Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released in American cinemas exactly 25 years ago today, on July 24, 1998. The film’s stunning opening sequence, recreating the D-Day Normandy landings as Allied troops stormed France, remains one of the most devastating depictions of war ever filmed.
This sequence also feature a telling moment that wouldn’t have been picked up by most American viewers – but resonated deeply for any Czech-speaking viewers. It occurs as the Allied troops, led by characters played by Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore, successfully capture Omaha Beach after the grueling opening sequence.
After Sizemore’s Sergeant Horvath calls for a ceasefire, a brief aside features two American troops who encounter a pair of surrendering German soldiers. Instead of accepting their surrender, however, they tell them they don’t understand what they’re saying, and shoot them dead.
“What’d he say?” asks one of the soldiers as they search the bodies. “Look, I washed for supper,” the other mockingly responds. Hanks’ Captain Miller coldly observes the whole scene. The horrors of war.
But this scene is especially horrifying for viewers watching Saving Private Ryan who speak Czech. The two surrendering soldiers were, in fact, not Germans, as the Americans (and most audiences) would have assumed, but instead Czechs who were conscripted into the German army against their will.
“Please don’t shoot me,” one of the soldiers says in Czech. “I am not German, I am Czech, I didn’t kill anyone, I am Czech!”
Interestingly, Saving Private Ryan director Spielberg chose not to subtitle the Czech dialogue, which would have underscored the point of the scene. It might have been a little too much for American audiences, but the ambiguity also places viewers in the shoes of the Allied troops.
Spielberg went for authenticity in this sequence, and even cast Czech actor Martin Hub as what the credits identify as ‘Czech Wehrmacht Soldier’. Hub played a ‘Slovakian Father’ in Titanic, released the previous year, and has had featured roles in Prague-shot productions like xXx and Hannibal Rising.
YouTube channel History Buffs breaks down the scene with the Czech soldiers and other moments in Saving Private Ryan you might have missed:
The Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan also features one more Czech connection. Those anti-tank fortifications that line the beaches are called Czech hedgehogs, and were originally invented in Czechoslovakia in the years leading up to WWII.
Ironically, the Czech hedgehogs were first developed to protect the borders of Czechoslovakia and prevent access from German tanks. But they weren’t able to serve their purpose after the Munich Agreement betrayal, as Czechoslovakia was handed over to Nazi rule without a fight.