15 Fascinating Facts About Saving Private Ryan

Paramount Home Entertainment
Paramount Home Entertainment

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.

Matt Damon stars in 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998)
Paramount Home Entertainment

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.

Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Paramount Home Entertainment

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.

The Reason Why the Genie From Aladdin Is Blue

Disney Enterprises Inc.
Disney Enterprises Inc.

Ever since Disney’s original Aladdin movie debuted in 1992, the Genie has always been blue. The Genie in the Broadway musical wears a royal blue costume, and a trailer for the 2019 live-action remake shows a blue, shirtless Will Smith playing the part of the Genie. While Disney has been known to change things up when it remakes classic movies like Beauty and the Beast or The Jungle Book, the Genie’s hue is one area where they're apparently sticking with what worked the last time around.

As Smithsonian explains, the reason for that is both symbolic and stylistic. Eric Goldberg, who oversaw the Genie’s animation for the original Aladdin, said the movie’s color palette was intentional. Specific colors were used to convey subtle messages about what the characters were like, before viewers had the chance to get to know them.

“The reds and the darks are the bad peoples’ colors,” Goldberg told Smithsonian. “The blues and the turquoises and the aquas are the good peoples’ colors.” If you go back and rewatch the movie, you’ll see that Jafar wears black and red, while Aladdin and Jasmine are dressed in cooler shades of blue, purple, and white.

Production designer Richard Vander Wende, who developed the movie’s color script, said the blue hue has even deeper symbolism attached to it. “Certain blues in Persian miniatures and tiled mosques stand out brilliantly in the context of the sun-bleached desert, their suggestion of water and sky connoting life, freedom, and hope in such a harsh environment," he said.

Disney animators and designers often use color to highlight the traits and attributes of different characters. A color wheel created by Venngage shows the colors various Disney characters are associated with, as well as the traits those colors supposedly stand for. For better or worse, crimson-clad characters like Jafar, Mr. Incredible, and the Queen of Hearts remind us of strength, energy, determination, and passion, according to Venngage’s analysis. Blue, on the other hand, stands for trust, loyalty, and confidence.

So even if people aren’t thrilled with Will Smith’s off-putting hue, it would seem the symbolism runs too deep to do away with it now.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2013.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER