Saving Private Ryan (1998)
“The mission is a man.”
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
Synopsis: Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.
Loosely inspired by the true story of the Niland brothers, and using a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to the mother of three brothers he had erroneously believed to have died in battle (only two actually died), Saving Private Ryan uses the theatre of war to explore the emotional impact of extreme military violence and danger on the often unprepared individuals called upon to serve their country. Directed by Steven Spielberg, one of America’s most accomplished modern-era directors, the film is both technically and emotionally powerful, rudely propelling its audience into the sheer nightmare of the war arena in order to shock it out of its customarily passive role and engender some level of emotional identification with its key characters.
The film is book-ended by two intense battle scenes — one factual, the other fictional. On 6th June 1944, American forces land on Omaha beach in Normandy as part of the D-Day landing. On the landing vehicles transporting them to the coastal battlefront, we are given an incisive insight into the lie we have been sold by war movies of the past. Nervous soldiers vomit uncontrollably, almost paralysed by nerves immediately before the vehicles land. As soon as the vehicle’s ramps open the men are swiftly mown down in a bloody dance, falling where they stand before even setting foot on French soil. Weighed down by their kit, the wounded are dragged under to be silently killed by bullets sheathing through the water. The camera floats on the waterline so that the chaotic sounds of battle are exaggerated by the alternating underwater silence. No movie before or since has ever immersed the audience so completely in the experience of war. The bloody destruction of bodies is truly sickening, the sheer, uncompromising terror of one’s life being violently terminated at any instant never so intense.
The opening battle scene lasts for around half-an-hour, and leaves the audience exhausted. Almost immediately, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is ordered to hand-pick eight men to accompany him on a mission to locate the eponymous Private Ryan (Matt Damon) and bring him to safety. Ryan’s three brothers have all died in combat within days of one another, and the war office sense a moral prerogative in returning the last remaining Ryan boy to his mother. The men Miller picks are all experienced soldiers apart from Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), a translator who has seen no combat action. Upham serves as the audience’s surrogate as the men venture deep into a French countryside still filled with German soldiers to keep the audience anchored in the reality of the situation. We’re not the hard-bitten, battle-scarred warriors of traditional movies, but the timid translator, treated with mild contempt by his new comrades.
Saving Private Ryan settles into familiar war scenario territory as the men undergo their mission, with the storyline becoming necessarily episodic. The men engage with the enemy on a number of occasions, and each time they do their number is reduced. The experienced men quickly grow disillusioned with a mission about which they were already dubious, but their respect for Miller, who reveals at one point that in his pre-war life he was an English teacher with no military experience, means they stick to their mission anyway. While most of the other men in his unit veer dangerously close to genre stereotype, Miller provides a richly-textured character, an everyman (it is Hanks, after all) on the verge of a nervous breakdown who perseveres anyway, simply because wars aren’t won by men who don’t follow orders, no matter how ill-conceived those orders might be. Their mission isn’t only a man, as the tagline proclaimed, it’s also a fool’s errand — a fact that you feel Miller is all too aware of.
The final battle scene differs from the first, not only because it never really happened, but because in this battle the combat is much more personal. Here, men aren’t just shooting at each other from a distance, they’re fighting face to face. In fact, on a couple of occasions they’re reduced to throwing their helmets at one another, illustrating, as they do so, the farcical nature of all conflicts settled by violence. War dehumanises us, turns us into clowns. But at the same time, it emphasises the added element of horror provided by hand-to-hand combat as an American soldier, realising his combatant is stronger than him as a knife inches ever closer to his chest, vainly pleads that they just stop.
While Saving Private Ryan excels at portraying the randomness of survival on a battlefield, and is easily cinema’s greatest and most realistic achievement in depicting the uncompromising horror of war, it’s not without its flaws, chief of which is a horribly sentimental coda in which an ageing Ryan — who is bequeathed a responsibility which would rest heavily on anybody’s shoulders — visits the military cemetery in which some of his former comrades are buried. More petty, perhaps, but no less galling for a British viewer, is the fact that we Brits were presumably off playing cricket and sipping tea while the Americans were once again winning the war in Europe for us, because there’s not a British Tommy in sight at any time. Montgomery, one of Britain’s war heroes, does get a name-check, but — guess what? — the real gladiators of war blithely dismiss him as over-rated.
(Reviewed 21st June 2013)