Steven Spielberg returns to the beach, and this time, he finds ghosts. The movie begins with an aged World War II veteran visiting Omaha Beach and weeping for the brothers in arms who sacrificed their lives for him, and then it flashes back to the D-Day invasion. The next 20 minutes or so of hellish action are generally regarded as the best, most realistic combat sequence in film history. Spielberg famously made use of actual wartime vehicles and weapons, enlisted 1,500 extras, poured 40 barrels of fake blood in the water, and even used real amputees to play soldiers whose limbs had just been blown off.
Amazingly, the director didn’t storyboard the sequence in advance, as he wanted the actors’ reactions to be spontaneous. To make the sequence look more like color newsreel footage from the period, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski altered the shutter timing for a staccato, strobe-like effect and desaturated the negative to reduce brightness and increase graininess. Ever since, it’s hard to watch a battle sequence, whether it takes place in modern Europe or Middle-earth, without thinking of Spielberg’s beach carnage. For better or worse, the way we will remember the historic events of Omaha Beach from now on will be through Spielberg’s eyes.