Saving Private Ryan D-Day 60th Anniversary: Bonus Disk Review

Is it too mean-hearted to use the phrase, 'too little, too late' in regards to this release? ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was an extraordinary film, combining solid, traditional storytelling techniques with breathtaking technical expertise to give audiences the most visceral and realistic war movie ever produced. But for the unnecessary bookends and a lapse into sentimentality near the end, I’d rate it as nearly equal to ‘Schindler’s List’ as Spielberg’s best ‘serious’ film. On the film’s initial release, much was made of the fanatical level of accuracy undertaken by the film-makers and the innovative new techniques employed to achieve it, from shooting bullets into dead cows in order to get sound effects to using the same outfitters for the extras’ costumes that had produced military uniforms for the actual soldiers in the 40s. DVDphiles rubbed their hands in anticipatory glee at the thought of the extras-stuffed multi-disk DVD releases to come.

And then… nothing. OK, not nothing but much less than we would have hoped. A great transfer for the original single disk release of the DVD but only a 25-minute HBO First Look special ‘Into the Breach’ (plus the usual filmographies and trailers bumph) as extras. A later, double-disk R2 included DTS and DD 5.1 mixes for the feature, but much the same special features plonked on the second, rather underused disk. And … that’s it. Then in May this year came the R1 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition of the film, a two-disk set with the second disk containing all-new special features, but no DTS track on the film (simultaneously, a more expensive R1 box set was released containing two disks of extra, WWII-related but not-about-the-movie material, ‘Price for Peace’, and ‘Shooting War’ and the movie with DTS!). Crikey! So! This month we finally get the R2 version of the CE (any later and it would have had to be the 61st Anniversary Edition) which includes all the bonus features from the R1 but with DTS on the film! NOTE: A check disk wasn't provided of the main feature so the content and technical details of this review are limited to the new features on the second, bonus disk of this release.

This Bonus Disk, written and produced by long-time Spielberg DVD associate Laurent Bouzereau, is divided into eight sections: an introduction to the film; looking into the past; Miller and his platoon; boot camp, making Saving Private Ryan; re-creating Omaha Beach; music and sound; and parting thoughts.

An introduction to the film does exactly what it says, albeit very briefly, featuring Steven Spielberg, who notes that his obsession with World War II dates back to the very first movies he made as a teenager. It intercuts footage of these early efforts with some of the scenes from SPR in a way that's actually quite surprising.

Looking into the past has Spielberg explaining the research he and his team did and how he and screenwriter Robert Rodat discovered the true story of Private Niland of the 101st Airborne, who parachuted into Normandy before the D-Day invasion and whose three brothers were killed during the span of a week; the War Department ordered his safe return.

Miller and his platoon looks at the casting of Hanks and, very briefly, the rest of actors and how they got into their roles. There's the usual soundbites, lengthy ones from Spielberg and Hanks, very brief from Damon, Diesel and the rest. This was a segment that was crying out even more than the others to be longer. For heaven’s sake, there was much more detail and depth given to the casting and characters of the marines in Aliens(in the Quardilogy set) than there is here, and that never claimed any relationship to historical fact.

Boot camp introduces us to Captain Dale Dye, Senior Military Adviser on the film, who explains his theory that actors must be immersed into the brutal reality of the life of the ordinary grunt; PT, weapons training, combat techniques, tactics and so on. All the actors in Miller's platoon went through it. "You're up at 5.00am and you're carrying something very heavy on your back all day and you just want to go to sleep," summarises Hanks. They had a total of 10 days training, of which 6 was spent in the field in what Dye refers to as 'typical British weather', eating, twice a day, 'British rations'. "I'd beat on them, make them crawl and sleep in the mud and the cold and the dirt," he says casually.

Making Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg explains that other film commitments ('Amistand', 'The Lost World') prevented him from doing the amount of prepping that he'd normally do. As a result, he dived straight into the filming of 'Saving Private Ryan' in a comparatively ad-hoc fashion. Producer Ian Bryce explains how the team found a disused field by Hatfield Aerodrome North of London, built a model of a French village and then turned it into ruins to provide the site of the film's climax. Wardrobe is covered, 3,500 uniforms are made and aged. Spielberg praises cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and how the two of them developed the desaturated, grainy look of the film. Panavision provided special lenses stripped of the protective coating inside, that prevents light from bouncing around; as a result the image becomes softer, more diffuse and prone to flares. Spielberg name checks the WWII-era work of John Ford and George Stevens as major influences on his overall approach.

Recreating Omaha Beach looks at the recreation of the awful slaughterhouse that took place on that section of the French coast on June 6, 1944. Tom Sanders, Production Designer, outlines his struggle for authenticity. The lengthy scene was shot in Ireland and used members of the Irish Defense Reserve as extras, many of whom tried to intimate to Speilberg that they had previous acting experience and deserved a close-up. Legendary British special effects supervisor Neil Corbould - just one of the whole Corbould family, who regularly blow things up in movies - appears to describe the weeks of explosive testing. The many different effects and stunts employed during the sequence - explosions, flames, debris - are gone through.

My own favourite item, Music and Sound is last. John Williams was 12 on D-Day and recounts following the advance of the allied forces through newspapers and the wireless. There's footage of him recording the score in Boston, with Hanks and Spielberg looking on. SPR is unusual for a Spielberg film in its comparatively minimal use of music, something uber-sound designer Gary Rydstrom says he's grateful for. SPR's sound effects are justly considered some of the best ever achieved in a modern film. Rydstrom describes the huge amount of research he undertook, including interviewing war veterans. They gave him invaluable insights, for instance, the fact that during the war, German troops became savvy to the fact that the M1 rifle the Americans used would make a distinctive 'ping' noise as it ejected its empty cartridge. Accordingly, American troops would try to produce the sound artificially to draw German troops out and then attack them. Fun film fact: the effects used for the sound of bullets zipping underwater were taken from his recordings of fly fishing done for 'A River Runs Through It'.

Parting Thoughts comes from Hanks, who recounts a personal story of his friendship with a WWII vet, and Spielberg. "We know that war is hell," the director says, explaining why he feels differently about SPR than 'Schindler's List', "The other story is 'How do you find decency inside the hell of warfare'? "

The bonus material on this disk is full-frame with excerpts from the film presented in the original aspect ratio. Since many of the documentary sequences use very old footage, there's great variation in the quality of the image, but it's worth noting that even the EPK stuff shows slight signs of damage here and there - dirt, scratches etc. Generally though it does the job.

Again, outside of the film excerpts, the sound is adequate and conveys the dialogue clearly and without distortion.

The DTS-inclusive two-disk R2 release of SPR had the 25-minute HBO First Look special ‘Into the Breach’, two trailers and a selection of cast and crew text-only filmographies. It would have been nice to have this material included on this new bonus disk, but given the DTS on the main feature and the extras, this new R2 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition seems to be the best available version of the film for fans IF you don’t want to shell out for the ‘WWII Collection’ box set. However, given the amount of acclaim the original film has accrued – and the fact that it and its TV sibling, ‘Band of Brothers’ are actually used in some schools as a teaching aid – it’s hard not to feel that a great opportunity has been missed here. Why isn’t there more in-depth stuff on the incredible sound effects? More about how the actors spoke to real vets to research their characters? The other problem is that almost all this stuff looks like it’s come from EPKs that would have been recorded at the time the film was made, so why wait five years to release it? Sorry, it’s not that great. I honestly think I learned more from the lengthy Time magazine article about SPR’s filming that came out around the time of the film’s release in the UK than I did from this bonus disk (not, I hasten to add, that I often read Time). In a world where comparatively simple films such as 'Panic Room' get three-disk megasets, the material here doesn't nearly do justice to the content it's supposed to explain, explore and complement.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:06:25

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