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Steven Spielberg's Road to War
With 'Saving Private Ryan,' a Firm Goodbye to Innocence

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 1998


    Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberg goes to war again with "Saving Private Ryan." (Associated Press)
Two middle-aged guys talking movies. Could be in a bar, at a ballgame, in line at MVA in Glen Burnie. It happens to be in a fancy hotel room.

"Isn't there a scene in that movie," asks one, "where the Japanese are crawling through American lines, calling out, 'Hey, Joe?' And some GI, he says, 'Over here.' But when the Japanese guy comes over, the American pulls the pin on a grenade, slips it over the top of the foxhole and blows him up. Then he says, 'Only my name ain't Joe.' "

"Yeah," says the other. "Cool scene."

"Yeah," says the first, who happens to be named Steven Spielberg, "cool scene. But that's exactly what I didn't want."

And that's exactly what he hasn't gotten.

Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is something else: It is the World War II movie shorn of cliche, banter and wisecrack. It's nothing but brutality, death and crushing nihilism, undercut by a grim if futile sense of duty. It is as far from what might be called "the typical World War II movie" as it is from "E.T." or "Jaws" or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or any of the other films that have made Spielberg the most famous moviemaker in the world.

For so long, the name Spielberg stood for certain values, beloved by many, despised by a few: a boyish innocence, a sense of wonder, the magic of possibility, thrills that were intense but uniquely movie thills. He was the prime magician of the New Movie, as invented by the baby boom generation when it took over the business in the late '70s, taking the old forms and giving them a hip spin so that they seemed dewy fresh again.

At the same time, detractors decried Spielberg's willful "cuteness," the sentimentality that underlay so much of his work. He was selling, it was said, a specially slick brand of inauthenticity, where despite a benign appearance, under the gossamer radiance of his copyrighted moonbeams, things were carefully controlled. His name was linked with Walt Disney's to evoke Twin Antichrists who spray-painted the world with fairy dust while looting its children's pockets and exploiting the hell out of ancillary markets. He was the Norman Rockwell of the late 20th century. (And, no surprise: He collects Norman Rockwell. "I think Norman Rockwell is a great artist," he says.)

Whatever they say about him, nobody will ever call him inauthentic again. It'll probably stop cold 2 minutes 13 seconds into "Saving Private Ryan," when the first GI runs screaming up the beach holding his arm in one hand while his stump squirts a red pulse of droplets into the cold morning air. Fairy dust? Not on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.

For Spielberg, the change began with "The Color Purple," transmogrified into something even more mature in the searing "Schindler's List," and backslid heroically in "Amistad." And now here it is in full bloom in "Saving Private Ryan": the voice of a man.

A biblical misquotation is offered: When I was a child I spake as a child; now I put aside childish things, and am a man and I speak as a man, his interrogator mumbles, or something like that.

"Yes," says Spielberg eagerly, "That's it. That's it more eloquently than I could ever put it. Now that I have seven kids [from two marriages], I feel the need to leave behind something for them to see and hear. I'm growing up and I have no control over it. My impulses are somewhere else now.

"Right now, I don't miss the other [more innocent] movies. But you have no idea how much heat I get from people who just want me to go on making 'E.T.' over and over again."

At the age of 51, and with the status that puts him somewhere between an icon and a god, the director is surprisingly engaging up close and personal. Maybe this is just part of the "Saving Private Ryan" campaign (which is intense), but at least on this pull-through, he's in his best JAG mode -- just another guy.

Just another guy, he's wearing a sport coat over a light V-neck sweater and T-shirt, a pair of black jeans and big fat loafers that look like Bass Weejuns on steroids. He's not frail and film-geeky at all, but a fairly thick, flat-stomached guy who looks in good shape for his age, as if he could shoot four or five rounds of trap (his hobby) without a sit-down. He's substantial, a certain high school type: not the jock, who sat at the table with the cool kids, but somehow outside of culture, respected by all, a little aloof from all. His hair is thinning, the beard graying, the eyes need glasses, but there's still that look of someone who eternally gets it, and seems not to be carrying himself around like God's own favorite gift to the fools known as mankind.

"Steven's really kind of a goof," says his friend Tom Hanks, who stars in "Private Ryan." "He talks too much about movies, and he's always bumping into things. But on a set, I've never seen someone so confidently in control. He can conceptualize on the fly, look at six monitors and know exactly what he wants from each of them, and his concentration is extraordinary."

Spielberg came to World War II the way so many of his generation did: on his belly. That is, lying on his belly in the TV room of his house in Phoenix, where he was raised, and watching the classic gung-ho epics of what in his youth was simply called "The War."

"Bataan," "Back to Bataan," "Objective Burma," "The Story of G.I. Joe," "Battleground," all of them.

"I sometimes feel as if I've seen every war movie ever made," he now says.

Of the hundreds he saw (many of which he saw again, in preparation for "Private Ryan") he names only four that stand out: "Battleground," "They Were Expendable," "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "A Walk in the Sun," three of which were directed by Lewis Milestone and one ("Expendable") by John Ford.

"I'm a child of the movies," he says. "To me, movies are reality. To me, movies told the truth about that war."

But at the same time, he knew no matter how good they could be, the Hollywood movies weren't where he was going. He was going somewhere else.

"When people see World War II movies, they expect to be entertained. If they see a Vietnam movie, they expect to be shocked. But World War II has become fun: They want a big action-adventure. But it wasn't an adventure.

"It was a war.

"I looked at a lot of Signal Corps documentary footage and a huge documentary series called 'World at War,' put together by British TV. There seems to still be an endless supply of footage, even though you're really never under fire. And that's what I wanted to get at: what it was like to be under fire. A lot of soldiers described to me in vivid ways what it's like when people are shooting at you. I knew if I filmed it, it should be like nothing I'd ever seen before."

His quest for authenticity went in unusual directions: He worked hard, for example, to find actors whose faces were more like the faces of the 1940s than the faces of the 1990s.

"Kids in 1940 looked different. You can see it in the pictures from the war. They were closer to their immigrant roots. I went for faces that were like the faces I'd seen in the documentaries, like Eddie Burns [who plays a Browning Automatic Rifleman in the film]. He had the quintessential '40s face. For some reason, there was a more manly bone structure in the faces of that time. Look at Cary Grant; you can't find faces like that anymore."

And in his re-creation of war, Spielberg has controversially put on film a record of the impact of high-velocity bullets and high-explosive shells on human flesh. "Saving Private Ryan," which was No. 1 at the box office over the weekend, is probably the goriest war film ever made.

"I wanted to show the war not from my, you know, 'rich and famous' point of view, but from the dogface's point of view. The vets I talked to all said the same thing: Tell what happened. Nobody has ever told what happened before.

"But I actually held back."

He recalls a scene where a group of American soldiers have clustered on a German tank turret. The Germans wheel a 20mm antiaircraft cannon into position, they open fire, and the impact of the heavy shells is so ferocious that it actually disintegrates the soldiers.

"In that scene, you saw more smoke than anything. All through the movie, I held back. I had my own line. Not a line of good taste, but a line between the barely tolerable and the intolerable. I wanted to be able to live with myself, and not betray the veterans of the war."

In another departure, Spielberg says he stayed away from professional stuntmen in the battle scenes, particularly those that capture the actual moment of death.

"I thought a lot about death. Stuntmen won't work because they always break their fall; you sense their muscles tightening, even involuntarily. We use dummies, because dummies fall completely. They just collapse into the earth. I wanted it crude and ugly and graceless. I didn't want to create a grotesque ballet."

He says he thought about the long and complex shoot -- the invasion sequence took a month on the Irish coast; the unit then moved to an abandoned English airfield for the remainder of the effort, where a war-ravaged French town was built -- by emotionally identifying the making of the movie with the waging of a war.

"A motion picture in production is very much like a military campaign. I feel that every time I make a movie, I go to war. I know it might seem inappropriate to make that comparison, but I'm looking for something, some touchstone, to find my way by. So in my mind, I settle on that metaphor. And that's why there's so much in the movie about the craft of combat, where to go, how to set up, what tactics should be used. Because that's what we talk about on the set, too, and that's how our minds work."

He recalls: "When it was over, I was exhilarated but I was also ashamed of my exhilaration. It should have made me morose and a heavy drinker. But it was like a shellshocked hysteria. That might not have been the politically correct way to feel, but that's how we felt."

Next for Spielberg is some R&R.

"No bullets, no gunpowder. Many geishas, lots of sushi and tea."

He'll be making a version of the Arthur Golden novel "Memoirs of a Geisha."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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