Saving Private Ryan

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Spielberg's Role: Director, Co-Producer
US Release Date: 1993

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
FAQ
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

This FAQ was written by Jack Macpherson in response to many repeated questions on the ALT.MOVIES.SPIELBERG Usenet group. It has been reorganized, and posted to Scruffles' Steven Spielberg Directory to help answer common questions. If you have an comments about the content of the FAQ, please send them to Mr. Macpherson.

Note from the author:

Thanks to all the folks that sent suggestions and inputs. While no means definitive, this should anser most folks questions about the film. It's almost become a "Dummies Guide to D-Day." The questions keep pouring in, keeping the one-man research department busy. Thanks to all the folks (too numerous to name) for providing so many of the answers.


Plot - Production - History - Miscellaneous


Plot

Q: Is the German soldier captured at the Radar Site and then released by Captain Miller the same one who stabbed Private Mellish to death?

A: No. The German POW, Steamboat Willie, did not kill Mellish. Mellish’s killer was a member of the Waffen SS. Steamboat Willie was an ordinary German infantryman. When Mellish and the SS trooper fight, notice the SS collar insignia on the German and his SS camouflaged smock.

Q: Why did Miller have Wade accompany the squad on the assault on the machine-gun nest?

A: Probably an oversight of the film. One would have to assume that Miller directed Wade to remain behind with Upham but that Wade disobeyed in order to remain close to his comrades. That would not have been unusual behavior for a combat medic.

Q: Is there a clue in the opening scene as to the identity of the old man at the cemetery?

A: Yes. He’s wearing the division pin of the 101st Airborne Division. Who is the featured character who belongs to the Screaming Eagles? Private Ryan.

Q: What does Captain Miller say to Ryan on the bridge?

A: “James . . . earn this,” and then “Earn it,” obviously telling him to live a life worthy of the lives sacrificed to rescue him.

Q: What did Upham say when he captured the German soldiers at the end of the film?

A: Upham (stopping the running group):  "Drop your guns--all of you, drop them!"  Steamboat Willie then said, "I know this soldier.  I know this man . . . Upham."  After Upham shot Steamboat Willie, he then said to the rest of the enemy soldiers, "take a hike . . . run!"

Q: What did Mellish’s killer say to him?

A: "Give in . . . you have no other choice . . . make it easier for both of us . . . . shhhhhh."

Q: What did Fish (Mellish) say to Caparzo when he handed him the Hitler Youth knife?

A: "Now it's a Shabbat challah cutter." (bread knife).

Q: What was Caparzo trying to give to Fish after he’d been shot?

A: A V-mail letter to his father. He wanted it recopied so his father wouldn't see all the blood on the letter. V-mail was free mail home for the GIs. Caparzo's father wouldn't have received the original bloodstained letter in any case. To save valuable cargo space, the V-mail letters were microfilmed and then reproduced back in the States.

Q: Why didn’t Mellish keep all the ammunition with him instead of leaving it with Upham?

A: The defense plan called for Mellish and Henderson to fire and displace or “shoot and scoot.” Mellish mentioned to Upham that they would be fallin back like crazy. Despite its name, a light machine gun and all its accessories isn’t all that light. The last thing Mellish and Henderson wanted to be burdened with while they’re bugging out is extra ammunition. It made sense to keep it at a rearward location and have Upham distribute it as needed.

Q: What was causing Captain Miller's hand to shake?

A: A reaction to the stress of combat undoubtedly. His character had been in combat for two years, as revealed by the discussions between him and Sergeant Horvath. He'd seen combat in such places as Kasserine Pass in North Africa and Anzio in Italy. As an infantry officer, Miller has beaten the odds so far just by still being alive. The First Ranger Battalion had been decimated in Anzio and removed from the U.S. Army's order of battle. In other words, Captain Miller has been under intense pressure for two years. He also suffers intensely from the deaths of each one of his men and he has lost many.

Q: Early in the film, Captain Miller reports to Lt. Col Anderson (Dennis Farina), his battalion commander, and gets his assignment to "Save Private Ryan." (In reality, the 2nd Ranger C.O. was Lt. Col Rudder.) Miller first briefs Anderson on what he's been doing and points to an area on the map where he took out German towed 88MM artillery. But later in the film, when the squad is debating whether to attack the machine gun nest at the radar site, Pvt. Jackson says "we left them 88s," and Miller says "yeah, for the Air Force." Did they attack the 88s or not? Is that an error?

A: No, just a result of editing. Jackson is talking about different 88s. When Miller and his merry men set off from Omaha Beach, they're in a jeep. Next we see them on foot. What was in the script but omitted from the finished product was when their jeep came under fire from German 88s and was destroyed, along with most of their ammunition. (Remember when Capt Miller tells Capt Hamill in Neuville that they lost most of their ammunition?) Those are the 88s Jackson is talking about. Spielberg had to edit out about 20 minutes of the film so it wouldn't be rated NC-17.

Q: Did Upham really shoot Steamboat Willie? His body doesn't appear visible when Upham tells the other Germans to bug out.

A: Yes, he shot him. The screen shot is so tight that you can only just make out Steamboat Willie's boot. But Upham is looking down at the body. Besides, the script says he did.

Q: Where is Pvt Jackson supposed to be from?

A: Tennessee

Q: How old is Captain Miller?

A: Let's apply some reverse engineering. He's been in the Rangers since the North Africa campaign. That's means he probably joined the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. Let's say he's been in nearly three years. Then he said he taught high school for eleven years. He might have taught somewhere else before then, but let's just leave his teaching career at eleven. He was probably no younger than 22 when he finished college. That makes him about 36 at the youngest. By way of contrast, James Gavin, who was the assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne at Normandy, was a Lieutenant General at age 36.

Q: Would Captain Miller have won the Medal of Honor for his actions?

A:  Probably and in the book, he was awarded it posthumously.  However, in the film we know he wasn't given the Medal of Honor.  How can we tell?  At the Omaha Beach cemetery, the winners of the Medal of Honor have the name on their cross highlighted with gold lettering.  Miller's cross wasn't.

Q: If Miller's squad was in such a hurry, why did they take the time to bury Wade and those dead paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne?

A:  In real life, they probably wouldn't have. After making all that noise, they would have been anxious to get on down the road before enemy infantry or artillery came calling.  They're supposed to be behind enemy lines, after all.  But remember, this is a movie.  We would have missed all that drama with Steamboat Willie.  Events have to be compressed to tell the story.

Q: Why didn't the Tiger tanks use their bow machine gun?  They could have easily wiped out many of the Americans with it.

A: Excellent question and one we've wondered about also.  We've come up with three possible solutions:

  1. The tanks were out of machine gun ammo.
  2. The machine guns were not operable.
  3. The machine gun ammo came from Oskar Schindler's factory in Czechoslovakia.

Production

Q: Where was the movie filmed?

A: The D-Day invasion scene was filmed at Wexford, Ireland. The remainder of the movie was filmed in England. The village of Ramelle was created at a former British Aerospace factory.

Q: Where were the opening and closing scenes filmed?

A: At the U.S. Military Cemetery at Ste. Laurent-sur-Mer, France, which is on the bluffs above Omaha Beach.

History

Q: Is the film based upon a true story?

A: Yes but rather loosely. The real Private Ryan was Private Fritz Niland of the 101st Airborne Division. Two of his brothers were killed at Normandy and a third was reported missing and presumed dead in Burma. The Army issued an order to bring Private Niland home but nobody was sent looking for him because nobody knew where he was. He was found two weeks later, unaware of what had transpired. His brother in Burma later turned up alive.

Q: Why were no Allied soldiers portrayed in the film?

A: According to Steven Spielberg, this was a film about an American squad looking for an American soldier in the American sector. It was not a documentary about the Normandy battle. That was done in "The Longest Day." The Allied divisions that landed at Normandy had strict boundary lines, with the American troops on the right or West flank. The direction that Captain Miller's squad took to look for Private Ryan took them northwest, even further away from the British and Canadian sectors. If it will make the Allied faithful any happier, Barry Pepper, who portrayed Pvt. Jackson, is a Canadian.

Q: Why were no black soldiers depicted in the film?

A: The U.S. Army was segregated during World War II. Although black units did see combat during the war, no black combat units landed on D-Day.

Q: What is the meaning of that Blue and Gray yin-and-yang symbol worn by Corporal Upham?

A: That is the division patch of the 29th Infantry Division, a National Guard Division with troops from Virginia, Maryland, and DC It was known as the Blue-Gray Division, because it had regiments with ties to both the Confederate and Union Armies. All U.S. soldiers wore their division patch on their left shoulder.

Q: How accurate are the weapons and uniforms in the film?

A: Considering the production company is trying to reproduce equipment that is over 50 years old, the weapons and uniforms are very accurate.  Every uniform for the cast and extras had to be manufactured and then made to look worn.  An example of the trouble Speilberg went to is the soldiers' boots. His costume director found the company that made the U.S. Army's combat boots in World War II and got the exact instructions and patterns.  Then she had 2000 pairs of boots made and aged for the actors.

Q: Plastic bags didn’t exist in 1944. How come the soldiers landing on Omaha Beach are shown with weapons enclosed in plastic bags?

A: Those weren’t plastic bags but bags made from a substance known as PLIOFILM. American soldiers at Normandy used such bags.

Q: What were the metal obstacles the American troops sheltered behind on Omaha Beach?

A: Those obstacles were part of the German defenses and were intended to rip out the bottom of Allied landing craft. Rommel and his staff assumed the Allies would attempt to land at high tide, reducing the amount of open beach the Allied troops would have to cover. If the Allies had landed at high tide, those metal obstacles would have been effective. However, Allied planners elected to land at low tide to expose the obstacles.

Q: Why did so many of the German soldiers at the battle of Ramelle have such short haircuts?

A: Because many of the extras in the film were active duty soldiers and had short haircuts.

Q: Who are the Sullivan brothers the army colonel at the War Department referred to?  He said something about after what happened to the Sullivan brothers, the army split the Ryan brothers up.

A: The Sullivan brothers were five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa who served aboard the light cruiser U.S.S. Juneau.  All five brothers were killed in action in the naval battles of Guadacanal.  After that incident the military took action to prevent brothers from serving in the same unit to prevent similar tragedies.

Q: What were the Rangers and paratroopers calling out in the village of Neuville?  It sounded like "Dunder."  Is this some sort of password or a French word?

A: The word was "Thunder," and it was a challenge word.  It was something the GIs would call out to persons unknown.  The correct response was "Flash."  Challenge and reply passwords were particularly valuable in poor visibility situations.  Thunder and Flash were the words actually used during the Normandy invasion.

Q: What were those tanks the Germans had at Ramelle? Were they realistic?

A: Two Tiger tanks and two Marder tanks. The Marders were actually open-turret tank destroyers, and yes, the tanks were about as realistic as is possible for a film made 50 years after the end of World War II. When Jackson signaled from the bell tower, he referred to the Marders as Panzers, which was probably generic shorthand for an unknown type of enemy armor.

Q: Did Americans really shoot prisoners?

A: Unfortunately, yes, on occasion. This happened on all sides and isn’t all that unusual for soldiers that have been in deadly combat and have seen their best friends killed. Miller’s squad would have been especially enraged at Steamboat Willie because their medic had been shot. Medics were classified as non-combatants and were not supposed to be fired upon.

Q: The standoff in Neuville between the American and German soldiers seems farfetched.

A: Truth is stranger than fiction. The history of D-Day is replete with stories that seem even more farfetched than the Neuville standoff but they actually happened.

Q: How accurate is the opening scene at Omaha Beach?

A: In the words of most veterans who have seen it, too bloody accurate. For instance, what happened in the film when the ramp goes down on that first landing craft is almost exactly what happened to Company A, 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. Ninety percent of its soldier were killed in the first minute of the landing.

Q: Why were the German tank commanders wearing black uniforms? Was that a Hollywood device having the bad guys wear black?

A: Nothing of the sort. German tank crews wore black uniforms. The film was meticulously accurate as to uniforms, weapons, tactics, and jargon.

Q: When Miller’s squad finally found their man, Ryan introduced himself as “Ryan, first of the 506th.” His buddy said “Third of the 506th.” What does this mean?

A: It’s typical of the way GIs introduce themselves, even to this day. It’ s their address, if you will. First of the 506th meant he was from the First Battalion of the 506th Regiment. Third of the 506th meant Third Battalion.

Q: Why weren’t the German defenses at Omaha Beach knocked out by airpower and the naval bombardment?

A: Because of concern about hitting Allied troops, Allied bombers were ordered to delay their drop point a couple of seconds inland. Consequently all their bombs fell well behind the German defenses. The naval bombardment was curtailed in attempt to preserve the element of surprise. However, a key element to the U.S. troops getting off the beach at Omaha were the U.S. Navy destroyers that closed on the shore until there were literally only a couple of inches of water beneath their keel. At point blank range they dueled with the German gun emplacements and cleared exits from the beach.

Q: Why was the water so deep when the troops got off the landing craft?

A: The coxswains unloading their troops too far out caused some of this. In many cases, however, there were deep pools of water caused by exploding naval shells that had fallen short. These deep holes couldn’t be seen from the landing craft and so troops who thought they were unloading into shallow water stepped off into water that was 30-feet deep in some cases.

Q: Did it only take 30 minutes to get off the beach at Omaha?

A: No, it took more than half a day and cost thousands of casualties, even more than depicted in the film. But nobody would want to sit through four or five hours of carnage waiting for Captain Miller and his men to get off the beach.

Q: How accurate is the geography of the film?

A: Well, Normandy really does exist, as did Omaha Beach. Neuville also is a real village. The Merderet River is real. Other towns mentioned in the film, Caen, Vierville, St. Lo, Volognes, and Cherbourg are also real. But Ramelle is fictitious.

Q: Were the Allied paratroopers really scattered all over the place?

A: Yes. Of the six regiments of American paratroopers launched into Normandy, only two got their men to the right drop zones. Ironically, one of those regiments was the 506th, which in the film was Private Ryan’s regiment.

Q: At Omaha Beach, Captain Miller says no DD Tanks are getting ashore. What are DD tanks?

A: They were M-4 Sherman tanks designed to float in to the beach. The DD means duplex drive, meaning they had a drive mechanism to propel them through the water as well as on land. The tanks were also equipped with an inflatable skirt to provide buoyancy. These floating tanks had a very low freeboard, however, and could swamp easily in rough seas. That's exactly what happened at D-Day. Most of the DD Shermans went straight to the bottom when launched, drowning their crews. One battalion, on orders from Rear Admiral Kirk, rode their LCTs right to the beach and unloaded without any difficulty. Of the 29 launched 5000 meters offshore, only two made it to the beach.

Q: What was the meaning of Dog Green Sector at the beginning of the film? That sounds like a goofy name.

A: The Allies arbitrarily divided the beaches into sectors and assigned letters of the phonetic alphabet to them. In the alphabet of the time, A was Able, B was Baker, C was Charlie, D was Dog, E was Easy, and so on. Omaha sectors were Able through George while Utah Beach had Peter through William. Each sector was further subdivided into three colors, Green, White, and Red (West to East). Not all the sectors would be used. Omaha, for instance, was only going to use Charlie through Fox. Easy Sector on Omaha was only divided into Red and Green. The 29th Infantry Division, 5th Rangers and Charlie Company, 2nd Rangers were to land on Dog Green. The 1st Infantry Division landed at Easy Red and Green.

Q: What was the significance of the horizontal and vertical white stripes on the back of some of the Americans’ helmets?

A: Officers had a vertical white stripe. Non-commissioned officers (such as Sergeant Horvath and Corporal Upham) had a white horizontal stripe on the back of the helmet. It was to identify the leadership to the men following.

Q: What are the Rangers?  Are they Marines?

A: The Rangers are elite infantry of the U.S. Army.  The U.S. Marines did not fight in Europe during World War II.  The Rangers were hand-picked volunteers from other U.S. infantry divisions and were modeled upon the British commandos.  Their motto, "Rangers Lead the Way" was earned on Omaha Beach.  The name Rangers was taken from Rodger's Rangers, the special American scouting force that served the British Army during the French-and-Indians War.  Their job was to "range" ahead of the main army and locate the enemy.  Kenneth Roberts' book "Northwest Passage" was about the Rodger's Rangers.

Q: The soldiers in the film didn't use much profanity.  That couldn't have been accurate, could it?

A: George Patton notwithstanding, one must realize that these soldiers were the products of a different generation.  Americans on average did not often resort to profanity nor generally tolerate those who did.  These "Citizen Soldiers" were from that society.  Many veterans interviewed about the film have stated that even in combat the use of profanity wasn't all that common and when it was used, it really got their attention.  Would "Saving Private Ryan" have been a more powerful film if the characters had been speaking like they were in a Quentin Tarantino film?  Doubtful.

Q: Sergeant Horvath hauling around souvenir dirt seems farfetched.  And the lids of his dirt containers look like they were labeled with a magic marker. They didn't have those back then, did they?

A: It's a movie, remember?  With that one simple little scene, the audience realizes that Sergeant Horvath is a long-time veteran.  We don't have to waste a whole bunch of dialog delving into his background.  We know he's seen a lot of combat.  If he'd really had such a souvenir collection, he wouldn't have lugged it ashore at Omaha Beach, but so what?  Just imagine the containers were smaller and he'd labeled the tops with blue paint. There's lots of paint available on ships.

Q: What are those balloons on the beach when Miller and his squad set off to find Private Ryan?

A: Those are barrage balloons, which were used to discourage low-flying enemy aircraft.  The balloons trailed steel cables, which would sheer off the wings of aircraft that encountered them.

Q: How come some of the American soldiers in the film wore puttees (what the British call gaiters) while others didn't?

A: With the exception of paratroopers, American infantrymen, including the Rangers, wore the puttees.  However, paratroopers, did not.  They bloused their trousers over the top of their jump boots.  It led to the distinction of non-Airborne soldiers being known as "straight-leg" or "leg" infantry. In the scene at the gliders when the airborne troops are filing past Miller's men, some of the troops are wearing puttees while others have their trousers bloused over their boots.  The ones with the puttees are glider troops.  Even though they were in an airborne division, glider infantrymen were not accorded the "privilege" of blousing their trousers.  In fact, the poor glider troops were not even given the jump pay that their parachuting comrades received, even though going to war in a flimsy glider was probably just as dangerous and more terrifying than dropping in via parachute.

Q: What are some of the possible errors in the film (as noted by Normandy veterans and keen-eyed observers of the movie)?

  1. 1. When were the Ryan brothers last together? When Mrs. Ryan gets the telegram there is a photograph on a table by her front door of four men together in uniform. At the War Department scene it is noted that all four brothers were in the same company in the 29th Infantry Division but then were split up. Yet in the village when Ryan is reminiscing about his brothers with Captain Miller, he tells a story the story of Alice Jardine and says that was the last night his brothers were together. Best solution: Ryan meant that was the last time they were together at home.
  2. The noisy patrol. When the squad first sets out to look for Private Ryan, they make a great deal of noise as Corporal Upham questions them. Rangers (or any experienced infantrymen) would never have been so careless because noise meant death. This scene was probably artistic license to help sketch the characters of the film.
  3. The missing bodies at the top of the stairs. Private Mellish and Corporal Henderson shoot two German soldiers outside the entrance to the room they’re in. Yet when we see Corporal Upham frozen on the stairs, the bodies have vanished.
  4. The Captain’s bars. Captain Miller had his rank painted on his helmet. Experienced combat officers (i.e. those who survived their first day of combat) obliterated all sign of rank from their person lest they attract the interest of enemy snipers. While many officers did have their rank prominently displayed on their helmet, these were generally rear echelon types who never got close to the sound of gunfire.
  5. The wrong combat patch. Soldiers who have been in combat are allowed to wear their unit patch on their right shoulder. During the scene at the War Department, Colonel I.W. Bryce, the one-armed colonel, has a combat patch of the 2nd Infantry Division. This isn't possible because the 2nd Infantry Division did not see any combat until June 7, 1944. An obscure error. Bryce could have lost his arm in the first World War, though he looked too young to be a WWI vet. In the book based upon the script he supposedly lost his arm in combat in Sicily. (Incidentally, one of the producers of the film is Ian Bryce. Neat way to sneak your name into the show.)
  6. The reappearing arm. The same Colonel Bryce regrows his missing left arm in General Marshall's office. Watch closely as the camera pans from General Marshall to assembled officers. Apparently the army reissued Colonel Bryce his left arm. Some think it might just be a shadow that causes this illusion.
  7. Ghost in the squad. Just prior to the machine-gun nest attack, Miller’s squad is seen in a panoramic view with eight members. They started out with eight but Private Caparzo was killed at Neuville. The squad is haunted.
  8. In the film, Private Ryan’s drop zone is supposedly near Neuville. The town is also depicted as occupied by paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division. In reality Neuville was in the 82nd Airborne Division’s area, just north of the 505th Regiment’s drop zone. Private Ryan’s regiment was actually dropped 7-10 kilometers to the southeast in the vicinity of Vierville. A minor point only for the historically obsessed.
  9. Which company is Ryan really in? When Miller first sets out to look for Ryan, the missing private is supposed to be in Baker Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Yet at the glider landing zone where the squad finds the deafened soldier who knows Ryan, he’s moved into Charlie Company. But the soldier could have just gotten confused as to which company Ryan was in. That would have been an easy mistake to make. Both companies were in the same battalion.
  10. The P-51s that save the day at Ramelle don't have bomb racks.
  11. A very obscure mistake at the glider landing zone: the squad approaches a makeshift table to look through the dog tags. The table has nothing on it in the first shot but when they get to it, Pvt. Jackson kicks a K-ration box off it. Somehow the box jumped onto the table.
  12. For the really, really sharp eyed: the .30 caliber machine gun ammo is missing the primers.
  13. Wrong-way poles.  In the Omaha Beach scene some of the obstacles are pointed in the wrong direction.  We're referring to the large wooden obstacles, not the metal tetrahedrons that the U.S. troops sheltered behind.  These wooden obstacles consisted of a log roughly the size of a telephone pole with one end elevated and supported by two other logs.  The raised end was supposed to face the beach.  The idea was that an incoming landing craft would ride up the pole and detonate the Teller mine at the end of it.  Yet in the opening beach scene, the elevated end of these poles is facing the water. Later during the Omaha Beach sequence the poles have reversed direction and are facing the proper way.

Miscellaneous

Q: FUBAR?

A: An age-old military acronym—Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition (the PG version). Cousin to SNAFU—Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. Often used as a verb, as in ‘We really FUBARED that.”

Q: What was the name of the Edith Piaf song Upham was translating in the village?

A: "Tu Es Partous" (Phonetically: Two A Par Two, obviously a song about miniature golf)

Q: What was the song Melish sings?

A: "Solitude" by Duke Ellington et al. 

Q: Whom was the Czech Wehrmacht soldier referred to in the credits?

A: No figuring what Hollywood is thinking. After taking the bluffs above Omaha Beach two Wehrmacht soldiers attempting to surrender are shot by two Rangers. One of the Wehrmacht soldiers was speaking Czech. But according to another web site whose author has sources associated with the production, the Czech Wehrmacht soldier was the killer of Mellish, although that character was in the SS, never spoke Czech, and there were no other clues identifying him as Czech. All in all, it has no bearing on the film.