As a child I played often on the beaches of Curracloe in Wexford. Just down the road from where my mother grew up, this stretch of Irish coastline is blessed with white sandy beaches and warmer waters than the coastline on the Atlantic side. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to the now infamous Omaha landing beach in Normandy, the location where thousands of American soldiers lost their lives during the D-Day landings. This resemblance may have passed my 6-year-old self by as I built my sandcastles and frolicked merrily in the sea, but it certainly didn’t pass by the notice of a certain Mr Steven Spielberg.
Now, at the grand age-old age of 24, as a self-confessed Spielberg war film and general D-Day fanatic, the fact that I spent a large proportion of my childhood on the very beach that was to become the location for one of the greatest war film sequences in history feels rather fitting.
Of course, the beaches of Curracloe known to the locals and tourists of Wexford are very different from the one seen in Spielberg’s 1998 Oscar-winning film Saving Private Ryan. The pristine stretches of white sand were transformed by Spielberg’s extensive operation to faithfully re-create the bloody Omaha landings. An incredible inferno of barbed wire, gallons of fake blood and realistic explosions took over the beach for a number of weeks. The result has gone down in film history as one of the best battle scenes of all time and the most realistic representations of the Normandy landings, with many D-Day veterans commenting that they’d never seen anything as true to reality as Spielberg’s 18 minute scene. The way in which the Omaha beach scene assaults the senses makes the viewer feel like they were really there, a technique that has been replicated many times since.
Like many filming locations in Ireland, part of Curracloe’s attraction was the remoteness. Though the beach is only a 30 minute drive from the large towns of Enniscorthy and Wexford, the area immediately around the beaches is relatively sparsely populated, primarily by holiday cottages and villas. The woodlands parallel to the beach also echo the type of woodland found atop the cliffs around the landing sectors in Normandy, and so the area provided the perfect Normandy double, with little chance of swarms of Spielberg/Hanks fans to contend with.
The impact on the small local area was, not surprisingly, quite grand. Many of the extras seen in the landing sequences were members of the local Irish Army Reserve, who used their honed military skills to enhance the realism present in the scene. The Spielberg-wagon took over region for weeks, with scores of actors, film crew and journalists swarming the area and giving local businesses a definite boost. The filming itself had a profound effect on the local Irish actors involved, giving a start to some of the then up-and-coming actors that have gone on to become household names. Dublin-born actor Andrew Scott, now best known for his deliciously unsettling portrayal of Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, recounted his experiences as ‘Soldier on the Beach’ in a recent interview:
“Filming it, you couldn’t see the camera, you couldn’t see Spielberg, and you had no idea of the camerawork. You had no idea where they were. It was just you heard, ‘ACTION!’, and you had the sound of explosions, had dirt flying in your face, and you couldn’t really see anything. You kind of knew that, when it was edited together, that it was going to be extraordinary, though. It was an amazing experience”. (Courtesy of danofgeek.com)
One question that might present itself when considering this topic is why Spielberg didn’t use the real Omaha beach in Normandy. Afterall, Spielberg did take his crew to the area to film the poignant opening and closing scenes in the Colleville American Cemetery, which is located atop the hill overlooking the Omaha landing sector. Fairly obviously there were some concerns that recreating the scenes in their original location might be in bad taste. It is clear once you’ve visited the area that this isn’t just a place that people visit for the anniversary of the landings every June 6th. All year-round veterans, descendants, historians and school children visit the area to reflect and pay tribute to the forces who lost their lives there. There is a perpetual sense of respectful silence about the area, especially the Omaha area. To break this calm with a full-scale Hollywood-guns-blazing re-enactment would have been akin to breaking the peace that the soldiers of D-Day fought for.
Another reason for the location of Ireland is Spielberg’s self-professed love of the country. He has made several visits to the country, both for work and family vacations, commenting that visiting Ireland is always like ‘life changing experience’ for him. He regularly comments on the spellbinding quality of local music, poetry and art, the relaxing effects of the stunning natural scenery and the fact that he can lead a relatively low profile existence while in the country. His time in Wexford filming Saving Private Ryan is evidently still dear to the director, as a tract of land that Spielberg owns in the Hamptons is even under the holding name of ‘County Wexford.’ His continued fascination with the country and Irish talent can be seen in his recent casting of Irish acting heavy-weight Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln. Spielberg reportedly chased the actor for 9 years before Lewis agreed to take the part. Interestingly, if Lewis had continued to decline, Spielberg’s second choice for the iconic role was another of Ireland’s finest; the one and only Liam Neeson.
Though the filming of Saving Private Ryan occurred nearly 15 years ago, the continued importance of the Spielberg connection can be seen in the area. A plaque behind the beach commemorates the filming and local businesses are still full of people who will happily recount their own personal tales of the time Spielberg came to stay. The influence of Ireland can also still be found in Mr Spielberg himself, with reports claiming the director may be planning a return to Ireland to film a project based on the 1798 Irish rebellion.
Needless to say, if that happens, I’m there with my Spielberg-shaped bells on. And Stevie, I can promise you that I make a mean cup of tea.