HATFIELD, England — There' a war going on outside, but Steven Spielberg doesn't notice.
Hunkered down in a tiny, tent-like dwelling, covered with hanging canvas on three sides, and with large boards leaning against its frame to afford protection from explosions, stray gunfire and flying rubble, Spielberg peers intently at four monitors.
Each monitor bears a label above its screen with a cameraman's name: David, Shay, Mitch, Chris. After Spielberg yells "Action!" one sees on the largest screen a World War II-era German Panzer tank rumbling forward before taking a hit from a bazooka rocket and exploding.
On the other screens are American soldiers in hand-to-hand combat with Germans; one, a sergeant, shoots his rival after his pistol initially jams, but also takes a bullet in his side, and curses loudly.
There's so much action on the screens, the untrained eye hardly knows where to look first. But Spielberg pinpoints a problem. "We're fine on three cameras," he says. "But Tom," and he indicates Tom Sizemore, the actor playing the injured sergeant, "needs to try to fire his gun more times when it jams."
Those standing around Spielberg in the tiny bunker nod sagely, but the unspoken thought circulates: How does anyone absorb so much visual information, then make a snap judgment about it, as Spielberg just did?
He shrugs: "You just look at all four monitors, that's all. We're shooting this scene in real time, with three pockets of drama, separate incidents going on around the Panzer. It's like combat camera work."
Spielberg swings back to the bank of monitors. "Maybe I should try my hand at live TV work when this movie is over." He grins. "Think of this as a Carol Burnett special."
Step outside and a Carol Burnett special is hardly what springs to mind. On this huge expanse of open space 20 miles north of London--in reality a former plane-making facility with its own airstrip--an ingenious production design team has created a war-torn French village straight out of 1944, the year of D-day and the heroic Allied landings in Normandy.
This fictional village, called Ramelle, has a church ravaged by bomb damage. Its streets are littered with burned-out tanks, its telegraph poles lean at crazy angles, and its shops stand largely destroyed. Rubble is strewn everywhere. Entire walls of residential buildings have been blown away, exposing wallpaper, furniture, pictures on walls. It is a chilling sight.
Actors and dozens of extras playing American and German soldiers mingle indistinguishably on the set, dressed in khaki or olive drabs. Their faces are dirty; some have fake blood daubed on their skin. On this hot August day, many look truly fatigued.
The D-day landing on Omaha Beach marks the historical backdrop to Spielberg's new $65-million film "Saving Private Ryan," opening July 24. Tom Hanks is Capt. John Miller, leader of an eight-man squad on a perilous mission; they must go behind enemy lines in France to save one paratrooper, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have been killed in combat.
"The way we're telling the story cannot be called true," Spielberg notes. "But it's based on a true event."
After five brothers named Sullivan all perished at sea on the same ship in 1943, the War Department passed a law that siblings could not serve in the same unit. Then three of four brothers from another family were killed within 72 hours the following year, one fighting the Japanese and two more separately fighting the Axis powers in Europe.
"So they sent out a squad to find the fourth brother, a private, and send him home," adds Spielberg. "That's the kernel of truth around which this morality play has been fictionalized."
Morality play? Indeed it is. The script, by Robert Rodat and Frank Darabont, questions the very nature of Miller's mission. "The controversy is, what price freedom?" Spielberg says. "Is saving Ryan going to end the war any sooner? Or will it simply be a morale booster for the home front on the front page of Stars and Stripes? How does Capt. Miller's squad feel about this? Will they be giving their lives in vain, to save one man? All that was compelling."
Because of this, Hanks argues, the film's leading characters do not need to be psychologically complex: "One thing we talked about from the beginning was the concept of a citizen soldier--not a professional fighting man, but [someone who responds to] the demands of the time. Capt. Miller's that quintessential guy who finds himself in charge, but just wants to win the war and go home. He doesn't particularly excel in anything."
Actor Edward Burns says much the same: "I play Reiben, a wise-ass New Yorker, and I'm the guy trying to convince everyone in the crew that it's not worth it, we're wasting our time trying to save Ryan. And in fact I'm not sure how I'd feel myself, if I was in a group and risking my friends' lives to save a stranger. Even if his three brothers did die."