SHH have posted a set report from the Omaha beach scenes, simulating the 1944 D-day landings. This is a great read that shows the true effort and grit (or sand?) that goes into shooting a realistic war scene.
I was a part of the WWII, Omaha Beach scenes. From what I can gather, Logan (aka Wolverine) is pretty much the Eternal Soldier archetype. By this I mean he is by nature a warrior and is drawn to wars and conflict. The D-Day landings at Omaha Beach are iconic in American military history. It makes perfect sense from the character story to have this landing as a setting for some of his history.
About 70 extras were hired on for the shooting of the beach landing scenes (plus stunt guys plus stars). These extras were a mix of normal extras and trained army personnel. I fall into the latter category being a member of the Australian Army Reserve. The casting directors wanted to leaven the bread of actors with some real-life soldiers in order to give the scenes a little bit of added realism. I think it worked well.
On day one of the shoot the army blokes were given command of small units of the WWII soldiers. They were given ranks - corporals, sergeants and one officer. Their role in the landings was to lead their troops up the beach. As every Australian soldier is trained in this sort of small-team leadership, this proved to be no problem. All of us were thrilled at having been given rank for the shoot.
The week before we’d all been gathered and trained in the weapons & assault techniques of the time - those of us who had trained in modern techniques had to forget what we knew and start again. The weapons we were using were the real deal WWII issue weapons and so safety was a priority. We had to learn how to fire and handle these weapons just like the real soldiers. After our training, we all had bruises and bumps, but we felt good about knowing what we had to do.
We wore the uniforms of the 29th Infantry Division. The 29th landed at Omaha and fought their way across Europe to push back the Nazi war machine. They were heroes. Which part of the 29th were we? Well we landed at Omaha under heavy fire, so that makes us the 116th regiment, I would have thought. We weren’t the first off the boat, but we were still in the first wave. If you’re a history nut, some of the details might be a little sketchy, but these things happen in the movies. A good estimate, if you really want to know, is that we were C Company of the 116th regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. We charged off the boats, quite a few of us fell under the guns and the bombs, and the rest of us - led by Logan and a few others - fought their way up to the cliffs and the German bunkers. Back in 1944 that’s pretty much how it happened, so that’s good enough for me.
The beach scenes were a lot of fun to do. We all got covered in sand, soaked through from the surf, choked on smoke and were buffeted and deafened from explosions. We charged up that beach so many times we all sweated half our body-weight. But every time we lined up to go again, we gritted down and gave it our best. It was fun. And we wanted to do as good a job as we could.
Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, it must be said, seem like really great blokes. I know everyone says that about the stars, but it is true about these guys. When the set was being dressed with all the explosives, Hugh went and signed autographs and spoke to the crowd that had waited so patiently to see him. When he could, Hugh swung by and gave a few words of encouragement to the 70-odd extras. Liev, obviously not as big a star in Australia as Hugh but still a name-to-conjure-with, had something of a sly smirk on his face most of the time and seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself on the set. Liev & Hugh ate alongside the rest of us and both of the guys got wet and covered in sand & explosive debris just like the rest of us. (Every time an explosion went off near them the sand would stick to the make-up on their face! I recall coming out of one take and with another extra and the four of us - Hugh, Liev, the other extra and myself - were all looking at each other and grinning as we spat sand out of our mouths and blinked it out of our eyes.)
For the final scene of the shoot the special effect guys went all out - and didn’t tell us what they were doing. We figured it was just another charge up the beach. We had picked our spots to dive, take cover and die according to the lie of the land. On the call of “action” we set off and the world went to hell! The effects guys had basically rigged the entire beach to simulate mortar explosions and machine-gun fire - and to a much greater degree than ever before. Sand and smoke and noise obscured everyone’s view. No-one could see and hear a thing. People dropped and took cover, on instinct as much as on training. Time slowed. (Everyone said this afterwards - when the explosions went off, everything moved into slow-motion. Not that it mattered. People were still confused and disorientated, and no-one could see or hear a thing beyond a few feet.) I recalled the words of one of the lieutenants from the Omaha Beach landings: “there are two types of people staying on this beach - dead guys and guys who are going to die.” I couldn’t see a damned thing - I had sand in my eyes and my ears were ringing - but I was supposed to be leading. I had a job to do. I charged forward anyway, hoping I wouldn’t run head-first into one of the barricade that were scattered across the beach. As I went forward I found blokes on their guts, taking cover from the explosions. I grabbed them and screamed at them to get moving up the beach. I even kicked a few. I took what shots I could with my M1 rifle, but mainly I just kept moving and pushing the blokes along up the beach and away from the killing zone. When they moved they just did as they had trained to do - took a few steps, took cover, fired if they could and them moved again. When the director yelled CUT we all just kind of stumbled around and tried to blink the sand and smoke from our eyes.
We were told later that the look of confusion and disorientation in soldiers who, while shot all to hell, ADVANCED ANYWAY was just what the director wanted. We did the best we could and I cannot help but be in awe of those blokes who fought under conditions much worse back on Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944.
Let me say one last thing about the production. The production itself was incredibly well and professionally done. Everyone had their jobs and everyone did them. The actors & extras were extremely well taken care of by the production crew. We were well fed and accommodated in nice hotels. We were well trained and drilled by some excellent military advisors - guys who knew their history and their weapons. As a result of all of this, morale was very high. No-one had a problem with going the extra mile - wading through chest high surf or diving around the beach as explosions went off around us. All of that was fine because we were well looked after. It was a valuable lesson of leadership that can apply to the film-making, corporate and military worlds equally.
So what happens on D-Day in the “Wolverine” film? Well think about it! Logan regenerates. Most soldiers don’t. Logan is also “a bit tasty in a fight.” So are there any prizes for guessing which cigar-chomping hero ends up charging up the beach and taking out some Germans? No, Logan wasn’t the only one to get all the way up the beach. Yes, Logan is one tough cookie, but the rest of the soldiers there weren’t just waiting around for regenerating mutants to save the day. Three platoons land with Logan & Creed. 1st platoon, which includes the heroes, gets pretty badly chopped up. 2nd platoon get’s hurt bad, but gets up the beach and fights alongside our heroes as they advance with the remnants of 1st platoon. 3rd platoon get hurt bad as well, but they’re a little off to the side. I was one of the soldiers who made it up the beach. I did fire-and-movement up the beach and moved my troops along with me. I even got to fire off a few shots alongside “the man” himself. Maybe you’ll see me in the film, but I doubt it. I was just a nameless Technician from the 29th Infantry Division - just so much set dressing. Sure, I did a few cool things - I got to step in, take command of a platoon and lead them up the beach; I got to blaze away at Nazi side-by-side with Logan and Creed; I got to run around and play soldier with a great bunch of blokes - but at the end of the day, I was just a part of a larger team that made, what we all hope, was a great scene you will enjoy when you come to watch the film.