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
Is the German soldier captured at the Radar Site
and then released by Captain Miller the same one who
stabbed Private Mellish to death?
No. The German POW, Steamboat Willie, did not kill
Mellish. Mellishs 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
Why did Miller have Wade accompany the squad on
the assault on the machine-gun nest?
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.
Is there a clue in the opening scene as to the
identity of the old man at the cemetery?
Yes. Hes wearing the division pin of the 101st
Airborne Division. Who is the featured character who
belongs to the Screaming Eagles? Private Ryan.
What does Captain Miller say to Ryan on the
James . . . earn this, and then Earn
it, obviously telling him to live a life worthy of
the lives sacrificed to rescue him.
What did Upham say when he captured the German
soldiers at the end of the film?
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!"
What did Mellishs killer say to him?
"Give in . . . you have no other choice . . . make
it easier for both of us . . . . shhhhhh."
What did Fish (Mellish) say to Caparzo when he
handed him the Hitler Youth knife?
"Now it's a Shabbat challah cutter." (bread
What was Caparzo trying to give to Fish after
hed been shot?
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
Why didnt Mellish keep all the ammunition
with him instead of leaving it with Upham?
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 isnt all that light. The last thing
Mellish and Henderson wanted to be burdened with while
theyre bugging out is extra ammunition. It made
sense to keep it at a rearward location and have Upham
distribute it as needed.
What was causing Captain Miller's hand to shake?
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.
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
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.
Did Upham really shoot Steamboat Willie? His body
doesn't appear visible when Upham tells the other Germans
to bug out.
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
Where is Pvt Jackson supposed to be from?
How old is Captain Miller?
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.
Would Captain Miller have won the Medal of Honor
for his actions?
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
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?
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
Why didn't the Tiger tanks use their bow machine
gun? They could have easily wiped out many of the
Americans with it.
Excellent question and one we've wondered about
also. We've come up with three possible solutions:
- The tanks were out of machine gun ammo.
- The machine guns were not operable.
- The machine gun ammo came from Oskar Schindler's
factory in Czechoslovakia.
Where was the movie filmed?
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
Where were the opening and closing scenes filmed?
At the U.S. Military Cemetery at Ste. Laurent-sur-Mer,
France, which is on the bluffs above Omaha Beach.
Is the film based upon a true story?
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.
Why were no Allied soldiers portrayed in the
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
Why were no black soldiers depicted in the film?
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.
What is the meaning of that Blue and Gray
yin-and-yang symbol worn by Corporal Upham?
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.
How accurate are the weapons and uniforms in the
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
Plastic bags didnt exist in 1944. How come
the soldiers landing on Omaha Beach are shown with
weapons enclosed in plastic bags?
Those werent plastic bags but bags made from a
substance known as PLIOFILM. American soldiers at
Normandy used such bags.
What were the metal obstacles the American troops
sheltered behind on Omaha Beach?
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.
Why did so many of the German soldiers at the
battle of Ramelle have such short haircuts?
Because many of the extras in the film were active duty
soldiers and had short haircuts.
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.
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
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?
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.
What were those tanks the Germans had at Ramelle?
Were they realistic?
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.
Did Americans really shoot prisoners?
Unfortunately, yes, on occasion. This happened on all
sides and isnt all that unusual for soldiers that
have been in deadly combat and have seen their best
friends killed. Millers 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.
The standoff in Neuville between the American and
German soldiers seems farfetched.
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.
How accurate is the opening scene at Omaha Beach?
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.
Why were the German tank commanders wearing black
uniforms? Was that a Hollywood device having the bad guys
Nothing of the sort. German tank crews wore black
uniforms. The film was meticulously accurate as to
uniforms, weapons, tactics, and jargon.
When Millers 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?
Its 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
Why werent the German defenses at Omaha
Beach knocked out by airpower and the naval bombardment?
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.
Why was the water so deep when the troops got off
the landing craft?
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 couldnt 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.
Did it only take 30 minutes to get off the beach
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
How accurate is the geography of the film?
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.
Were the Allied paratroopers really scattered all
over the place?
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 Ryans
At Omaha Beach, Captain Miller says no DD Tanks
are getting ashore. What are DD tanks?
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.
What was the meaning of Dog Green Sector at the
beginning of the film? That sounds like a goofy name.
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.
What was the significance of the horizontal and
vertical white stripes on the back of some of the
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.
What are the Rangers? Are they Marines?
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.
The soldiers in the film didn't use much
profanity. That couldn't have been accurate, could
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.
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?
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
What are those balloons on the beach when Miller
and his squad set off to find Private Ryan?
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.
How come some of the American soldiers in the film wore
puttees (what the British call gaiters) while others
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
What are some of the possible errors in the film
(as noted by Normandy veterans and keen-eyed observers of
- 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
- 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.
- The missing bodies at the top of the stairs.
Private Mellish and Corporal Henderson shoot two
German soldiers outside the entrance to the room
theyre in. Yet when we see Corporal Upham
frozen on the stairs, the bodies have vanished.
- The Captains 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- Ghost in the squad. Just prior to the machine-gun
nest attack, Millers 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.
- In the film, Private Ryans 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 Divisions area, just
north of the 505th Regiments drop zone.
Private Ryans regiment was actually dropped
7-10 kilometers to the southeast in the vicinity
of Vierville. A minor point only for the
- 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, hes 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.
- The P-51s that save the day at Ramelle don't have
- 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.
- For the really, really sharp eyed: the .30
caliber machine gun ammo is missing the primers.
- 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.
An age-old military acronymFouled Up Beyond All
Recognition (the PG version). Cousin to
SNAFUSituation Normal, All Fouled Up. Often used as
a verb, as in We really FUBARED that.
What was the name of the Edith Piaf song Upham
was translating in the village?
"Tu Es Partous" (Phonetically: Two A Par Two,
obviously a song about miniature golf)
What was the song Melish sings?
"Solitude" by Duke Ellington et al.
Whom was the Czech Wehrmacht soldier referred to
in the credits?
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.