Few dates have changed the course of history as profoundly as D-Day — June 6, 1944 — when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy to reclaim Europe from Hitler’s murderous rule.
But as I was searching out footage for this year’s D-Day tribute, I came across a related date — July 24, 1998 — that I realized had completely changed the course of my personal history, even though I was only a young boy at the time.
If that second date doesn’t ring a bell, let me explain …
Spielberg Creates a Critical and Fan Favorite
July 24, 1998 is when Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s World War II masterpiece starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, debuted in theaters.
Spielberg’s epic would go on to achieve worldwide critical and fan acclaim, gross over $525 million (and counting) in combined box office and video sales and win five Oscars, a Golden Globe for Best Picture, and a permanent place in the Library of Congress.
Read more: 5 Amazing War Movies to Commemorate D-Day
Something about watching Saving Private Ryan spoke uniquely to me. Maybe it was the terrifying, visceral immediacy of the opening Omaha Beach scene. Maybe it was because I am the grandson of WW2 Army and Naval officers, humble men who didn’t share their own stories easily. Or perhaps it was that Saving Private Ryan gave me my first insight into the courage and camaraderie that shaped their military service and went on to shape their civilian lives.
Whatever the reasons, thanks to Saving Private Ryan — as well as Spielberg’s subsequent Band of Brothers and The Pacific — I would go on to major in history in college, write my honors thesis on Dwight D. Eisenhower and start The War Movie Correspondent.
Saving Private Ryan gave me a mission: to find and share transformational films about the ties and transformations that soldiers forge in combat.
Finding a Way to Tell His Father’s War Stories
Now, let me be crystal clear about something: I’m nowhere near Steven Spielberg’s league and few of us ever will be. But I see him as an incredible role model, and in that light, I was inspired to discover recently that what had jumpstarted Spielberg’s own movie making career was his desire to tell his father’s war stories to a wider audience.
So to commemorate the 77th anniversary of D-Day this year, I wanted to share this amazing behind-the-scenes look at the making of Saving Private Ryan.
It shows a never-before-seen interview with Spielberg’s father as he describes the special effects that his son and the neighborhood boys jury rigged to create the look of explosions in their early home war movies.
Creating an Actors’ Bootcamp
You’ll see moving interviews with Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and many of the other actors.
You’ll hear how technical advisor Dale Dye, a legend in his own right, created a unique pre-production “bootcamp” designed to bond the actors — except for Matt Damon — and whip them mentally and physically into fighting shape.
Interestingly, Damon was not allowed to train with the other actors because Spielberg wanted the other actors to nurture a feeling of resentment at having to risk their lives to rescue Damon’s character.
And finally, you’ll discover the meticulous planning that went into filming the electrifying and horrifying 23-minute landing on Omaha Beach that opens the film.
So as we commemorate D-Day this year, let us remember the real-life Allied heroes who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy.
And let us also realize how fortunate we as future generations are to be able to remember the history of D-Day through documentary and feature film.
More to Explore: Additional resources about D-Day and the making of Saving Private Ryan
Here are links to some great articles about the making of Saving Private Ryan:
Saving Private Ryan at 20: How Spielberg’s vivid D-Day story changed war movies forever. Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2018
Saving Private Ryan’s Terrifying Beach Scene Cost $12 Million To Film. Esquire, November 7, 2018.
The Last Great War: Saving Private Ryan. American Cinematographer, June 7, 2017.
Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and his crack camera team re-enlist with director Steven Spielberg. American Cinematographer, June 7, 2017.
15 Fascinating Facts About Saving Private Ryan. Mental Floss, June 4, 2019
Saving Private Ryan: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts You Might Not Know About The WWII Movie. CinemaBlend, July 2, 2020.
Is Saving Private Ryan Your Favorite D-Day Film?
What’s your favorite D-Day film? Let me know in the comments below!
Jeffrey – Nice words about Saving Private Ryan. Your dad and I were classmates at HBS but in different sections. He was in Section I. I was in Section H. One of my section-mates was Bob Rodat, who was the screenwriter. Bob also did the screenplay for The Patriot. Your dad likely knows that tidbit. But in case not, I wanted you to know. If you ever wanted to connect with him, I’d be happy to email-introduce you.