Twenty-five years ago, Steven Spielberg’s war epic Saving Private Ryan proved to be a summer movie with gravitas. One element was the exquisite opening sequence at Omaha Beach. “Don’t look down,” star Tom Hanks recalls a special effects expert warning of the blood squibs attached to so many fake soldier’s chests, as explosions reigned around nervous extras. If the opening scene, depicting the Allied assault on Omaha Beach in 1944, remains a go-to in Hanks’ repertoire of stories, it’s with good reason.
The 24-minute sequence captures war in a way that we hadn’t seen before, and hasn’t been matched since. It’s the nervous shakes that possess Hanks’ hands. The vomit. The desperate surprise of soldiers drowning in the shallows, dragged down by their gear. The indiscriminate German bullets landing with a ‘puft’ in American chests. The relentless machine gun fire and explosions. The arms blown off, the guts hanging out, all of it captured by a camera man running alongside the actors, instructed to pan to whatever part of the horror caught his attention.