Saving Private Ryan cast almost quit before filming began: 'Worst experience of my life'

The production was nearly FUBAR during boot camp

Dale Dye (left) sharing advice with the cast of Saving Private Ryan including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper & Vin Diesel. (Paramount/Alamy)
Dale Dye (left) sharing advice with the cast of Saving Private Ryan including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper & Vin Diesel. (Paramount/Alamy)

When the cast of the iconic D-Day movie Saving Private Ryan was sent to boot camp to prepare by Steven Spielberg, things almost went spectacularly pear-shaped. We talked to Captain Dale Dye, the man who put Tom Hanks and co through their paces.

"It was the worst experience of my life," said Edward Burns, remembering his time in a Hertfordshire boot camp while sitting a few months later on the set of Saving Private Ryan.

He wasn’t the only member of the core cast to think that at one time or another. Determined to make his movie as authentic as possible, director Steven Spielberg hired legendary movie military advisor and former US Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye (pictured below on right with Hanks and Spielberg) to whip the main actors into shape before shooting started.

On the set, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Dale Dye / Saving Private Ryan / 1998 directed by Steven Spielberg [Dreamworks LLC /Paramount Pictures]
Dale Dye (right) with Steven Spielberg (second left) and Tom Hanks on the set of 1998's Saving Private Ryan. (Alamy/Paramount)

That meant immersing Tom Hanks and his seven-strong team in as much infantryman experience as possible without actually going to war, starting in some woods behind the old British aerospace plant in Hatfield.

"It’s all been turned into housing now, but at the time it had a huge backlot and very dense woods, so we went back there a kilometre or two and established an area where we could bivouac," remembered Captain Dye.

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"They did physical training hard every day and I ran them through the same sort of syllabus that would have been given to basic infantrymen back in 1943/4. Because I had to compress of all that into three or four days, they worked day and night."

"We were forced to be ‘method’, whether we wanted to or not," said actor Adam Goldberg, who played Private Mellish. "The only way I could get through it was to shut myself down and become this soldier.”

Prod DB © Amblin - Paramount - Dreamworks / DR IL FAUT SAUVER LE SOLDAT RYAN (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) de Steven Spielberg 1998 USA avec Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg et Barry Pepper soldats, guerre, WW2, treillis, galons, bivouac
Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg and Barry Pepper on the set of 1998's Saving Private Ryan. (Paramount/Alamy)

What started as an exciting opportunity quickly lost its allure, as they slept on the ground and ate 1940s-style British army rations.

"On paper it sounds fantastic, but when you’re out there I found plenty of arguments against it," admitted Jeremy Davies, aka Corporal Upham.

Dye referred to his charges as 'Turds' (Hanks was Turd Number One), they would be woken at five every morning and he would constantly scream at them, as well as punishing them for getting things wrong by ordering them to do push-ups and sit-ups.

"They know this isn’t me out there being Uncle Captain Touchy-Feely," he says. Then the British weather closed in. "It began to rain," says Dye, who’ was also technical consultant on Platoon and Forrest Gump. "They’re wet, they’re cold, the mud was up to their knees and it got fairly miserable crawling around."

"We were soaking wet, hiking five miles a day with 40 pounds of gear on our backs, getting about three hours of sleep," Giovanni Ribisi (T-4 Medic Wade) told Empire. "Only you don’t really sleep because you’re freezing and shaking in a tent."

Tom Hanks taking instruction from Dale Dye (right) on the set of Saving Private Ryan. (Alamy/Paramount)

"One of the most miserable times was when we got down to what’s called assault on a fortified position," recalls Dye. "We put a German machine gun in a bunker position and the squad’s mission was to establish a base of fire at the Germans in the bunker. The second element was to close on the position so they could destroy it with hand grenades. This was all mocked up, but the rounds were flying.

"I remember Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper and Adam Goldberg crawled in this long semi-circle while the other troops were laying down fire and when they stood up they literally were covered in mud from head to toe. They could barely move, I almost had to hose them off."

Unsurprisingly, emotions were running high. Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Horvath) hadn’t even wanted to do it in the first place. "The way I looked at it, just because I had to act like a soldier, why did I have to be a soldier?" he said.

"There was some grumbling and ‘maybe we ought to walk away, we’ve had enough,'" says Dye. Finally, three days into the camp, a vote was taken to quit.

"I think there was a phone call that Tom [Hanks] made to Steven Spielberg where he said, ‘we’ve got a little situation here, what do you want to do?’" reveals Dye.

Tom Sizemore, who died in 2023, played the earthy Sergeant Mike Horvath in Saving Private Ryan. (Alamy/Paramount)

The director told his lead actor he had to make the decision himself, so Hanks went back to his unit and convinced them to stay.

"He said, ‘look, we’re only going to get one shot at this and we want to get it right and I think we ought to stay and we ought to gut it out,’" says Dye.

Hanks told his commanding officer there was a problem and suggested he talk to the cast. Dye agreed and made sure to do it while being pelted with rain as the actors stood under shelter.

"I stood out there in the rain and said essentially what Tom had said, that you owe it to these people you’re representing on film to get this right. And in order to get it right, you’ve got to experience some of what they experienced."

Saving Private Ryan showed the horrors of D-Day (Alamy/Paramount)
Saving Private Ryan showed the horrors of D-Day like never before. (Alamy/Paramount)

Crisis was averted, although Dye admits, "there were some who were slower to get back up to speed than others."

The process worked. Saving Private Ryan made almost £600 million at the worldwide box office, as well as winning five Oscars, surprisingly losing out to Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture.

Much of that success was down to the chemistry of the cast, forged in the forests of Hatfield. "It was the best of the times and it was the worst of times," said Vin Diesel (Private Caparzo) later.

Adds Dye, "I did talk to several of them [afterwards] who said, ‘I’m really glad we did that. It was the right thing to do.’"

The success of the film would also lead Spielberg on to make the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers which aired in 2001, now considered one of the best TV dramas ever made, which was followed by The Pacific and 2024's Masters of the Air.

Saving Private Ryan is streaming on Channel 4.

This story was first published in October 2016.