Sunday 20 October 2019

How we made the best movie battle scene ever

A master at work: Film director Steven Spielberg on the set of 'Saving Private Ryan'
A master at work: Film director Steven Spielberg on the set of 'Saving Private Ryan'
A scene from 'Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'

CONOR FEEHAN speaks to an Irish producer who worked on the D-Day landing in 'Saving Private Ryan', which has just been voted the greatest war film moment

It took more than $12m, 1,500 people, tonnes of explosives, and thousands of gallons of fake blood to transform a Wexford beach into the opening war scene of Steven Spielberg's 1998 Saving Private Ryan, but it was all worthwhile.

The epic opening sequence of the movie, starring Tom Hanks, with images of bomb blasts, dismemberment and sheer bloody terror, has been voted the best battle scene of all time by film bible Empire magazine. With the help of the FCA and a team of recruited amputees from all over Ireland, Spielberg converted the picturesque beach in Curracloe into a re-creation of the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944, 62 years ago this week.

Associate producer Mark Huffam (right), from Ballyclare in Co Antrim, was involved from beginning to end, and although he knew from the outset it was going to be a remarkable cinematic experience, he had no idea just how effective and hard-hitting it was going to be.

Initially, Spielberg had picked a different section of beach near Curracloe for the filming, but access through convent-owned lands was only granted for August, which was too late for filming. The producers then looked at the possibility of transferring to the UK, but a chance drink with a member of Wexford County Council by one of the team led to the choosing of the Curracloe beach at Ballinesker.

"I have found my Normandy!" declared Spielberg when he laid eyes on it. But a lot of work had to go into transforming it into a replica of Normandy's Omaha Beach.

"The preparations and planning were immense, and out of the total budget of $65 million (?50 million) there was an estimated $12 million (?9 million) spent filming in Curracloe," Huffam explains.

When you bring it down to mathematics, this means that nearly 20% of the budget was spent on less than 14% of the movie.

It's a lot of money for a 23-minute sequence of cinema history, but apart from the 15 days of actual filming, the metamorphosis of Curracloe into French wartime coastline took more than 11 weeks to achieve.

"We had to build a lot of service roads from scratch just to take in the trucks with all the hardware, and we had to construct the battlements, bunkers and attack vantage points. It was the biggest logistical plan of the entire movie," says Huffam.

"We wired off about a kilometre of beach in total for the scene. Steven (Spielberg) just has a way of making these things work. He'll always find a way.

"There was a massive team of 400 people involved, and that was just the crew. On top of that we had about 1,000 members of the FCA and dozens of extras, many of whom were amputees so that we could make the war injuries look very realistic."

The massive metal structures dropped on Omaha beach and other Normandy landing sites to prevent soldiers making shore all had to be realistically recreated locally and transported by lorry to be dotted on Curracloe beach - something which kept a lot of local metalworkers busy for weeks.

It is estimated that the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan injected ?6 million into the Wexford economy, with scene work, catering, accommodation and all sorts of behind the scenes services being provided from local sources.

And the craft that ferried the soldiers onto land were all real military vehicles that had to be sourced from around the world.

"Two were brought from Burtonport in Donegal, and another two came from Southampton in England, but we had to ship another eight over from Palm Springs in California if we were to keep things realistic," says Huffam. "They were all fully functioning landing craft. Two of them were genuine World War II craft, and the others were from the 1950s. For some we used trained operators to ensure the landings and openings of the ramps were as realistic as possible during filming."

The use of the landing craft was central to the impact of those opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan. First the viewers see the fear, the sea-sickness and the prayers of all the young soldiers. Then, as the ramps are lowered, we see soldiers being blasted to death as they are sprayed with gunfire by the Germans.

"Steven is a master at creating a lot of atmosphere from a couple of key images, and he really wanted to create the reality of war with Private Ryan," says Huffam.

There is no soundtrack or epic score laid over the battle scenes, just the bloody and deafening roar of war. The services of several military experts were used to ensure that the sick reality of the human sacrifice of battle was very visually and emotionally apparent in the movie.

What makes Private Ryan streets ahead of other movie battle scenes is that raw realism. It is depicted from a soldier's terrified viewpoint. And Spielberg used a lot of underwater scenes to portray the reality of the Normandy invasions.

"There is a sequence where you see the scenes under the sea, with people drowning and getting killed by bullets tracing through the water, and the camera rises and sinks like the view of a soldier trying to make it to land," says Huffam. "That was done using a camera on a crane that was set on a 40 ft flatbed trailer literally reversed into the sea. We had a good swell of water on the day so we had to be careful with it, but Steven certainly knows how to use his equipment to create a very dramatic effect."

Once the soldiers make land they are faced with a further heavy barrage of enemy gunfire, and this is where the use of amputees and special effects were used to the most dramatic effect.

"We had somewhere between 20 and 30 amputees and paraplegics who worked with us, creating very realistic scenes where we could use effects to make it look like soldiers were losing limbs. Some might say it was an insensitive approach, but they all did it with great enthusiasm," says Huffam.

"And if it wasn't for the Irish Army and FCA it would just never have happened, because using guys that know how to carry a real gun, run and take cover, and wear a uniform just makes it look so real."

Several times in that famous opening sequence viewers see soldiers getting blown to pieces. In one scene Hanks drags an injured comrade up the beach by the collar, but then his load suddenly gets lighter when he ends up just with half a soldier to pull.

"We had an amazing group of prosthetic engineers who made over 1,000 dummies that were so realistic it was incredible," says Mark. "They were so anatomically correct, down to the use of human hair on their heads, each one punched in individually."

All through the opening sequence the sea is literally red with blood. Surely the resources to colour an entire coastline are beyond what movie directors would normally use?

"We really pushed technology and effects to their limits and beyond with Private Ryan. Normally in a war movie you buy a few gallons of fake blood to do it, but for Curracloe alone we were using 40 gallon drums of it, loads of them," says Huffam.

At night Spielberg and his crew would use a local parish hall to watch the daily 'rushes' or filmed sequences to see where they were going. And while they did look powerful, effective and realistic, Huffamsays he had no idea just what sort of impact it would have until he saw the final cut.

"It blew me away. It struck me with total fear. And that's what Spielberg wanted to achieve, not just for shock value, but to show what war was really like on those beaches."

When filming was all over Curracloe Beach had to be put back the way it was before Spielberg ever laid eyes on it.

"All the service roads had to be removed, and every building and bunker taken out. Every blade of grass was then re-seeded. I visited Curracloe less than a year later and you'd swear we were never there at all," says Huffam.

Empire's top 10 battle scenes

1. Saving Private Ryan - Omaha Beach

2. Alexander - Guagamela

3. Zulu - Rorke's Drift

4. Lord Of The Rings (The Two Towers) - Helm's Deep

5. Kingdom Of Heaven - Siege of Jerusalem)

6. Alexander Nevsky - Chudskoye Lake

7. All Quiet On The Western Front - The French Front

8. Brotherhood - Invasion of South Korea

9. The Empire Strikes Back - Assault on Hoth

10. Lawrence Of Arabia - Massacre outside Damascus


"A mighty battle, oft imitated, never bettered. Long battle sequences can be repetitive but these 23 minutes provide jolt after jolt, leaving the viewer with an aural as well as visual sense of shellshock."

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