David James

Captain John Miller stands helpless, paralyzed by the raging, barbaric spectacle that engulfs his senses. Man after man is savagely ripped to pieces before his eyes and the exploding thunder of one hundred thousand bullets tearing into metal, sand, and flesh is all but muffled by the shock and horror of the carnage. Miller squints, jerking his head from side to side, trying desperately to register with another human being on the beach, but all he sees is wave after wave of cannon fodder. “Captain!” someone yells, “Captain!” A soldier claws at Miller’s wet frame as pellets ricochet off the steel fortifications littering the landscape. “Captain!” Miller locks his eyes with the man, builds momentum, and rushes forward into the terrible storm of war. The date is June 6, 1944, D-Day, Normandy Beach.
In a temperature controlled multiplex in suburban America, a stunned audience sits helpless, gaping at one of the most realistic and graphic depictions of war ever brought to the cinema. They are confused, riveted, and utterly moved by the sights and sounds booming from the flat white screen. They picture their fathers, grandfathers and friends shipped halfway across the globe to engage in the last noble war, fought for generations of people so that another conflict of such magnitude would never be fought again. They see Captain John Miller not as Tom Hanks, Academy Award-winning actor, but as a frightened everyman, placed in unbelievable circumstances, charged with leading his troops towards unmatched danger. They project themselves into the epic struggle. The feeling does not leave them when the house lights go back on.
Such has been the profound effects of Saving Private Ryan on audiences around the country. To accurately depict the horror and bravery of D-Day, director Steven Spielberg mounted an enormous campaign on his own, enlisting thousands of extras, truckloads of equipment, and the brightest talent Hollywood had to offer. Among those who were integral to the production was still photographer David James, whose charge was not only to document behind-the-scenes footage of the filming, but also to serve as a literal war photographer, capturing the faces, emotions, and actions of the story. A veteran of over 150 movies himself including, including Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning Schindlers List and Jurassic Park: The Lost World, James found the experience of Saving Private Ryan the most rewarding and difficult to date. “We were all at war” he explains. “It was the most important movie I have done because it created a tangible piece of history. It was nothing like a movie at all.” The result of his work can be found in the recently released book Saving Private Ryan – The Men, The Mission, The Movie, published by Newmarket Press. The book contains the most gripping of James’ photographs as well as excerpts from the film’s screenplay and quotes from the principle actors and Spielberg himself. Steven Ambrose, the noted historian and consultant to the film, provides vivid descriptions of the fateful day, and first-hand accounts from soldiers of the movement accompany many of the photographs.
The relationship between Spielberg and James is a unique one, and James was in the enviable position to have free reign over the set both during and after takes. A deep element of trust exists between the two men: the director allowed James to interrupt the filming in a way that would both highlight the drama and satiate James’ deep devotion to coming as close as possible to what an actual photographer might have encountered during the war. To achieve this realism, James had to understand the dynamics of combat photography and physically put himself in the throws of the staged combat. Because of his heartfelt admiration for the men who served during World War II as correspondents, James found it easy to endure the same rigors as those who saw actual battle. “Even with the cuts and banged shins and soaked clothes, I found the experience incredibly exhilerating,” he explains.

James found inspiration in the work of Robert Capa, a renowned war photographer who landed with the third wave at Normandy. “I tried to put myself in his position,” James explains, “Capa always said that if your pictures aren’t good it means you were not close enough.” Capa shot under great duress, his camera shaking with each explosion that shattered the men around him. James tried to study other still photographs of war, but found that the majority of them were glossed-over studies of glory rather than realistic portrayals of the grim nature of battle. “Everything else I saw was bad, like a John Wayne epic. War is not a beautiful, glorious thing … war rips people into pieces.” Robert Capa died from stepping on a land mine during the Vietnam War and James is genuine in his reverence for the man and his work. “Capa really helped my work. I was fortunate to be, in a sense, him for a day.”

To historically mimic Capa’s work, James used a Leica M6 range finder lens and desaturated black and white film to achieve a grainy, ghostly look. Using a slow shutter speed, James moved with the action, running and climbing over obstacles and fallen soldiers to capture the kinetic energy of the staged battle. The element of danger was palatable, with explosions churning up earth and debris, and craters and rubble appearing with every great shutter of special effects bombs disturbing the beach. The strict codes of movie photography were dismissed during filming and James was able to get into the eye lines of the actors as they reacted to the events surrounding them. Unusual shots, such as those of the back of Tom Hank’s head, became telling images and one’s that were unique to the project. “To shoot the backside of the film’s star would be unheard of in a typical picture,” says James, “you would never see that in a John Wayne film about war.”

As a human tale of common bravery and patriotism, Saving Private Ryan could not have been photographed in the grandiose manner of earlier war films. With realism as the paramount concern for both Spielberg and James, the pair agreed on separating the shooting of the scenes from the work of capturing still photos of the set. In this way, James was able to interpret the filming as he saw fit with the full faith of Spielberg behind him. Recalls James, “Steven only wanted to see the shots I showed him. He did not want a selection of pictures.” James did not want to be influenced by the shooting schedule and did not attend the “dailies” (sessions where the day’s filming is scrutinized for the director’s approval). Instead, James concentrated his efforts on the experiences of the actors and, by extension, the lives of soldiers past who lived through the war and felt the hardships of military life. For professional performers such as Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, and Tom Sizemore, among others, the grueling nature of the film was a challenge to both their body and spirits. Shedding light on that challenge was part of James’ work.

“They (the actors) were amazing. They put everything they had into the production,” remembers James. Captain Dale Dye (ret) of the United States Marines served as the military consultant to the film, aiding Spielberg in orchestrating the combat footage and most importantly, readying the actors so that their portrayal of soldiers would be accurate and believable. James shot the principles in “boot camp,” a demanding 10 day initiation to military life that included weapon drills, combat maneuvers, and team-building. James documented the actors’ transformation from Hollywood stars to a band of tight-knit brothers-in-arms. Shots of the men marching in formation, with Hanks at the head, reflects the leadership role he assumes to make his character believable. James recalls, “Tom sank himself into his role 100%. When some of the others wanted to quit, Tom played the Captain and set the example.”
Tom Hanks was of particular interest for James, as is evidenced by the numerous close ups and visual ruminations of the character included in the book. Beyond being the principle character of the film, Hanks also represented the quiet heroism of the war. In keeping with James’ desire to capture the humanity within the chaos of the battle, Hanks is often photographed with a pensive look on his face instead of the fierce scowl of a plastic action figure. Nearly every shot shows men who are scared, tired, and longing for a piece of home. As they search for the elusive Private Ryan – who according to the script, has lost three brothers in the war and is slated for discharge to take care of his grieving mother – each man contemplates the rationale for risking the lives of many to save one. The photographs illustrate this predicament beautifully, showcasing the best of the film in a way that stops the movement and allows the viewer to contemplate the images with more depth and analysis.

Among the most moving scenes James photographed were not of the action itself, but rather, the quiet stories within the story. Of great importance to James were photographs that exhibited the cost of war, both physical and emotional. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Captain Miller’s platoon moves deeper into enemy territory only to find a family stranded in the bombed out remains of their home. The sound of mortar shells and gunfire is heard in the distance, and it is evident to the family that their safety is in danger. The father frantically tries to give his daughter to the soldiers in hope that she will be safer under their protection. James shot a series of photographs depicting this sequence and, like the moving images, they are among the most telling in the book. The shots speak to the theme of finding decency in the hell of war and the blurred, unrefined prints illustrate the fear and confusion.

In another shot, a wounded soldier lies dying on the beach. Sand and grit are caked in his eyes and ears, yet he concentrates on a crucifix clutched in his hand as the war rages all around him. He knows he is finished, but he still finds the strength to pray and ask for forgiveness. “It is a great image of war,” notes James, “it speaks to the humanity of the inhuman circumstances.” James remembers talking to veterans about the engagement and found they were not forthcoming about their battle experiences. Their humility served to clarify James’ intent. Because every man who served in the war was, in a sense, a hero, James did not see the need to manipulate or gloss over their memories with his photographs. He shot only what he thought to be accurate and true as a testament to those who were there.
The men who did not return from the war also struck a chord with James. He believes the most harrowing sequence in the film was that of the soldiers’ cemetery in Normandy, France. The photograph shows simple white markers stretched endlessly out to the horizon, the costly sacrifice for the cause of freedom. “When you walk among the crosses, they become people. It was a humbling experience.” James reflect. James learned that the stones marked “Comrade at Arms, Known Only to God,” were the graves of men who could not be identified because the bodies were incomplete or mere pieces. It was a chilling realization. “War is ugly and evil and it is important that people constantly reexamine the price. men pay for their country,” says James
Critics have charged that Saving Private Ryan was overtly graphic and too disturbing for many moviegoers. In many instances, audience members have had to leave the theater because the sight of severed limbs and bloody red waves were to much to bear. James’ photographs, too, leave little to the imagination when it comes to showing the full brutality of combat, but James is quick to defend his work. “The photographs were a historic representation of the scene. None [of the photographs] looked like movie stills. I rejected those shots.” Spielberg agreed with James’ choice of shots. “I didn’t want to shoot the picture as a Hollywood gung-ho Rambo kind of extravaganza. I wanted the audience to be fairly uneasy.” James was reminded of the importance of accuracy when, at a viewing of the film, a veteran who had never spoken about his experience said simply, “So now you know.”
Critics have charged that Saving Private Ryan was overtly graphic and too disturbing for many moviegoers. In many instances, audience members have had to leave the theater because the sight of severed limbs and bloody red waves were to much to bear. James’ photographs, too, leave little to the imagination when it comes to showing the full brutality of combat, but James is quick to defend his work. “The photographs were a historic representation of the scene. None [of the photographs] looked like movie stills. I rejected those shots.” Spielberg agreed with James’ choice of shots. “I didn’t want to shoot the picture as a Hollywood gung-ho Rambo kind of extravaganza. I wanted the audience to be fairly uneasy.” James was reminded of the importance of accuracy when, at a viewing of the film, a veteran who had never spoken about his experience said simply, “So now you know.”
Saving Private Ryan, the gripping, powerful account of war, the combined efforts of hundreds of individuals, has indeed been seen, discussed, debated, and admired. James’ book, as an extension of the message of film, is a valuable artifact of cinematic history. Inspired by those who sacrificed their lives for liberty, the memory of the images is not soon forgotten.
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