15 Fascinating Facts About Saving Private Ryan

Paramount Home Entertainment
Paramount Home Entertainment

It was up to eight men to save the life of one. As the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaches, here are some things you might not have known about Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning World War II drama Saving Private Ryan.

1. Saving Private Ryan came together in a single day.

Saving Private Ryan, which was released in the summer of 1998, was the only movie that Steven Spielberg directed up to that point in his career that he hadn’t developed on his own. Screenwriter Robert Rodat’s script was actually sent to Spielberg by his agent. In a stroke of luck, the script had also been sent to actor Tom Hanks, who also wanted to make the movie. Both Spielberg and Hanks, who had never worked with each other at that point (and would go on to work together again in Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, and Bridge of Spies, as well as the miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific), called each other up when they found out they were reading the same script and decided to collaborate on the movie all in the same day.

2. Steven Spielberg was inspired to direct the movie as a tribute to his father.

Spielberg directed Saving Private Ryan as a tribute to his father, Arnold Spielberg, who served in the U.S. Army and Signal Corps, and fought in Burma during World War II as a radio operator in a B-25 squad. Arnold also helped a young Steven to direct his first movies as a teenager, both of which involved plots that took place during World War II. Escape to Nowhere was a 40-minute behind enemy lines movie that a young Spielberg shot with his friends, while Fighter Squad was shot at the Sky Harbor Airport hangar in Phoenix, Arizona, which conveniently housed grounded former WWII fighter planes that the young Spielberg and his friends used, but didn’t fly.

3. Saving Private Ryan is only partly based on a true story.

Matt Damon stars in 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998)
Paramount Home Entertainment

Contrary to popular belief, Saving Private Ryan is not based on the Sullivan brothers, a group of five brothers who were all killed in action while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II on the USS Juneau. The movie is actually based on the Niland brothers, four siblings who all served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Three brothers—Robert, Preston, and Edward—were supposedly killed in action, which caused their remaining brother, Fritz (whom the titular Private Ryan was based on), to be shipped back to America so that the Niland family wouldn’t lose all of their sons. Edward, who was originally thought dead, was actually found alive after escaping a Japanese prison camp in Burma, making two surviving brothers out of the four who fought in the war.

4. The movie's actors had to go through boot camp.

To get an idea of what WWII soldiers actually went through, the main squad of actors portraying the lead soldiers participated in a 10-day boot camp led by the film’s military advisor, retired former USMC Captain Dale Dye. Dye led the actors on an intensive field combat situation, leading the group on marches, living in tents, and eating MREs. They also received tactical training that included learning how to clean, assemble, and fire period-appropriate weapons. Dye can be seen as a War Department Colonel who gives General George Marshall the Ryan brother death notifications toward the beginning of the movie.

5. Robin Williams helped Matt Damon land the part of Private Ryan.

Robin Williams introduced Matt Damon to Steven Spielberg in Boston during rehearsals for the movie Good Will Hunting. The director was also in town around the same time shooting Amistad, and Williams brought Damon along to say hi to Spielberg, whom Williams had previously worked with on Hook. Two weeks later, Spielberg contacted Damon about the part of Private Ryan.

6. Tom Sizemore was nearly fired from the movie.

Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Paramount Home Entertainment

Tom Sizemore, who plays Sergeant Horvath, was heavily addicted to heroin prior to filming Saving Private Ryan in 1997. In order to keep the movie in line, and to force Sizemore to kick the habit, Spielberg swore to Sizemore that if the actor tested positive for drugs on-set—even on the last day of shooting—“he would fire me on the spot and shoot all 58 days that I'd worked over again with someone else.”

7. Garth Brooks almost played Private Jackson.

Frank Darabont was hired to do uncredited rewrites on Saving Private Ryan, and created the role of the Bible-quoting sniper, Private Jackson, to be played by country singer Garth Brooks. Brooks dropped out of the movie after Spielberg came onboard and cast Tom Hanks in the lead role. Apparently Brooks didn’t want to play second fiddle to Hanks, but Spielberg offered him a chance to play another role of his choosing. Instead of a specific role, Brooks allegedly said he wanted to play the “bad guy,” but in Saving Private Ryan there is no real bad guy other than the entire Wehrmacht, so Spielberg ultimately decided to drop Brooks from the movie.

8. The look of the movie was inspired by real-life 1940s photos.

Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski modeled the look of the film on actual newsreel footage from the era, and converted the modern lenses of the film’s shooting cameras to make them capture images more like cameras from the 1940s. They also modeled the look of the D-Day sequence on the bleached-out, grainy look of the D-Day photography shot by famed photojournalist Robert Capa.

9. Omaha Beach was actually in Ireland.

Because the actual beaches in Normandy where Allied forces invaded France had strict filming restrictions, the opening D-Day scene needed to be shot elsewhere. Spielberg wanted an almost exact replica of the Omaha Beach landscape for the movie, including similar sand and a bluff similar to the one where German forces were stationed. A near match was found in Ireland at Ballinesker Beach, Curracloe Strand in Wexford. Over 2500 Irish Reserve Army troops were recruited to portray the Allied forces storming the beach.

10. shooting the D-Day sequence required more than 15 percent of the film's entire budget.

The D-Day scene alone cost $12 million because of the logistical difficulties and the realistic scope needed to complete the sequence. The entire budget of the movie was only $70 million. Spielberg didn’t storyboard any of the D-Day sequence.

11. Spielberg had a busy year before and after filming Saving Private Ryan.

The director conducted the pre-production on Saving Private Ryan and the sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park at the same time in 1996, and was originally supposed to direct the films back to back. But a rewrite by screenwriter David Franzoni on Amistad, another project he was developing around the same time, turned out to be so successful that Spielberg decided to direct that movie in between the two other movies. Amistad was directed after a four-week break that ended The Lost World and a six-week prep time before Saving Private Ryan.

12. The bombed-out French city was actually a set built outside of London.

Because the logistics of shooting a completely destroyed French city would be impossible, the fictional bombed out city of Ramelle was created entirely at the Hatfield Aerodrome, a now-closed WWII air base located about 30 miles outside of London. The entire half-demolished city set took four months to build. To add more believability to the area, tons of rubble was purchased from nearby construction sites and added to the set.

13. Nearly all of the movie's uniforms were custom-made.

Costume designer Joanna Johnston wanted to originally use period uniforms for the primary soldiers, but found that authentic WWII-era uniforms were too costly to buy and maintain. So 3500 custom-made military uniforms were created to outfit all of the actors portraying soldiers throughout the entire film. For the D-Day sequence alone, 2000 weapons were created, 500 of which could shoot blanks while the remaining 1500 were rubber replicas.

14. The meaning of "FUBAR" is NSFW.

The meaning of the phrase the soldiers utter to each other throughout the movie as a form of camaraderie is never explained. FUBAR is actually military slang for “F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition.”

15. Many veterans found the movie too painfully realistic to watch.

The film’s battle scenes were so realistic to veterans in the audience that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set up a nationwide toll-free hotline for veterans and their family members to call if they felt unsettled by the war depicted onscreen.

This story has been updated for 2019.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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