15 Fascinating Facts About Saving Private Ryan
It was up to eight men to save the life of one. Here are 15 things you may not have known about Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning World War II drama Saving Private Ryan, which arrived in theaters 20 years ago today.
1. THE MOVIE CAME TOGETHER IN A SINGLE DAY.
Saving Private Ryan was the only movie that Steven Spielberg directed up to that point in his career that he hadn’t developed on his own. Screenwriter Robert Rodat’s script was actually sent to Spielberg by his agent. In a stroke of luck, the script had also been sent to actor Tom Hanks, who also wanted to make the movie. Both Spielberg and Hanks, who had never worked with each other at that point (and would go on to work together again in Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and Bridge of Spies, as well as the miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific), called each other up when they found out they were reading the same script and decided to collaborate on the movie all in the same day.
2. STEVEN SPIELBERG WAS INSPIRED TO DIRECT THE MOVIE BECAUSE OF HIS FATHER.
Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan as a tribute to his father, Arnold Spielberg, who served in the U.S. Army and Signal Corps, and fought in Burma during World War II as a radio operator in a B-25 squad. Arnold also helped a young Steven to direct his first movies as a teenager, both of which involved plots that took place during World War II. Escape to Nowhere was a 40-minute behind enemy lines movie that a young Spielberg shot with his friends, while Fighter Squad was shot at the Sky Harbor Airport hangar in Phoenix, Arizona, which conveniently housed grounded former WWII fighter planes that the young Spielberg and his friends used, but didn’t fly.
3. IT’S PARTLY BASED ON A TRUE STORY.
Contrary to popular belief, Saving Private Ryan is not based on the Sullivan brothers, a group of five brothers who were all killed in action while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II on the USS Juneau. The movie is actually based on the Niland brothers, four siblings who all served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Three brothers—Robert, Preston, and Edward—were supposedly killed in action, which caused their remaining brother, Fritz (whom the titular Private Ryan was based on), to be shipped back to America so that the Niland family wouldn’t lose all of their sons. Edward, who was originally thought dead, was actually found alive after escaping a Japanese prison camp in Burma, making two surviving brothers out of the four who fought in the war.
4. THE ACTORS ACTUALLY WENT THROUGH BOOT CAMP.
To get an idea of what WWII soldiers actually went through, the main squad of actors portraying the lead soldiers participated in a 10-day boot camp led by the film’s military advisor, retired former USMC Captain Dale Dye. Dye led the actors on an intensive field combat situation, leading the group on marches, living in tents, and eating MREs. They also received tactical training that included learning how to clean, assemble, and fire period-appropriate weapons. Dye can be seen as a War Department Colonel who gives General George Marshall the Ryan brother death notifications toward the beginning of the movie.
5. ROBIN WILLIAMS HELPED MATT DAMON GET THE PART OF PRIVATE RYAN.
Williams introduced Damon to Steven Spielberg in Boston during rehearsals for the movie Good Will Hunting. The director was also in town around the same time shooting Amistad, and Williams brought Damon along to say hi to Spielberg, whom Williams had previously worked with on Hook. Two weeks later, Spielberg contacted Damon about the part of Private Ryan.
6. TOM SIZEMORE WAS NEARLY FIRED.
The actor, who plays Sergeant Horvath, was heavily addicted to heroin prior to filming Saving Private Ryan in 1997. In order to keep the movie in line, and to force Sizemore to kick the habit, Spielberg swore to Sizemore that if the actor tested positive for drugs on-set—even on the last day of shooting—“he would fire me on the spot and shoot all 58 days that I'd worked over again with someone else.”
7. GARTH BROOKS NEARLY PLAYED PRIVATE JACKSON.
Frank Darabont was hired to do uncredited rewrites on Saving Private Ryan, and created the role of the Bible-quoting sniper, Private Jackson, to be played by country singer Garth Brooks. Brooks dropped out of the movie after Spielberg came onboard and cast Tom Hanks in the lead role. Apparently Brooks didn’t want to play second fiddle to Hanks, but Spielberg offered him a chance to play another role of his choosing. Instead of a specific role, Brooks allegedly said he wanted to play the “bad guy,” but in Saving Private Ryan there is no real bad guy other than the entire Wehrmacht, so Spielberg ultimately decided to drop Brooks from the movie.
8. THE LOOK OF THE MOVIE CAME FROM REAL LIFE PHOTOGRAPHY.
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski modeled the look of the film on actual newsreel footage from the era, and converted the modern lenses of the film’s shooting cameras to make them capture images more like cameras from the 1940s. They also modeled the look of the D-Day sequence on the bleached-out, grainy look of the D-Day photography shot by famed photojournalist Robert Capa.
9. OMAHA BEACH WAS ACTUALLY IN IRELAND.
Because the actual beaches in Normandy where Allied forces invaded France had strict filming restrictions, the opening D-Day scene needed to be shot elsewhere. Spielberg wanted an almost exact replica of the Omaha Beach landscape for the movie, including similar sand and a bluff similar to the one where German forces were stationed. A near match was found in Ireland at Ballinesker Beach, Curracloe Strand in Wexford. Over 2500 Irish Reserve Army troops were recruited to portray the Allied forces storming the beach.
10. THE D-DAY SEQUENCE COST A WHOLE LOT OF MONEY.
The D-Day scene alone cost $12 million because of the logistical difficulties and the realistic scope needed to complete the sequence. The entire budget of the movie was only $70 million. Spielberg didn’t storyboard any of the D-Day sequence.
11. SPIELBERG HAD A BUSY YEAR BEFORE AND DURING FILMING.
The director conducted the pre-production on Saving Private Ryan and the sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park at the same time in 1996, and was originally supposed to direct the films back to back. But a rewrite by screenwriter David Franzoni on Amistad, another project he was developing around the same time, turned out to be so successful that Spielberg decided to direct that movie in between the two other movies. Amistad was directed after a four-week break that ended The Lost World and a six-week prep time before Saving Private Ryan.
12. THE BOMBED OUT FRENCH CITY WAS ACTUALLY A SET BUILT OUTSIDE OF LONDON.
Because the logistics of shooting a completely destroyed French city would be impossible, the fictional bombed out city of Ramelle was created entirely at the Hatfield Aerodrome, a now-closed WWII air base located about 30 miles outside of London. The entire half-demolished city set took four months to build. To add more believability to the area, tons of rubble was purchased from nearby construction sites and added to the set.
13. NEARLY ALL OF THE UNIFORMS WERE CUSTOM MADE.
Costume designer Joanna Johnston wanted to originally use period uniforms for the primary soldiers, but found that authentic WWII-era uniforms were too costly to buy and maintain. So 3500 custom-made military uniforms were created to outfit all of the actors portraying soldiers throughout the entire film. For the D-Day sequence alone, 2000 weapons were created, 500 of which could shoot blanks while the remaining 1500 were rubber replicas.
14. THE MEANING OF “FUBAR” IS NSFW.
The meaning of the phrase the soldiers utter to each other throughout the movie as a form of camaraderie is never explained. FUBAR is actually military slang for “F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition.”
15. FOR MANY VETERANS, THE MOVIE WAS TOO PAINFUL TO WATCH.
The film’s battle scenes were so realistic to veterans in the audience that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set up a nationwide toll-free hotline for veterans and their family members to call if they felt unsettled by the war depicted onscreen.