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War Realism

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A Tiger Tank
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Saving Private Ryan has been critically noted for its realistic portrayal of World War II combat. In particular, the initial 24-minute sequence depicting the Omaha landings was voted the "best battle scene of all time" by Empire magazine and was ranked number one on TV Guide's list of the "50 Greatest Movie Moments".[12] The scene cost US$12 million and involved up to 1,500 extras, some of whom were members of the Irish Army Reserve. Local reenactment groups such as the Second Battle Group were cast as extras to play German soldiers.[13] In addition, twenty to thirty actual amputees were used to portray US soldiers maimed during the landing.[14] Spielberg did not storyboard the sequence, as he wanted spontaneous reactions and for "the action to inspire me as to where to put the camera".[15]

The landing craft used included twelve actual World War II examples.[16][17] The film-makers used underwater cameras to better depict soldiers being hit by bullets in the water. Forty barrels of fake blood were used to simulate the effect of blood in the seawater.[14] This degree of realism was more difficult to achieve when depicting World War II German armored vehicles, as few examples survive in operating condition. The Tiger tanks in the film were copies built on the chassis of old, but functional Soviet T-34 tanks.[18] The two vehicles described in the film as 'Panzers' were meant to portray Marder III self-propelled guns. One was created for the film using the chassis of a Czech-built Panzer 38(t) tank[19] similar to the construction of the original Marder III; the other was a cosmetically-modified Swedish SAV m/43 assault gun, which also used the 38(t) chassis.[20]

Inevitably, some artistic license was taken by the filmmakers for the sake of drama. One of the most notable is the depiction of the 2nd SS Division "Das Reich", as the adversary during the fictional Battle of Ramelle. The 2nd SS was not engaged in Normandy until July, and then at Caen against the British and Canadians, a hundred miles east.[21] Further, the Merderet River bridges were not an objective of the 101st Airborne Division but of the 82nd Airborne Division, part of Mission Boston.[22] Much has been said about various 'tactical errors' made by both the German and American forces in the film's climactic battle. Steven Spielberg responded, saying that in many scenes he opted to replace sound military tactics and strict historical accuracy for dramatic effect.[23]

To achieve a tone and quality that was not only true to the story, but reflected the period in which it is set, Spielberg once again collaborated with cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, saying, "Early on, we both knew that we did not want this to look like a Technicolor extravaganza about World War II, but more like color newsreel footage from the 1940s, which is very desaturated and low-tech." Kamiński had the protective coating stripped from the camera lenses, making them closer to those used in the 1940s. He explains that "without the protective coating, the light goes in and starts bouncing around, which makes it slightly more diffused and a bit softer without being out of focus." The cinematographer completed the overall effect by putting the negative through bleach bypass, a process that reduces brightness and color saturation. The shutter timing was set to 90 or 45 degrees for many of the battle sequences, as opposed to the standard of 180 degree timing. Kamiński clarifies, "In this way, we attained a certain staccato in the actors' movements and a certain crispness in the explosions, which makes them slightly more realistic."[24]

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