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In the Footsteps of G.I. Joe

They'd played war as kids, seen the old movies, read about the battles. But nothing quite prepared these actors for making Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan.'

July 19, 1998|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Calendar

It has been a long while since an actor wearing a U.S. infantryman's helmet qualified as an undisputed American movie hero, but Tom Hanks and the seven men who play his Omaha Beach brothers in arms are poised to turn back the clock on that notion when "Saving Private Ryan" opens Friday. Their director, Steven Spielberg, has not exactly recast them in the mold of John Wayne in "The Sands of Iwo Jima" or "The Longest Day," however.

Hanks, as Capt. John Miller, and his squad of young Rangers seem about to make their own kind of history this summer as they storm the beach at Normandy gripped in bloody terror, then brave the limb-splintering firepower of German tanks in occupied France, showing us World War II in unfamiliar close-ups that reveal the ravages of real heroism and the crippling humanity of cowardice.

"When I was a kid," says Hanks, "and saw war movies like 'The Dirty Dozen' and 'The Great Escape,' we immediately went outside and played our version of the same movie. I don't think many kids are going to go out and play 'Saving Private Ryan.' "

Which says a lot about the kind of film Spielberg and company have made from Robert Rodat's script. The experience itself was anything but ordinary, as Hanks and his fellow actors Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore and Matt Damon bear witness months later on a Sunday in July as they sit in a Pasadena hotel room sipping coffee, reflecting on working for the famous director who vowed he "would not exploit the glory of it all but try to discover what it's really like to be in combat."

Burns has already said he considers "Private Ryan" an antiwar film, even as it dramatizes the courage of young men giving their lives in the unimpeachable cause of reclaiming Europe from the Nazis.

"I think Steven wanted you to see that much as those sacrifices had to be made, they aren't glamorous," the 30-year-old Burns explains now. "It's a horrific, horrific thing that kids 10 years younger than me had to go do 50-some-odd years ago."

"It's ambiguous whether it's an antiwar movie or not," says Sizemore, who has a voice like tires on wet gravel and plays the sturdy Sgt. Horvath, a role that 40 years ago might have gone to William Bendix or Aldo Ray. "I actually don't think that it is. It asks a question: 'At what cost do we fight and for what?' "

What sets "Private Ryan" apart from so many of the earlier films made about World War II are both the unflinching agonies of its battle scenes and the dilemma of its main story that finds Hanks' squad members risking their lives not just to defeat Hitler but to rescue a lowly private (Damon) in what the soldiers see as a public relations mission for the Army. There are no easy answers to some of the questions that arise--for the squad and for the audience.

Informed by Steven Ambrose's 1994 bestseller, "D-Day: The Climactic Battle of WWII," which was itself based on first-person accounts of veterans, the movie's first half-hour is a maelstrom of shell shock, death and fear as the Allies hit the beaches under horrendous fire.

"We've all seen amphibious landings in the movies before," says Hanks, conjuring one up. "A young Richard Jaekel or Marty Milner standing on the boat. Maybe they're nervous about [whether] they're gonna get killed but none of them are seasick and none of them are throwing up."

"And none of them were wet!" notes Sizemore.

In Ambrose's book, veterans recount how the landing crafts lurched through rough seas in the Channel on June 6, 1944, with men getting drenched by waves while their stomachs turned. As they waited to face the German machine guns, they stood ankle-deep in seawater and vomit, bailing it with their helmets. It's the sort of detail Spielberg didn't miss.


Has a war movie ever been louder? As part of its strategy to spare the audience as little as possible, the decibel level of the mortars, cannons and machine guns passes over the pain threshold. Was it just as loud for the actors filming those sequences?

"Though we did it in two- to three-minute bursts, it was so loud, the first time it happened it was horrifying," says Hanks. "We ended up wearing ear protection because otherwise we'd all have severe damage to our ears. There are a lot of weapons going off, and while they're blanks, they're full loads, and you've got the mortars and the tanks. It was cacophony. Plus, there are moments when hot shells are landing on you, little bits and pieces of the pyrotechnics coming down."

"If you were next to Eddie [Burns] when he fires his BAR [Browning automatic rifle], 'Oh, God, BOOM!' " says Sizemore, wincing.

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