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Movies & TV

24th Jul 2023

25 years ago today, we got the greatest opening scene to a movie ever

Rory Cashin

Saving Private Ryan

The movie had barely begun and we were already completely blown away.

It was a long road to getting Saving Private Ryan to the big screen. Once the screenplay started doing the rounds in Hollywood, it was initially a project set to be directed by Michael Bay.

When he dropped out, it came to the attention of Tom Hanks, who then brought the script to Steven Spielberg, who agreed to do the movie because the pair had wanted to work together for so long.

Paramount initially bought the project, but then very nearly ditched it completely when they also bought two more World War II movies: Combat (starring Bruce Willis) and With Wings As Eagles (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger). But the pairing of Hanks and Spielberg was too enticing to pass up, so Saving Private Ryan took priority, and the other two movies never came to be.

Given a healthy budget of $70 million – for comparison, Jurassic Park only cost $63 million to make – Spielberg’s initial vision of the movie was almost a fun adventure movie, but that all changed following a conversation with a WWII veteran. Spielberg told the Los Angeles Times:

“I remember one of the [veterans] telling me the entire charge up the beach was a blur – not a blur to his memory, because he still remembered every single grain of sand when he had his face buried in it from that fusillade raining down on them from above. But he described how everything was not in focus for him. And he described the sounds, and he described the vibrations of every concussion of every 88 shell that hit the beach, which gave some of them bloody noses, rattled their ears. The ground would come up and slam into their faces from the concussions.”

That dictated the new feel of the movie, and also entirely changed how the movie began. So Spielberg hired Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and Scott Frank (Out Of Sight) to perform uncredited rewrites, gave the script a new shape, and kicked us off with that jaw-dropping opening scene on Omaha Beach…

Saving Private Ryan opening scene took four weeks and 1,500 people to create

Of course, that scene wasn’t actually shot at Omaha Beach. The production spent three months in France trying to find the right place to film the sequence, but Normandy itself had become too built up, while other French beaches were restricted due to military or wildlife.

The production widened its search to England and Scotland, but none were suitable. However, associate producer Kevin De La Noy, who had previously worked on Braveheart, suggested the idea of shooting the scene in Ireland. He had developed contacts with the Irish Army, and thanks to his knowledge of Irish beaches, they settled on a one kilometre long segment of Curracloe Beach in Wexford.

After eleven weeks of preparation, including building the concrete battlements, the bunkers, the Czech hedgehogs, and the barbed wire (most of which was manufactured by local Irish workers), filming of the beach sequence, and of the entire movie, began on 27 June 1997.

The Omaha Beach sequence took a full month to film, and took up $12 million of the movie’s total budget. It required over 1,500 people on set to make it happen, including 400 crew, around 1,000 volunteer reserve and Irish army soldiers, dozens of extras, and 30 amputees and paraplegics fitted with prosthetic limbs to portray disfigured soldiers.

Of the shoot, Tom Hanks told Roger Ebert: “The first day of shooting… I was in the back of the landing craft, and that ramp went down and I saw the first 1-2-3-4 rows of guys just getting blown to bits. In my head, of course, I knew it was special effects, but I still wasn’t prepared for how tactile it was. The air literally went pink and the noise was deafening and there’s bits and pieces of stuff falling all on top of you and it was horrifying.”

Additionally, Steven Spielberg told The Buffalo News: “A war is fought fast, and I really wanted to keep all of the actors off-balance. I didn’t want them to be able to read 75 pages of a novel… I wanted to work fast enough so that they always felt as if they were in combat… I had to keep them on the set, which meant shooting the film even faster than I normally do. War doesn’t give you a break.”

Production packed up in August and moved to Hertfordshire in England to film the Battle of Ramelle scenes, but a portion of the crew stayed behind to restore the beach to its original state over the following month, as per an ecological protection order.

Released in cinemas on 24 July 1998, Saving Private Ryan was a massive success. It made over $482 million at the global box office, and won five of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for (but not Best Picture, because this was that weird year when Shakespeare In Love won everything). Critics mostly adored the movie, with some singling out praise for the movie’s opening scene, and others stating that it was so impactful, it overshadowed the rest of the movie that followed. As the review in Salon put it:

“For an incredible, endless half hour, Spielberg hurls the viewer into the midst of this inconceivable inferno of twisted metal, shrieking shells and human agony. It is a tour de force, probably the most vivid and visceral war scene ever filmed. In some ways, in fact, it blows up the rest of the movie. For this shattering vision is so corrosive, so subversive of all logic, all morality, all stories, that it devours the story that follows.”

Whether or not you agree that the Omaha Beach scene does hit too hard and too fast for the rest of the movie to recover from, there is no denying that it is the one of, if not THE, greatest opening scenes to a movie of all time.

Saving Private Ryan is available to rent right now on Google Play, Apple TV and the Sky Store.

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