office hit of the summer.

All this from a film so brutally violent that it nearly received an almost-unheard-of "NC-17" rating (No children under 17). Spielberg himself has gone on a rare press tour, warning parents that the film is unsuitable for children, and he says that he will not allow his own 13 year-old son to see it.

Still, the success of Saving Private Ryan should be no surprise. Spielberg's name may forever be linked in the public mind to science fiction joyrides like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jurassic Park, but much with this film he returns to the arena which has inspired much of his best and most popular work: the Second World War.

Saving Private Ryan tells the story of a squad of American GI's sent behind enemy lines shortly after the 1944 D-Day invasion. The Army high command has discovered that three brothers have just been killed in combat, and decides that the fourth and last Ryan brother should be brought home, before he, too, is killed.

Unfortunately, Private Ryan has parachuted into Nazi-occupied Normandy and is missing amidst the chaos. So these exhausted, skeptical survivors of the bloodbath at Omaha Beach set off on a public relations mission, risking their eight lives to find and save Private Ryan.

World War II is a lifelong obsession for Spielberg. When he was 14, he used a home movie camera to make a WWII adventure called "Escape to Nowhere." In the 35-odd years since have come Schindler's List, Empire of the Sun and the two of the Indiana Jones movies. (Note that the third and weakest of the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is the only one without Nazi villains).

There was also 1941, plus Always, a remake of a WWII film. Even Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind have echoes of the "Good War:" the obsessed shark hunter Quint was a survivor of the ill-fated mission to deliver the Hiroshima A-bomb, while Close Encounters opens with the discovery of a missing squadron of WWII-era fighter planes.

Spielberg comes by this obsession honestly. His father was an American infantryman in Europe, and he shared his stories with his young son. "He always explained to me how unglamorous war is," remembers Spielberg today. "What I tried to do in this film was approximate the look and the sounds and even the smells of what combat is really like."

No less an authority than historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who was Dwight Eisenhower's hand-picked biographer and wrote one of the definitive books on D-Day, calls Saving Private Ryan the first film to capture the truth of World War II combat. "I saw on that screen what I've heard from the D-Day veterans that I've interviewed over the last 30 years. I never thought I would see that."

The film opens with a half-hour D-Day sequence unlike anything moviegoers have seen before, except perhaps in news footage. Even Hanks was stunned his first day of shooting. "The first scene I was in was the moment when the boat lands and the ramp goes down and the first four rows of guys just get blown to bits. I knew it was fake, but as soon they started rolling the cameras all hell busts loose. It's incredibly noisy. All that artillery and weapon fire is very very loud, it's utter chaos, and I saw five rows of guys get blown to bits before my very eyes. And the air is pink from the mist of the fake blood, but blood nonetheless, I've got bits and pieces of guys all over, it was horrifying."

"We did the shot twice, and I went up and found the other guys in the movie and just said 'Hold on to your hats, man, because you're not going to believe the nature of the stuff that we're doing down there.'"

A consensus is already building among surviving World War II veterans that for the first time, audiences are seeing the truth of their experience. "There have been 84 World War II films that showed something else," says Spielberg, but he was determined that Saving Private Ryan would not be "the 85th slap in the face to the men who died knowing the truth."

One of those old-fashioned war films was Daryl F. Zanuck's 1962 D-Day epic The Longest Day, which depicted the Normandy invasion with an all-star cast ranging from Paul Anka to John Wayne. Blunt for its time, that film seems glossy and frivolous compared with Saving Private Ryan.

In reality, "Omaha Beach was a slaughter," explains Spielberg. "It was a complete foul-up." The landing force were told that aerial and naval bombardment would destroy German gun emplacements on the cliffs above the beach, and amphibious tanks would them inland. Instead the bombers and navy gunners overshot their targets, leaving the German defenses intact, and almost all of the amphibious tanks sank in Channel swells. The beach became a killing ground.

Once the filmmakers's total commitment to be honest in telling this story, meant began with authenticity in every detail. The producers tracked down surviving WWII era rifles and landing craft. They had thousands of uniforms and boots made from original WWII patterns, then 'distressed,' to look aged.

Even the actors were 'distressed' as they went through a brief but intense military style 'boot camp.' The principal players were dropped in the damp English countryside under the supervision of a former Marine captain. They lived in period tents, wore only uniforms and went by their characters' names. They were forbidden to even _talk_ about 1990Õs conveniences as they got a small taste of the real hardships faced by WWII fighters.

After a week of grueling military training, boxed rations, little sleep and camping in cold mud, the 8 showed up for their first day of shooting exhausted and grimly determined to get through this ordeal Ñ Just as their counterparts would have been some 54 years ago.

It was not enough for Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, though. The pair knew the kind of honesty they wanted meant more than simply putting a collection of tired actors and antiqued uniforms on the screen. "Early on," explains Spielberg, "we both knew that we did not want this to look like a technicolor extravaganza about World War II, but more like color newsreel footage from the 1940Õs, which is very desaturated and low-tech."

Kaminski, who won an Oscar for his black-and-white photography on Schindler's List, explains that "I didn't want blue sky, I didn't want any clouds. I was going for this kind of burned out, bleary sky, and I used various techniques to achieve these visuals."

He began by altering his equipment to get a newsreel-style look. He ordered lenses stripped of their modern coatings and filaments, making them more like 1940's lenses. "Without the protective coating, the light goes in and starts bouncing around, which makes it slightly more diffused and a bit softer without being out of focus.'"

Then he had the camera shutters adjusted to work like those of vintage Bell and Howell newsreel cameras. "In this way, we attained a certain staccato in the actors' movements and a certain crispness in the explosions, which makes them slightly more realistic." They even put their footage through special processing to leach about 60 percent of the color from the images, making the film look even more like a newsreel.

Most important, they used their modified cameras to take the audience into the heart of the battle. "Our approach to the movie was the way a documentary filmmaker would have approached it in, for example, John FordÕs unit shooting the South Pacific War or George Stevens's unit shooting the European campaign," explains Spielberg.

They used a hand-held camera with low angles, so the camera always have the viewpoint of an infantryman ducking for cover. The sights and sounds plunge the audience into the true experience of combat: chaos, terror and blind confusion.

Spielberg kept the frenetic feel by shooting the intricate battle footage without 'storyboards,' the pictures directors use to plan their shots in advance. Instead, Spielberg choreographed the shots on the fly, a display of technical wizardry that left Matt Damon, for one, dazzled.

"He puts these shots together in about four minutes," recalls Damon, who plays the title's Private Ryan. "He's making about six decisions every ten seconds that are going to affect how the final product looks, and he always somehow knows where the audience's head is going to be, so they're always looking where he wants them to look."

"It's just mind-boggling, to look at how confident he is, given how many variables there are in every given setup in the movie, because there are these long tracking shots and hand-held shots, and very few cutaways. He doesn't leave himself a safety net. It's like watching a high wire act."

His efforts seem to have paid off, if critical and audience response are any gauge. Even the cast was stunned by the completed film. Damon sums up the reaction of the film's young actors: "It was with a certain amount of guilt that I watched it and I thought about it afterwards. My generation, this kind of notoriously apathetic Generation X, and all we gripe about. It's like, you want to see real problems? Look at this. It makes you question how much your generation's held up your end of the bargain, and are you taking things for granted?"

"You have to ask yourself what you would have done. Which character are you there? What would you do? Because the guys were no different from us who were there. They had no aspirations to be Rambo or anything like that. They were ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances."