ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, a new film takes a hard look at war. Phil Ponce has the story.
TOM HANKS: Some Private in the 101st lost three brothers, and he's got a ticket home.
ACTOR: It's not going to be easy to find one particular soldier in the middle of this whole damn-
PHIL PONCE: "Saving Private Ryan is about the search for an American soldier after the allied invasion of Normandy. The first half hour of the movie takes place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as troops land on Omaha Beach. Critics have said that "Saving Private Ryan" may be the most realistic portrayal ever of war on the silver screen. While war has long been the subject of feature films, many directors have glamorized battle scenes and spared viewers the horrors of war. But Steven Spielberg, who directed "Saving Private Ryan," had a different goal.
STEVEN SPIELBERG: I didn't want to shoot the picture in a way that would seem like a Hollywood production coming to Omaha Beach and making a gung-ho extravaganza. This is really trying to approximate the look and the smells of what battle and combat is really like.
PHIL PONCE: Spielberg's efforts to make the movie realistic led him to hire a military adviser to put the actors through 10 days of boot camp before the filming began.
TOM HANKS: We hiked all over the place, and it was raining and it was cold and it was wet and we slept on the ground and we ate food that came out of cans and were heated up over, you know, little tiny stoves. We had him constantly yelling at us because we were doing things wrong and learned various combat techniques.
CAPT. DAN DYE: I immerse those actors in that lifestyle. I take 'em into the field. I make them eat rations. I shoot at them with blank ammunition. I beat them up. I beat on them. I make them crawl, sleep in the mud, in the cold, and the dirt, and when they come out the other end, I've done my job successfully, they have at least an inkling of what it's like, the depravations, the hardships, that people sacrifice to serve their country in the military.
PHIL PONCE: Many veterans have been struck by the opening sequence, which shows the action from the point of view of a soldier landing on the beach. Some have turned to the Internet to talk about the movie. America Online has had 14,000 postings in chat rooms. At one point messages were coming in at the rate of 25 per minute, more than any time in AOL's history, save the death of Princess Diana. A yet-to-be-constructed D-Day museum in New Orleans has been swamped with calls from veterans who want to donate everything from old combat boots to the flag from the USS Augusta.
Because the movie has evoked vivid memories of the real war, the Veterans Administration has set up a hotline for veterans. So far, 172 veterans have called in. The movie has caught on with the general public too. It's been No. 1 at the box office since it opened 10 days ago and already has taken in $73 million.
PHIL PONCE: Joining us now, historian Stephen Ambrose, who served as consultant to director Steven Spielberg. Among his many books are D-Day and Citizen Soldiers. He's also founder of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. Paul Fussell, who's written several books on war, including Doing Battle, a memoir of his own service in World War II. He's a retired literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And Judge John Harrison, an Army veteran who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. He later served as a justice of the Montana Supreme Court for 34 years. Gentlemen, welcome. Judge Harrison, what was your reaction to the movie?
JUDGE JOHN HARRISON, D-Day Veteran: A very emotional experience for me. I couldn't believe I could be moved that much. That-particularly the scene of the official car going up to the farm house in Iowa left me in tears. And that's tough to do.
PHIL PONCE: And what do you think the movie-what were you tapping into when you had that reaction?
JUDGE JOHN HARRISON: I just really lost it all for a short time there when that mother got the bad news-not one but three-three sons. It was a terrible experience.
PHIL PONCE: As one who was at D-Day on Utah Beach, in your case, was the film's depiction of what it was like, was it accurate, to your mind?
JUDGE JOHN HARRISON: I was off the beach and, of course, the Utah Beach was a much easier beach as far as losses are concerned than Omaha. Omaha, from what I gathered, was a slaughterhouse, and it was beautifully or tragically shown in this picture.
PHIL PONCE: Judge, do you think the movie caught the character of what that experience was like for people at D-Day?
JUDGE JOHN HARRISON: I'm sure it did. It couldn't be more real.
PHIL PONCE: Paul Fussell, what was your reaction to the movie?
PAUL FUSSELL, Author/Veteran: I would share the judge's opinion entirely. It was a very real experience.
PHIL PONCE: And what particularly struck you as being real?
PAUL FUSSELL: Well, as I've told people, in war films you don't often seen arterial blood pumping out. In this film you do. And it may have turned your stomach or scared you to death, but that's the way it is. There was only thing that was not authentic, and that is the captain, the captain hero-main actors-wearing his captain's bars painted on his helmet. Actually we covered up all signs of our rank with mud or with nets or with-on our collars with shawls because we knew the Germans would aim at officers first.
PHIL PONCE: Paul Fussell, have you had a chance to talk to other veterans engage their reaction to the movie?
PAUL FUSSELL: Not many, but I think their reaction would be mine. General approval-I would say-is an A minus. Let me give it an academic grade. Some of the dialogue struck me as false. In the war you don't go wandering around the country talking in a loud voice and arguing with your friends because you never know where the enemy's concealed. You whisper or you don't talk at all, but except a few things like that, and the captain's bars painted on his helmet, I would accept it as a highly authentic rendering of what the war was like.
PHIL PONCE: Stephen Ambrose, you were involved in making it a highly authentic rendering. What were the things that-what kind of advice did you give to the film makers?
STEPHEN AMBROSE, Historian: I didn't give him any advice. He doesn't need my advice. He read my books and picked up scenes and incidents that I picked up from veterans in 25 years of interviewing him.
PHIL PONCE: What-how difficult-would you say-or what this makes film different from other war movies? You've seen others.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: You watch "The Longest Day" by Darryl Zhanek. It's the same beach Robert Mitchum and Henry Fonda are taking it instead of Tom Hanks, and they've got-as Russell Baker wrote yesterday in the Times-this manly set to their jaws, and they're so calm, and they're so competent, and nobody's scared, and they're going about their business. And it wasn't anything at all like that. Zhanek's movie is just kindergarten stuff. In Zhanek's movie, for example, there's no battle noise, so that whenever John Wayne or the other actors that he's paying all those big bucks to, and something to say, then he makes sure the audience hears you.
Well, in this movie you're leaning forward to hear what Hanks has got to say and you lose about half of it. In Wayne's movie, as Paul Fussell just said, I should say in Zhanek's movie. When an American gets hit-it's either just a little flesh wound-I'm all right, Sarge-or he gets it between the eyes or in the heart, and he's dead, and the Sarge with the captain can write home to the grieving parents that he never knew what him. He didn't suffer. You suffer in the Spielberg film. You see what the bullets do the human body. He makes you look at it.
PHIL PONCE: Stephen Ambrose, in the clip that we just showed, we didn't show some of the more graphic things, but what-I was struck in watching the movie that there is this sense of just the terrifying randomness of death. Is this-
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you go up to that cemetery with D-Day veterans and watch them, just as in the open of this movie, and get in front of those crosses, and they are overwhelmed by why me, why me, how come he got killed at age 19, and I'm here? And, of course, there's no answer to that question, and that makes it even a worse question. Sure, of course, the randomness of it is-there's a scene-a guy gets shot in the helmet-he takes the helmet off to look at it, and he's saying to himself, boy, am I lucky, and he gets it right between the eyes. And that's the way it happens.
PHIL PONCE: Judge Harrison, it's been-it's been said, Judge, that World War II veterans particularly have been reluctant to discuss what happened in the war. Is that true, do you think, and why do you think that might be?
JUDGE JOHN HARRISON: I think the more combat you had, probably the less you would talk. I, fortunately, was a staff officer. The seventh headquarters-which planned the operation-at Utah Beach-so I didn't-I saw the blood and stink and smelled the stench of it, but 24 hours a day I didn't suffer from what a GI did. Fortunately, I was just old enough to be kicked out of a chance to command troops up into a staff position. And I'm pretty lucky.
PHIL PONCE: Judge, would you say that this movie might serve as a basis or as an inducement to World War II veterans, mainly to talk about their experiences a little more?
JUDGE JOHN HARRISON: I would hope so. I think people have got to realize what they really went through, not only Europe but also in the Pacific, which is not depicted very often in the movies.
PHIL PONCE: Paul Fussell, what about that, have-in your experience have combat veterans been reluctant to talk about their experiences?
PAUL FUSSELL: Yes. I think so. It depends on how much combat you've had. If you've had a very great deal, you want to chatter about it as little as possible, because it just brings it back to you, and that makes you feel awful. If you had a little bit of combat, you like to talk about it, because it does you no harm. But you can really tell people who have gone through hell; they don't like to discuss it; they don't like to chatter about it. It trivializes it. So I think he's quite right.
PHIL PONCE: And do you think this movie is going to have an impact on that?
PAUL FUSSELL: I don't know. I hope it'll have an impact on Americans' foreign policy. That would be welcome, but what it's going to have an impact on I can't tell.
PHIL PONCE: You've studied war and literature. I mean, you, yourself, have made contributions along those lines. How hard is it to depict in literature, whether it be film or in a novel, the experience of war?
PAUL FUSSELL: Well, it's very hard because the experience is both internal and external. Internal, you're scared to death all the time; you're on the line, or at risk. And external, you don't show it, especially if you're a young officer, as I was, because you show it, you lose respect for the people you're leading. You have to pretend to be absolutely cool and calm.
And that takes a lot of effort, but the problem with doing it in the movie is that movie can touch only outside of people, and, therefore, you can't tell what a person is thinking by photographing his outsides when he is trying to conceal what he is really thinking, what he is going through emotionally. I think the thing that can convey what a war is like for those who fight it best is memoir, people's memoirs, like E. B. Sledge writing about the Marines on the Okinawa-things like that-where he talks about ideas and the movie can't show ideas. It can show people having ideas. But a lot of the experience is internal. That's what I'm getting at. Yes, go ahead.
PHIL PONCE: I was going to ask Mr. Ambrose, how about it? Is it tough to convey that internal experience that one goes through in war, Stephen Ambrose?
PAUL FUSSELL: It's very hard. Go ahead, Stephen.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Of course, Paul's right. Of course, it's very hard. It's virtually impossible. Now, what Spielberg can do and does do is put you there and if you look at what's going on, you can't get into their minds, and this is where literature can supply a gap, just as the movies can show us that war is a war in a way that nothing else can. I've been writing about war all my life. And I can't do what the opening 25 minutes of this movie do to you.
PHIL PONCE: And for people who haven't seen that opening 25 minutes, just briefly-briefly describe it, Stephen Ambrose.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Well, the ramp goes down for Company A, the 116th regiment of the 29th infantry division, and the second ranger's right beside him, and they're all wiped out. They're just hit with a wall of steel that just blows men away. And you're not ready for this because you had a calm scene that proceeds and you just jump out of your seat and people say what-you know, it couldn't have been that bad.
I'll tell you how bad it was-that company A of the 116th took 95 percent casualties in the first minute. They never got a shot off. They were most of them just wiped out right inside their Higgins boats, and he shows you this. A lot of guys drowned because the Coxswain dropped the ramps in too deep a water, because the Coxswains didn't want to go in any closer or they hit obstacles, and these guys come into water that's over their head, and a lot of them drowned. They were way overweight with equipment. And Spielberg goes underwater to show you these guys drowning, and I tell you, it's just terrifying to look at!
PHIL PONCE: Stephen Ambrose, is this going to change-will this be a turning point as far as how war is depicted in the future, do you think, on film?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Sure. Absolutely. Just as people have been saying-and I agree with it-that Spielberg couldn't have made this movie if there hadn't been a Vietnam War and then the genre of Vietnam War movies came along afterwards, and now this movie takes its position immediately as a classic, and classics become classics because they change everything that follows after it, and every war movie made from now on is going to be influenced by this.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, that's all the time we have. I thank you all very much.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Thank you.