Staring Tom Hanks, Mat Damon (and the SBG)
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During the month of August 1997 the SBG were called upon to take part in the making of the Steven Spielberg epic "Saving Private Ryan". Steven Spielberg has been quoted as saying "This is the war movie to end war movies". Although I personally did not take an active part in the filming I was there with my SBG members and watching the movie being made I can quite believe that this will be one awesome movie (although I don't think anything will ever beat the "Cross of Iron"). The SBG was hired along with its Half track to form up with the motorized column although many members actually took part in many infantry battle scenes as well.
The movie stars Tom Hanks, Mat Damon, Tom Sizemore and Adam Goldberg. I had the hard task of picking 10 members to crew the SBG Half track for the filming. As it happened a lot of the membership was unable to get time of off work but I decided to pick people who had not been on the previous two Tiger II photo shoots in Belgium and Shrivingham so that everyone got a chance of doing something different throughout the year.
The story is true and about four brothers (the Ryans) who go to war but three get killed in the early stages. Anyway, the US president, under pressure from the Ryans parents, decides to send into France an officer (Tom Hanks) to save and bring out the remaining Ryan son. I know how the film ends but I'm not giving anything away right now. The special effects are awesome and gruesome. The combat scenes start on the Normandy beaches and were actually shot in Ireland where Irish SBG member Justin Horgan (Gren. Hohne) got a part as Wehrmacht Grenadier in a motorcycle combo. The vehicles used throughout this movie are almost exclusively original W.W.II pieces and many are owned by SBG or associated members. Notably in use are Kettenkrads, ZŁndapp combos, a Demag personnel carrier, two Styers, an Opel Blitz, two converted Tatras (one belonging to the SBG), two Marders, two T-34s converted into Tiger Is and various other vehicles. The flak gun used in the film to shoot at the GIs on the Tiger tank is quite often used by the SBG at our public shows only this time it was fitted with a "Live" barrel . Another original single barrel flak gun is used as a static prop in the film and that is owned by the SBG.
The film cost is estimated at £65 million and the set (rumoured at £3 million) was constructed on a disused airfield in Hatfield Herts. where the buildings and offices were used for the control centre of the movie. The hangers etc. being used to house the massive collections of uniforms, kit, equipment, weapons, props and vehicles. The village was massive but being a "Spielberg" movie this was just a little bit more than a few false building fronts. This village was so real it's indescribable. Enter a door and you walk into a fully decorated hallway with grandfather clock, hat stand and umbrellas etc. School rooms had period desks and black boards etc. Bars had wine bottles and glasses. Everything was correct down to "period" pages from books fluttering around the film set and buried in the rubble. Nothing was overlooked.
Upon arrival the SBG were kited out like a real enlistment into the army (resembling something like a scene from "Full Metal Jacket"). All present were led from room to room where we were issued with either excellent reproduction Burred Edge or Oakleaf Zeltbahns and or Smocks along with shirt, field grey tunics and trousers (with the insignia of Das Reich). Next up was boots, gaiters and socks. Then into the next building for equipment such as Y straps, water bottles, bread bags etc. The uniforms and equipment was of the highest possible standards and really will make this film something to remember. Finally it was into the "Dreaded" make up room where all members of the SBG (except myself ) were treated to a free haircut...a Nr.1 crop ALL OVER!!!. It was here that I started to have my first misgivings about the film content. Authenticity seemed to have been pushed aside to make way for the first of many hidden political messages. By having No.1 crops all the Germans on the film set were made to look like modern day "neo nazis". Once the helmets were off the actors no longer looked liked German soldiers (who would have had long hair combed back on top) and it unbelievable that this was happening after looking at all the real authentic items around and on the film set. Another annoying factor were German soldiers wearing soft caps during combat ?. Again, something that virtually never happened.
The food on the film set was absolutely awesome. Not only was it free but you could eat as much as you liked. Full breakfasts followed by free tea, coffee, fruit juices and mineral water all day long including a vast variety of cakes. Lunch/Dinner resembled a medieval feast with just about every type of food you could dream of and on many occasions Steven Spielberg , Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore and Mat Damon themselves (along with the other actors) sat on the tables adjacent to ours.
The scenes that the SBG are in start as the Germans enter the village and a convoy of vehicles pass along the top road. The engineers had done a superb job converting two T-34s into Tiger Is. With the exception of the front drive wheels these Tigers looked 100%. Also two Marder SPGs had been built on 38t chassis and there was also a converted Tatra OT 18 similar to ours. The first scene that the SBG appeared in was when a convoy of German vehicles passes along the top of the town. A Marder then our Half track drives along the top of the main road with the SBG keeping their heads down (but making sure the camera can see us). Then a Tiger I and second Self propelled gun that were behind us break away from the convoy and drive down the main road (I know...as if. But this IS Hollywood) followed by a lot of troops on foot. As soon as the SBG's Half track was out of camera shot our members leapt out and joined the troops moving down behind the Tiger and SBG members can be seen on the finished film when the explosions go off either side of the road. Next comes this big fight as the Yanks destroy the tanks. The Tiger is disabled by a sticky bomb on the wheels/tracks. Next two Yanks throw Molotov cocktails out of a top window and blow up a Marder. This scene is VERY impressive with three stunt guys running around on fire and the Marder going up in flames. The Yanks then retreat to a room upstairs in a house. From their window/hole in the wall you see our Half track passing through the back of the town and pulling away from the church (again, with us in the back). As this happens dozens of Pz. Grenadiers (extras and SBG) charge into the attack firing fully auto MP 40s and MG 42s (all real weapons of course) with explosions going off everywhere. The "Real Thing" or what!. Finally the Half track enters the back of the town for the final battle. The Half track was also used for mounting two original MG 42s which were fired extensively throughout the filming.
The special effects are indescribable, from the blowing up of Panzers and guys on fire to whole building fronts crashing down and the whole side of the church being blown to pieces. In use on the set was a Kettenkrad and 20 mm flak gun firing at the Yanks who were climbing over one of the Tigers trying to blow it up. At one stage two Mustang aircraft (from Duxford) flew over the village strafing it, flying so low that you could almost touch the wing tips and making such a screaming noise even I could hear them (and I'm deaf!...........). Upon arrival myself and Gren. Oberg watched a scene in a nearby field where the sets Half track (full of SS Grenadiers) rounded a corner and then came under fire from an American mortar. One shell landed inside of the Half track and the occupants (stunt men) were catapulted high into the air doing somersaults. Those left alive jumped out of the vehicle...smouldering and as they stood up they were mown down, blood spurting everywhere, by a group of American GIs.
During our stay many members managed to speak to Steven Spielberg (who came across as a very normal guy and not some " big I am ") and Tom Hanks who was one of the nicest people that I've ever met. Very polite, funny, intelligent and very down to earth ( no pun intended on Apollo 13 Tom !).