At a cost of $12 million, and involving 1500 extras, tonnes of explosives and thousands of gallons of fake blood, the Omaha Beach landing sequence from Saving Private Ryan definitely earned the title of 'best battle scene of all time.
However, not only was the Omaha Beach sequence an amazing feat of cinema, it was also such an accurate portrayal of war that it actually resulted in many veterans having to seek help for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after viewing the film. When the film was released in 1998, the Department of Veterans Affairs staffed a nationwide hotline for veterans and their family members who may have been upset by the film, fielding over 170 calls in the film's opening weeks.
In addition to helplines, many wars vets actually walked out of cinemas during the Omaha Beach scenes. Vietnam vet, Ed Kelly called it "the closest thing to the horrors of real combat" that he had ever seen, also adding "I just couldn't handle it." Meanwhile D-Day vet, Frank L. Davis, explained that it produced both a physical and emotional response. "... A tightening in my chest, and I couldn't breathe and I shed a lot of tears," the Delaware resident said, "it felt like I was right there again ... It was so damned real.''
And it was that realism that was the one thing that made Saving Private Ryan a war film different from all other war films. The Omaha Beach sequence was not storyboarded, allowing for spontaneous reactions, with director Steven Spielberg saying that he let "the action ... inspire me as to where to put the camera." About 1000 extras used in the scenes were actual members of Ireland's Local Defence Force, also approximately 30 were also amputees or paraplegic, adding an extra level of authenticity to scenes where soldiers lost limbs.
While war films are nothing new, Saving Private Ryan did set a new standard due to its dedication to accuracy. ''... I'm sure John Wayne could have taken all of Omaha Beach all by himself,'' Kelly noted, referencing other war films which chose to gloss over the violence, ''but that doesn't get it when you get to the real world.'' Sure, the film took some creative license with the storyline, but the depiction of the violent horrors of war was something that remained disturbing accurate. "It felt like I was right there again ... It was so damned real," Davis said.
So given that the film was such a groundbreaker, in the 18 years since have we seen any war film come close to matching the accuracy of Saving Private Ryan? Well, not exactly (mini-series Band of Brothers may be the only exception), but thanks to Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, we could be about to.
Nolan is currently filming his new blockbuster titled Dunkirk. The movie will star Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy (whose first acting credit happens to be for Band of Brothers!), and tell the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, a military operation which took place from May 27 until June 4 in 1940. The rescue operation saved the lives of around 335,000 Belgian, British and French troops who were trapped on the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France and surrounded by the German Army. The evacuation has been depicted in film before, perhaps most memorably in that beautiful long shot in the film Atonement:
While details on the film are being heavily guarded at present, filming on Dunkirk began in France on May 23. In addition to shooting on location in France, Nolan is also using a real destroyer ship (which has since been decommissioned and turned into a museum) named Maillé-Brézé. Nolan is well-known for his preference of practical effects over CGI use, and his decision to use an actual ex-service ship bodes well for fans hoping that Dunkirk will bring as much realism to the screen as Saving Private Ryan did 18-years ago.
Dunkirk will be released in cinemas on July 21, 2017.