Stephen Ambrose Saves Spielberg’s Butt

As historian Stephen Ambrose remembered it, the call came in late March or early April. The caller worked for Steven Spielberg, the most decorated director on the American Film Institute’s recent and controversial list of the 100 greatest American movies ever made. The assistant told Mr. Ambrose that the director of Schindler’s List was interested in talking to him and wanted to know if he was, as Mr. Ambrose recalled, “up to that.”

Mr. Ambrose laughed. “I was kind of rendered speechless by that,” he told The Transom, by phone, from his home in Helena, Mont. “Well, am I up to speaking to Mr. Spielberg? God almighty, in my business, I’m interviewing Presidents and senators and generals all the time. He makes movies.”

Which, to the author of the definitive biography of Dwight Eisenhower and numerous books on World War II (including the current Citizen Soldiers ), does not rank above Presidents, senators and generals. “Members of the House, maybe,” said Mr. Ambrose, who is the Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans.

Although Mr. Ambrose would not actually speak to Mr. Spielberg until weeks later (he has yet to meet him), he said the director wanted him to fly to Los Angeles to see his latest film, a World War II drama called Saving Private Ryan that opens on July 24. Mr. Ambrose said that he refused to go to Los Angeles. He said he told Mr. Spielberg’s assistant to send him a videocassette of the film. “Well, they had a heart attack on that comment,” he said. Instead, a screening was arranged in New Orleans, where Mr. Ambrose was willing to go.

At one point during the screening, the historian asked the projectionist to stop the film. The battlefield scenes were so realistic, he said, “I was crawling under my seat. I was shaking. I was emotionally wrecked.” When the film was over, Mr. Ambrose went home and wrote Mr. Spielberg a letter. In it, he said, he called Saving Private Ryan “the best war movie ever made.” A phone call between the director and the historian ensued. “We talked about World War II. We talked about our fathers,” said Mr. Ambrose.

What happened next should have rendered Mr. Ambrose speechless a second time, although he said, it did not. Days after his conversation with Mr. Spielberg, “they offered me a contract for using my books as a resource,” said Mr. Ambrose. He will also help to promote the film. He’s reportedly collaborating with Mr. Spielberg on a book about the film and he’ll travel on the Dreamworks SKG jet along with Mr. Spielberg and the film’s co-stars for a multi-city press junket. “This is big-time stuff,” Mr. Ambrose said. “Riding around the country with Spielberg and [Tom] Hanks and what’s-his-name, the young guy.” That would be Matt Damon.

Mr. Ambrose declined to discuss how much he was paid for entering into the agreement but said it was less than $100,000.

That is how Mr. Ambrose became a historical consultant to Saving Private Ryan after the movie had been made. Asked if he had thought it unusual that Mr. Spielberg might first make a movie relying on his work and then ask him to come on board, Mr. Ambrose laughed. “What do I know about Hollywood? I just don’t know if it is weird or not. Anyway, it’s what happened. And I’m not unhappy at all. I’m delighted.”

As Saving Private Ryan unspooled, Mr. Ambrose said, “I saw on the screen what I have heard from the 3,000 veterans that I’ve interviewed over the years. And I never thought I’d see that.”

For those familiar with Mr. Spielberg’s recent past, his decision to bring Mr. Ambrose on board could be seen as cynical but certainly not weird. Last October, author Barbara Chase-Riboud launched a lawsuit in Federal court against Dreamworks SKG, in which Mr. Spielberg is a partner, charging that Amistad , his first film for the new company that he had formed with media mogul David Geffen and former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, contained characters, situations and events that she had created for a 1989 novel, Echo of Lions . The suit was dropped (after Ms. Chase-Riboud was accused of plagiarizing another writer), but word out of Hollywood was that the litigation had not only scuttled Mr. Spielberg’s Oscar hopes for the movie; it had also contributed to tension between the director and Mr. Katzenberg at Dreamworks. Mr. Spielberg is said to have felt that Mr. Katzenberg wrongly discouraged him from settling the suit. (Mr. Spielberg’s spokesman, Marvin Levy, said, “Even if I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t comment on anyone’s individual feelings. There’s always speculation.”)

Mr. Spielberg appears determined not to repeat his Amistad experience, especially with a movie that is getting much better advance hype than his ponderous slave-ship drama. By getting the cooperation and unqualified endorsement of perhaps the foremost World War II historian, Mr. Spielberg has essentially bought himself insurance against any writer–war historian or novelist–coming forward to mar his campaign for another gold statuette.

Whether or not Mr. Ambrose would have had an intellectual property case were he not such a fan of the film is not an easily answered question. Even though Mr. Ambrose reconstructed those World War II battles by interviewing thousands of veterans, officers and government officials, Peter Perkins, an intellectual property attorney with the firm of Fross, Zelnick, Lehrman & Zissu P.C. explained that “facts are not copyrightable,” and that the copyright law “doesn’t reward pure research, it rewards creative expression.” That said, Mr. Perkins also explained that “there is a potential that an interview can become a joint work in copyright between the interviewer and the interviewee.” There “is an art and a skill to proper interviewing,” he said. But determining whether there might be a case would involve scrutinizing both the film’s screenplay (by Robert Rodat, whose pitch and script initially hooked Mr. Spielberg) and Mr. Ambrose’s books.

Given that Mr. Ambrose didn’t even break six figures with his consultant’s gig, Mr. Spielberg’s insurance has come mighty cheap by Hollywood standards. (Perhaps the director is on a frugality kick. He is said to be mighty proud of doing a movie that re-creates the epic D-Day battle for a reasonable $60 million.)

When The Transom pointed out to Mr. Ambrose that most people in his position would have pulled a Brinks truck up to Dreamworks’ offices, the historian explained that he took such a reasonable fee “because I saw the movie before I signed the contract. I just think so much of the movie that I’m as pleased as I can be that I’m connected with it.”

Mr. Spielberg was not available to comment, but Mr. Levy denied that Mr. Ambrose’s involvement was in any way a pre-emptive move to prevent an Amistad -like incident over Saving Private Ryan . Mr. Levy confirmed that Mr. Ambrose’s books were used as key source material for the making of the film, but he said that other knowledgeable military sources were used as well, including Dale Dye, who served as a technical adviser on this film and other war movies, including Born on the Fourth of July . (Mr. Dye even ran a preproduction boot camp for the Ryan stars.)

“Steven wanted to show the movie to Ambrose with the idea of having him look at it and to tell us, frankly, did we nail it? Did we represent what these guys went through?” After Mr. Ambrose was bowled over by that “95 percent finished” print he saw, Mr. Levy said the professor “then … wanted to help us with it.”

Mr. Ambrose could not be reached to comment on this point, but his son, Hugh Ambrose, who said he functions as his father’s agent, told The Transom that while his father did express his enthusiasm to Mr. Spielberg over the film, it was the director’s camp who approached the professor.

Mr. Levy said that Dreamworks enlisted Mr. Ambrose “for media purposes” and that it entered into a contract with him because “you’ve got to book this guy in advance. He gets enormous fees for lectures.… We would have been crazy not to go to him and enlist him in our media campaign,” said Mr. Levy. “We’re not the experts.”

So why did Mr. Spielberg go to Mr. Ambrose after his film was made? Because, said Mr. Levy, the published books were there to be read. “It’s like going to newspaper vaults.” Moreover, he said, “it’s not like saying we’re making the movie out of [Mr. Ambrose’s] book. It’s a huge difference. The movie is fictional to begin with. The facts of the [historical] events are what you want to get as closely as possible.”

The plot of the film involves a group of soldiers led by Mr. Hanks who are sent on an against-all-odds post-D-Day mission to find and safely return home Pvt. James Ryan, played by Mr. Damon, after all of his brothers have been killed in combat. The plot is fictional, although it has a real-life parallel–a story, in fact, that Mr. Ambrose wrote about in his 1992 book Band of Brothers . Army Sgt. Frederick Niland was removed from the battlefield and returned to his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., after two of his brothers were killed in fighting (one on D-Day) and a third was shot down over Burma and missing in action. In reality, said Mr. Ambrose, “they found [Sergeant Niland’s brother] right away and got him out of there.”

So two of the four Niland brothers died … It wasn’t enough dramatic tension for Hollywood. Thus, Saving Private Ryan departs from true story at this point, but Mr. Ambrose said that aside from the fictional plot devices, “everything else is absolutely true.”

He added that in addition to Band of Brothers , Mr. Spielberg’s film uses material from other books he has written, his most recent effort, Citizen Soldiers , and his 1994 chronicle, D-Day: June 6, 1944 (1994).

“My books are based on interviews with the G.I.’s. What they have picked up is from these interviews,” said Mr. Ambrose. “They’re not my words. They’re the guys that I’m quoting.”

Those seem like words of rationalization. But indeed, in his role as historical consultant, Mr. Ambrose said that he has not asked for any changes to be made in the film.

Asked what material from his books had been used in Saving Private Ryan , Mr. Ambrose explained that “a major theme of the U.S. Army on D-Day and in the campaign that followed was the way these squads merged into teams and then, indeed, into families. That’s pretty basic to this film.”

In another example, Mr. Ambrose cited a scene where Mr. Hanks’ character talks about having “an angel on both shoulders.” In the book, D-Day , Lieut. John Spaulding, one of the first junior officers to make it up the bluff at Omaha Beach, describes how his company managed to get through one mine-infested area without losing anyone: “The Lord was with us and we had an angel on each shoulder on that trip.”

Until he was contacted by Mr. Spielberg’s people in the spring about seeing the book, Mr. Ambrose said he had “no idea” that material from his books had been used in Saving Private Ryan . Nothing was mentioned then, he said, but he had an idea that something was up. “Obviously, there was some reason why they wanted to … show me the film,” he said, adding that “You’d have to be some kind of dunderhead” not to put two and two together.

At another point in the interview, he said, “Look, if someone is doing a movie on D-Day, I know perfectly well they’re going to be using my books.”

Mr. Ambrose said that he was “vaguely” aware of the Chase-Riboud imbroglio. When asked if he thought his contract with Dreamworks might have something to do with Ms. Chase-Riboud’s lawsuit, he replied: “Ask Spielberg that.”

It certainly helps that Mr. Ambrose likes Mr. Spielberg’s film. “I’ve had problems with historical films in the past. And I’ve been quoted as being unhappy with some of the things that some of the producers were doing,” said Mr. Ambrose, who admitted that he went into the screening “thinking, Motherfuck, I hope I like this. Because if I don’t, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But not only does he like the film, he likes cast members, whom he recently met in Los Angeles. “I loved them,” he said, sounding as though he was becoming acclimatized to the Hollywood way. “I’m telling them, ‘Listen, you guys, I’m bringing some D-Day veterans to L.A. for the premiere,’ and their eyes just lit up. It was wonderful to see celebrities turned into fans. I liked that about them. That they did have a proper respect.”

In the end, Mr. Ambrose said that he was glad that Mr. Spielberg didn’t bother him until the movie was finished. “I’ve been a historical consultant on so goddamned-many TV documentaries and PBS stuff, [where] somebody else is creating the goddamn thing. They don’t want anybody looking over their shoulder. I hate that job,” he said. “I’m delighted. He made a movie and he used some stuff he saw in my books and he didn’t bother me.”

The Transom Also Hears

… The B-52s did have a hit with “Rock Lobster.” So maybe that’s what poet Max Blagg was thinking when he and a female companion arrived at a July 5 party at B-52 Fred Schneider’s Wainscott, L.I., home, dragging live lobsters on twin leashes. The problem is, Mr. Schneider is a vegetarian and a supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as are a number of his friends who were at the party and his bandmate, Kate Pierson. Partygoers said Mr. Schneider did not seem happy about Mr. Blagg’s gag, but rather than cause a scene, he had the saltwater creatures placed in his freshwater bathtub. Departing guests, American Hotel owner Ted Conklin and his wife Tara Newman, were then asked if they would take the lobsters and release them in the more habitable waters of Sag Harbor, but only after getting the couple to promise that they would not serve them at the hotel. Mr. Blagg did not return our faxed message. Mr. Schneider was traveling and could not be reached for comment. Ms. Newman said only, “It’s ironic that it was Independence Day weekend.”