On June 6, 1944, Allied forces launched Operation Overlord, parachuting into France and landing along five beaches of the Normandy coast to start the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe. The D-Day landings are still the largest amphibious assault in history, and no film has captured the monumental battle quite like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
The opening scene uses thousands of real extras — most of whom are Irish soldiers — and relies heavily on practical special effects. It’s shot mostly with unstable hand-held cameras creating a documentary-style feel that sets the gold standard for authentic war films. But what really sets the bar so high is the use of sound, a task given to sound designer Gary Rydstrom.
A 2004 mini-documentary revealed how Spielberg didn’t want the movie to sound “Hollywood,” meaning he didn’t want the sound department to rely on lots of prerecorded sound effects. Instead Rydstrom and the sound department recorded and cut each sound effect individually, then spliced them together for the final cut.
The infamous Omaha Beach scene runs over 20 minutes and is completely void of music. After a tense ride to the beach in a claustrophobic Higgins boat, the ramp drops, and the audience is hit with the first sounds of combat.
Unlike other war movies, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t fill the atmosphere solely with noises of guns firing. Instead, the first boatload of soldiers to hit the beach are chewed up by a German machine gun to the sounds of bullets smacking flesh and the whiz of near-misses. The gun noises are an afterthought. The revolutionary approach to capturing the sounds of combat make it immediately clear that Saving Private Ryan is a different kind of war movie.
As the chaos of D-Day unfolds on screen, the din swells into a cacophony. Rydstrom does this by creating different sound effects for bullets impacting sand, water, metal, and people. In order to re-create some of the noises typically found only in the middle of combat, his team had to get creative. To mimic the sound of bullets slicing through water, Rydstrom borrowed the sound of a fly-fishing line being yanked off the surface of a river: a sound he originally recorded for A River Runs Through It.
The 20 minutes of unrelenting noise is graciously broken up twice. First, as men stumble through the surf to get ashore, the camera bobs underneath the water, creating an eerie silence that’s immediately shattered when the camera reemerges. The second time occurs when Capt. John Miller — played by Tom Hanks — experiences a moment of shock. When he finally crawls out of the water onto Omaha Beach, his senses are momentarily overwhelmed, and his hearing is diminished.
To create the effect for the audience, Rydstrom recorded ocean sounds, then recorded the playback with a microphone placed at the end of a long tube. The result is a clever way of giving the audience a taste of what Miller is experiencing. The technique is so effective that the filmmakers use it a second time during the movie’s climactic battle.
The entire movie is a masterpiece, but it’s the opening scene that lives on as the movie’s biggest achievement. Without it, it’s likely that Saving Private Ryan wouldn’t have won five Oscars. Beginning with over 20 minutes of brutal combat and no accompanying score is an exhausting start to the nearly three-hour movie. It’s not until Capt. Miller takes the second swig of his canteen that the audience realizes they’ve been holding their breath. It takes several rewatches to truly appreciate the scene’s accomplishment; in particular, its achievement in sound.
If you don’t have time to rewatch the entire movie, at least trade 20 minutes of phone-scrolling to experience the complex sounds of Spielberg and Rydstrom’s D-Day re-creation. To get the full effect, use a pair of quality headphones and turn the volume up to an uncomfortable level.