War movies are often the closest civilians can get to witnessing the turning points of history, when brave soldiers were on the front lines, experiencing it firsthand. Many of the best war films were based on true stories told by veterans and survivors. Some feature gut-wrenching scenes that change the perspective of many in regards to the lives of both soldiers and the people living in war-torn countries.
We're going to take you behind the scenes of some of the most epic war movies and reveal the rugged stories of what happened on set. How long did it take to film the 23-minute opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, which shows a harrowing re-creation of D-Day from the perspective of front-line troops? Which actor had a heart attack and nervous breakdown from the stress of playing their role? Who almost died during the production of the films they starred in? Hint: More than one actor!
The world's greatest actors become the role they're playing, taking on the heavy psychological weight of military conflict for the sake of keeping history alive. Read on for brutal behind-the-scenes stories of your favorite war movies.
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World War II epic Saving Private Ryan opens with a 23-minute scene replicating D-Day on Omaha Beach in France. The scene is a terrifying re-creation of the bloody day where power began to shift from Germany to the Allied forces.
The grisly scene cost around $12 million, or 20% of the film's overall budget. Associate producer Mark Huffam explains the high cost:
We had to build a lot of service roads from scratch just to take in the trucks with all the hardware, and we had to construct the battlements, bunkers, and attack vantage points. It was the biggest logistical plan of the entire movie.
The intense shoot required more than 400 crew members, 1,000 extras, and 1,000 more dummies. The director, Steven Spielberg, employed between 20 and 30 amputees to play the many soldiers who lost limbs from the land mines all over the beach.
Saving Private Ryan changed the way newer generations saw WWII because it strayed from the films that came before it, which focused on the heroism of a single soldier. Spielberg told the story of the thousands of young men whose lives were cut short during the war.
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Spielberg said:
There was a sentiment that Hollywood put out there in the 1940s, when they cooperated with Roosevelt to make movies extolling the virtues and nobility of the war. They would never have allowed the story to be told this way. They weren't willing, in those days, to show America the dark side of the face of war.
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Black Hawk Down, released in 2002 and directed by Ridley Scott, continues to be a favorite amongst historians and veterans alike. Perhaps the reason behind the authenticity and power of the film lies in a key piece of dialogue, which was taken from an actual veteran of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia.
In the impactful scene, US soldier Hoot responds to a question about why he continues to fight:
When I go home people’ll ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it, man? Why, you some kinda war junkie?"
I won’t say a goddamn word.
Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.
The character of Hoot was inspired by real-life Delta Force soldier Norm Hooten, who says the scene didn't go exactly the way it did in the movie, but they still captured the essence of his sentiment. In an interview with Task & Purpose, Hooten talked about a conversation he had when visiting the set of Black Hawk Down:
They asked, "Hey, why do you do this job?" You know, a lot of people ask that, but the truth of the matter is you do it because you enjoy the people you do it with, and when you’re in combat it’s about the guys who are next to you - to your right and left. It’s not about politics or anything else when you’re in combat. You may sign up for that, but when you’re in that critical moment the only thing you’re thinking about is taking care of the people around you.
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The 1986 film Platoon was directed by Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone. The story centers on the disagreement of morality when it comes to the war amongst a platoon. The main character, US Army volunteer Chris Taylor, who was played by Charlie Sheen, experiences the war from a soldier's perspective while his platoon sergeant and squad leader, played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, continue to grow at odds as the war intensifies.
Stone went to great lengths to draw authentic performances out of the actors, including a grueling boot camp in the jungle in the Philippines. Sheen says everyone was "tired and angry," and describes a moment when his co-star, Forest Whitaker, found a coconut and attempted to chop it open with a machete before filming even began. Sheen recalls:
I can still see him now, trying to line it up with his machete. Before I could say, “Your thumb is too close!” he swings and hits his thumb dead center. He popped it into his mouth and two thick streams of blood poured out both sides. It was a “scream for the medic” moment - and that was still in training camp.
At one point during production, Dafoe got thirsty and took a drink from a stream. He didn't know a decomposing ox was upstream, and he became so ill he had to be medevaced for emergency medical attention.
At another point during filming, Sheen was up 1,000 feet in a helicopter. During production, the actors were taught to never let go of their weapons, so Sheen was holding his gun when the helicopter made a sudden sharp turn, causing him to fall out of the helicopter. Fortunately, one of Sheen's co-stars saved his life. He talks about it in an essay he wrote for the Guardian:
Francesco Quinn, who played Rhah, grabbed my backpack and pulled me in. If he hadn’t done that, I would’ve fallen out. I got pretty righteous with Oliver [Stone] after that.
Although production was tough, Sheen attributes the excellence of the film to the director's experience as a Vietnam veteran:
During the film’s final battle, my character hides by covering himself with a dead body. Afterwards, on a press tour, I was seeing veterans and doing self-help chats - which I had no right doing. Dozens of vets would tell me they covered themselves with bodies too. They would be weeping. I was just this 26-year-old donkey, way out of my depth, but none of that was lost on me. What Oliver touched on, all of that stuff, was overwhelming.
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Perhaps no film better encapsulates the trauma and horror of Vietnam than Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. The film is loosely based on the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and stars Martin Sheen. The film was shot over two years, and over that grueling period, Sheen, Coppola, and the rest of the cast and crew of the film seemed to spiral into madness.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969. When presenting the film, Coppola compared Apocalypse Now to the Vietnam War itself, stating:
We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.
Sheen played the starring role of Captain Benjamin Willard. Coppola pushed Sheen to his absolute limit, often encouraging him to drink in excess while goading him psychologically. In the opening scene of the film, Sheen is alone and drunk in a hotel room in Saigon and ends up punching a mirror upon seeing his own reflection, cutting his hand, and smearing blood all over his face. According to the director, this was unplanned.
The film was shot largely in the Philippines, and at one point, a typhoon caused a break in filming, and Sheen was able to take a short break and visit home. Sheen's friend and fellow actor Gary Morgan recalls that time:
When Marty came home after the typhoon he was real scared. He said, "I don’t know if I am going to live through this. Those f*ckers are crazy, all those helicopters and really blowing things up." It was freaky; at the airport he kept saying goodbye to everyone.
After the break, Sheen returned to the Philippines and almost immediately had a heart attack. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Sheen said:
I nearly died. I was alone. I was under a lot of tension. I had terrible eating habits and I was smoking a lot. I had been up and down like a yo-yo all night. I was reading several books at the time... I kept getting up and picking up one book and then another, and I had this severe pain in my inner elbow. Then my chest started to hurt and I thought, "I’d better quit smoking." All the while the wind was howling. The pain grew more and more intense as the night went on.
The near-death experience made clear the movie was having a similar effect on its cast as it was on the 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam and still were serving in Vietnam for six years after the film's release.
As Sheen explains, the traumatic experience culminated in a nervous breakdown:
I completely fell apart. My spirit was exposed. I cried and cried. I turned completely gray - my eyes, my beard - all gray. I was in intensive care. [My wife] Janet slept on the floor beside me. She called a therapist in New York and I talked to her every day and those two ladies pulled me through.
I knew I would never come back until I accepted full and total responsibility for what had happened to me. No one put a gun to my head and forced me to be there. I was there because I had a big ego and wanted to be in a Coppola film.
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2008 war thriller The Hurt Locker achieved universal critical acclaim, winning many awards, including the Academy Award for best director, which distinguishes Katherine Bigelow as the first woman to win this accolade. The story is less about combat soldiers and instead centers around an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Iraq.
Jeremy Renner stars in the film as the somber Staff Sgt. Will James, who is an expert in diffusing live bombs. To prepare for the role, Renner and his fellow castmates were trained in how to both build and diffuse bombs at Fort Irwin in California. Renner talks about his experience in an interview with NPR:
I'd ask a lot of questions, and a lot of the answers were, "It's top secret, can't tell you." After about a week or so, they said, "We put one of our dog tags in a boot," and I asked why - why d'you put a dog tag on your neck, and one in the boot?
The answer to his question left an impact on Renner:
When someone gets hit with an IED [improvised explosive device], you always find boots. [...] You don't find a lot of the other parts, but for whatever reason, you always find a boot. That spoke volumes to me.
- Photo: Universal Pictures693 VOTES
Five-time Oscar-winning film The Deer Hunter, released in 1979, tells the story of three lifelong friends and steelworkers from Pittsburgh and their struggle to return to "normal life" after the war. The film is widely celebrated and credited with changing America's perspective on Vietnam veterans, who had widely been criticized and demonized for the brutality of the war.
John Savage, who played a leading role in the film, discusses how dangerous and stress-inducing the production of The Deer Hunter was. The combat scenes were filmed in Thailand, which at the time, was politically unstable. The cast and crew faced a constant risk of robbery or kidnapping.
One scene turned into a near-death experience for Savage, Robert De Niro, and Christopher Walken. They were on a bridge high over the River Kwai when a helicopter accidentally cut the safety cables holding them up, which left them dangling 60 feet above the roaring water. Walken, who was the athlete of the trio, climbed up the cord and into the helicopter. Savage and De Niro were left clinging on for dear life. Savage talks about the incident:
I was calling Bobby by his character name, yelling, "Michael, Michael, I’m not sure we should drop in the water there."
Bobby yells at me: "Jesus Christ, John. Don’t call me by my character name. We’re f*cking going to die here."
I started laughing and just said, "I’m going," and we looked at one another and both dropped. God knows how, but we missed the rocks and the water took us to the side of the production boat below.
We both stared at one another on deck. Then we looked up to see that the helicopter was wavering as it was stuck to the cable on the bridge, but luckily somebody crawled out and pushed it off. Had that not happened, the ’copter could have crashed down on us too.
Minutes later, De Niro noticed a Thai banded krait, a poisonous snake, wrapped around Savage's leg. Fortunately, they were next to a production boat by then, and a crew member calmly removed the snake and decapitated it. He only found out later the bite would've killed him. When recalling all the dangers they faced during production, Savage says:
There is no way any studio today would allow their stars or crew to face the risks we did making The Deer Hunter. The film is about life on the edge. The shoot was very much like that. None of us realized how much danger we were in - it felt like we were going to war just to make this movie. Bob [De Niro], Chris [Walken], and I are lucky to be alive. We almost got killed.
However, he doesn't regret being a part of the film. He adds, "The Deer Hunter is a piece of American history."