Last week veterans of WW II who saw the opening of Saving Private Ryan were deeply upset by gut-wrenching violence that reminded them too painfully of the real thing. Philip Molloy reports on how the most controversial D-Day landings sequences were filmed on a Wexford beach
Steven Spielberg's gut-wrenching World War II epic Saving Private Ryan is not what's generally considered a ``summer movie'' in the United States. It's almost three hours long, adult in tone and content and makes an emphatic anti-war statement.
But the American public accepted it enthusiastically when it opened in 2,463 cinemas across the continent last weekend.
It grossed more than $30m in three days, which was at least $8m more than such traditional holiday fare as Lethal Weapon 4 and The Mask of Zorro in the previous weeks. The film is now expected to take more than $150m in the US alone. And while the ticket paying public was voting on Private Ryan with its feet, the critics were expressing a similar view through their laptops and computer terminals. CNN Interactive summed up the media reaction by calling it ``hands down the best film of 1998''.
Entertainment Weekly said it was a movie ``of staggering virtuosity and raw lyric power, a masterpiece of terror, chaos, blood and courage''. The Chicago Times said Private Ryan said things about war ``that are as complex and difficult as any essayist could possibly express, and it does it with broad strong images, with violence, with profanity, with action, with camaraderie.''
After its release in America, Saving Private Ryan will begin to spread out across Europe and Asia when it opens the Venice Film Festival on 3 September from which its enhanced profile is likely to lead up to the Oscar nominations after Christmas.
It may seem parochial to relate all this to our own small film industry, but it has an important relationship. Private Ryan was partly shot here last summer. In fact, the most discussed sequence in it the opening half hour was done on a beach outside Wexford town.
Spielberg came here when he couldn't find the combination of locations and services he required in the United Kingdom. One of the producers had scouted Irish locations for Braveheart, and he remembered Wexford's seven-mile long Curracloe Beach. After a survey, the Oscar winning director decided to shoot his D-Day landing sequence here last July.
When the Minister for Arts and Culture, Sile de Valera, announced that she was setting up an Irish Screen Commission recently, she had hardly thought of Private Ryan. The idea of a dedicated body that would attract foreign film production to this country had been in the pipeline for several years.
The department itself had effectively performed this role on Braveheart when the then Minister Michael D. Higgins sent a team of officials to London to convince the producers to come here and subsequently mustered the services of the Dept. of Defence and the Office of Public Works in support of his campaign.
Braveheart became a showcase for what Ireland has to offer major incoming productions, and the screen commission should have been established before it was released.
But while the Minister expressed his support for such a body, he had difficulty getting the public money to give it operational status. Ms de Valera has now got Government backing for a commission for which the membership has been announced, and a full time chief executive is to be appointed before the beginning of September.
And Saving Private Ryan has provided another high-profile calling card, a multi-million dollar example of the kind of services this country can offer incoming production. In a way, the movie was a model for what can be done and how it should be done.
When Spielberg decided to come to Ireland, Wexford's Assistant County Manager, Adrian Doyle, was appointed to coordinate the work of all the agencies that would be required to meet the film's needs.
The Dept. of Arts and Culture, the Dept. of Defence, the Office Of Public Works, Civil Defence, the local screen commission, St. Peter's College in Wexford, and a variety of tourist agencies all made a contribution.
Initially it was decided to shoot on land adjacent to a convent at Blackwater, but the local nuns were going to be on retreat in July and could not make the property available until mid-August. So Spielberg opted to use a 1/4 mile of beach leading onto a farm to stand in for Omagh Beach in Normandy.
Legal agreements were obtained, licences were issued, more than a thousand Irish soldiers were brought in to act as extras, a special ecological protection scheme was drawn up and hotels, guest houses and property owners all came together to provide accommodation.
When they couldn't find enough space to house the army, they took over St. Peter's College, which had been vacated for the summer.
Wexford harbour was closed in the 1960s when it was found impossible to get deep water shipping over the ``bar'' at its mouth, but they were able to get a variety of flat-bottomed World War II landing craft through to take part in the Curracloe invasion.
The Saving Private Ryan crew moved in on 25 June and left at the end of August. They spent almost a month restoring the beach and surrounding area according to the terms of their agreements with the county council and landowners. In all, it was estimated that $5m had been pumped into the local economy over the nine weeks.
The movie's credits include a caption thanking the Government, the council and the ``people of the city of Wexford'' and Spielberg, who has been touring to publicise Private Ryan, has commented freely on the quality of the facilities and support he found here.
On the morning of 6 June, 1944, Allied bombers were supposed to have destroyed massive German fortifications that lined the ground above the beaches the night before the landing. But dense cloud coverage caused the planes to miss almost all their designated targets, so, as thousands of soldiers disgorged into the surf, they ran face-first into a full-scale barrage of machine gun and mortar fire.
``The fronts of the boats drop open, and the enemy gunfire explodes with a sickenly dense and relentless cracking, the camera trembling as if the earth itself were coming apart,'' Entertainment Weekly says of the movie's depiction of the battle. ``Red bullet holes appear in the men's helmets and the bodies drop like rag dolls.''
Depicting war as it has never been seen on the cinema screen before, the movie shows ordinary civilians being thrown into an existential inferno. And while it will seem small to claim either ownership or credit against the weight of what the movie says and what its director achieves, this country made a positive and worthwhile contribution to it.
Saving Private Ryan will help to establish the screen commission as the latest piece in the jigsaw of an industry that includes the Film Board, Government financial incentives and a local studio.
It will be the commission's function to compete with the high-riding British and European industries to attract film and television production to Ireland by marketing our tax advantages, the range of facilities, the expanding pool of technicians, actors and other creative staff and the range of locations.
When foreign movies come in here, it will be necessary to coordinate a network of national and regional organisations to service them and ultimately to encourage international production and distribution companies to open offices in Ireland.
Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore and Edward Burns, will be released in Ireland in September.