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In the summer of 1997 I was 14 years old. School was out and as June crept into July the weather began turning fine, into what I might now refer to as “halcyon days”, where I hadn’t a care in the world. Wexford had successfully defended their Leinster hurling crown, defeating Kilkenny in the Leinster final, and were marching on with optimism to what the entire county hoped would be a second All-Ireland title in a row. It was also the summer that Saving Private Ryan came to my little corner of Ireland, a summer my Dad and I spent camped on Ballinesker beach, the section of Curracloe selected as the stand in for Omaha beach on the Normandy coastline.
I think I could fill the word count of this article discussing my three weeks on the beach alone, without ever mentioning the film. I could write of making friends with the security guards, meeting the extras and asking them to pose for pictures, getting to wear a WWII GI’s helmet and carrying a replica rifle, getting a tour of the set in a 4×4 driven by a man my Dad once worked with, walking the beach and picking the spent cartridges from the sand, of seeing and touching the pillboxes dug into the cliff face and getting to sit into one of the anti-aircraft guns perched like a gargoyle on the clifftop. And of meeting Steven Spielberg. But I’m not going to, as that is a different story, one I might tell you over a pint someday. Remind me about it next time I see you.
Those memories have undoubtedly influenced my thinking on this film, one that still silences and astounds me every time I watch it. Like Jaws, another Spielberg film I revisit regularly, I have never watched Saving Private Ryan without feeling the very same sense of fear and excitement and heartbreak I felt that first time. There are numerous reasons for this, one being the integrity that Spielberg brings to the beach landing on Normandy. While hard to watch, Spielberg never loses respect for the men that fought and died on those beaches 74 years ago, he never loses sight of the fact that, in 1998 anyway, a considerable amount of WWII veterans who fought on Omaha were still alive. They were his audience and because of his reverent respect of the sacrifice they made. Saving Private Ryan is accepted by those WWII veterans as the best depiction of their war ever filmed. For the actual men who fought in Europe to validate a film in such a way is testament to its power, both visually and emotionally, and I think the reason why it resonated with audiences is because it feels so real.
Visually it is astounding, but visuals will only take you so far, you need a heart or a core to build the visuals around and, in his cast, Spielberg found just that – heart. Spielberg has never had a problem creating likeable, dare I say loveable, characters (ET for one), but he is far more adroit in making real characters, those with integrity and flaws. Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody in Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler are just magnificent; granted, Schindler was an actual person but Spielberg allowed us to view these characters warts and all. And we still liked them. In his career to that point Spielberg had not tackled an ensemble movie (we could argue about 1941, but let’s not) and because of this I believe that Saving Private Ryan is virtually the pinnacle of his life’s work. Why? Because the characters both he and screenwriter Robert Rodat created are so real and the film itself so visceral that you invest yourself in the odyssey these men embark upon. Saving Private Ryan is an example of mankind at its very best and very worst. And it achieves all this without judging, without placing blame or creating stereotypical or pastiche heroes and monsters of the American or German soldiers.
In saying that it is real and visceral, special mention must be made to the level of violence in Saving Private Ryan. While being quite graphic, the violence in Saving Private Ryan does not glorify war – this isn’t an Audie Murphy, gung ho war movie. Saving Private Ryan is bloody and brutal and overwhelming in places; soldiers have their brains blown out, limbs severed, and bodies vaporised by heavy artillery fire and mortar blasts. But it’s not gratuitous war porn, Spielberg’s camera doesn’t dwell on the violence but pushes you through it – these are but moments during the film, individually horrifying but stitched together they are an assault not only on our senses but on how we digest and comprehend what exactly WWII must have been like for the soldiers involved.
There is an emotional violence too, watching soldiers dodge bullets, scarpering hither and tither looking for some form of shelter and the fear and the panic displayed is just as violent as seeing the bodies fly apart. We all know that soldiers die in battle, but the prelude to death, the unimaginable fear of facing your own death, is as arresting as a gunshot or a bomb blast. Watching the soldiers cry or pray or curl up and rock themselves in attempt at comfort is just as distressing as viewing the bullet riddled or limbless bodies. This is Spielberg’s genius, he crafted a film to entertain but also to inform his audience. You will never look at war the same after watching Saving Private Ryan.
There is an honesty absent from most war movies that is present in abundance in the whirlwind, helter skelter recreation of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. The opening sequence alone is an immersive experience, placing the audience members in the thick of the action. Filmmaker Samuel Fuller, a WWII veteran himself, once argued that it was impossible to recreate on film how it felt to be in combat, saying “You can never do it. The only way is to fire live ammo over the heads of the people in the movie theatre.” Yet Jeanine Basinger, a Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University, believes Saving Private Ryan is the closest to real a WWII film may ever be because of the integrity Spielberg achieved in his images and his desire to “bury the cornball, recruiting poster legend of John Wayne: to get it right this time.”
This was achieved through the relentless assault on the senses, especially during the beach sequence, Basinger saying “[t]his opening sequence is a nightmare. Today’s audiences are shocked into silence while watching. No one talks, and no one munches popcorn or rattles candy wrappers.” Indeed, as a 15-year-old boy watching it for the first time I remember being stunned, taken aback and upset by what I saw. The images of the Higgins boat doors falling open to the deafening din of heavy artillery fire devastating row after row of soldiers have never left me. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t affected by this opening sequence and that is validation of what Spielberg was trying to achieve, quickly dispelling any notion that WWII was a bloodless war, or a fair war. As the soldiers of Miller’s squad attempt to take a German machine gun post on Omaha beach, Sgt Horvath remarks to Capt Miller, “…you might as well give us blindfolds, Capt…” as they try, wave after wave, to take the position but to no avail.
Yet, as I mentioned briefly above, it isn’t the memory of the violence that lingers for me, but how the characters react to it and this is something that Janusz Kaminski, the film’s cinematographer, believes too, “[t]he film is realistic because of the actor’s performances. Audiences will be shocked by what they see during the invasion sequences, but the most emotional moments are when the characters look at each other afterward and have a chance to reflect on what they have just experienced.” This is exampled by Miller looking out over the beach, a close shot of his eyes as Sgt Horvath off screen says “That’s quite a view”, the view being the devastated beach and the bodies of soldiers lying in pieces washed by the blood-red swell of the sea.
This Time the Mission is a Man
“This time the mission is a man,” as said by Sgt Horvath sums up exactly what the film is about; finding Private James Ryan and bringing him home. Saving Private Ryan is not about the Normandy landings, but the beach sequence is essential to how the audience view Miller’s men. We have just seen them survive the Normandy landings and have developed an emotional attachment, we want them to succeed, but we know there will be deaths along the way. And the characters know this too, they are quite aware that not all of them are coming back alive – Private Mellish openly telling Capt Miller, “I got a bad feeling about this one, Capt.” Or Reiben remonstrating with Miller in the wake of Wade’s death, “Yes sir. That was one hell of a call coming to take this nest but…The hell, we lost one of our guys going for it. I swear, I hope Mama Ryan’s real freaking happy knowing that little Jimmy’s life is more important than two of our guys.”
Even Miller himself, in private with Sgt Horvath, questions the wisdom of trying to find Ryan, “This Ryan better be worth it, he better go home and cure some disease or invent the longer lasting lightbulb, or something. Because to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t trade ten Ryan’s for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.” This mission tests the resolve of his squad, they don’t see why they should be risking their lives to try save Ryan’s and this disaffection underlines everything; how they view Ryan, how they view command but also how they view each other. To paraphrase a bible quote, “what greater love is there than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend” and this is exampled by the respect they have for each other, an unbreakable bond that has been forged through the heat of battle and tempered by loss. This is reflected in Ryan too. When they find him, he is defending a bridge in Ramelle and though Miller’s orders are to take him back, Ryan refuses to leave his squad, his men, the soldiers that he has fought with, saying to Capt Miller “Tell her [his mother] that when you found me, I was here, and I was with the only brothers I have left. And there’s no way I was gonna desert them.”
This bond underpins everything in Saving Private Ryan and holds the film together. Look at how Upham is taken into the group, they are not happy with this interloper taking the place of a fallen comrade as they do not know him and as such do not trust him (just as they do not trust Ryan). Yet, Upham is the heart of this group, he is the conscience and he also represents the fear and hesitation in every person. Upham is not a soldier, he is a translator and he is quite childlike, he has an innocence that adds a beauty to not only his character but to the film entirely. Yet this innocence causes him to falter and hesitate exactly when he needed to step up, his fear for his own life and inaction leads to the death of Mellish (how many times have we frozen in the face of strong opposition – it is human). Upham atones for this by shooting Steamboat Willy, the German soldier he helped save earlier in the film who later goes on to kill Captain Miller. This is Upham’s coming of age, the death of innocence and the price of war, and it is wonderfully composed by both Rodat and Spielberg, and acted by Jeremy Davies.
Trust is the key element here and in the wake of Wade’s death (the most heart wrenching death sequence I’ve ever seen filmed) Miller tries to regain his men’s trust by being honest with them and telling them that his motivation for saving Ryan is purely a selfish one. He knows how many men have died under his command (94) and he can’t take the notion of killing anymore; he sees the task of finding Ryan and bringing him back home to Iowa as saving a life instead of taking one. Maybe, in his own way, Miller sees saving Ryan as saving his own humanity too, of trying to reclaim part of him that has been lost to the war, “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even gonna recognize me whenever it is I get back to her, and how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today…for every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.” Miller’s words are reflected in each of his men, each desire to save that bit of who they were before the war too.
In the words of Sgt Horvath, “Someday we might look back at this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful shitty mess.” It is that love of each other that elevates Saving Private Ryan high above other war movies; these men are fighting for each other, body and soul. They are together, and this is manifested in the burial of Wade. Miller, carrying the guilt of Wade’s death, is the first to try lift his body. His squad, which was almost pulled asunder moments earlier, now stand with him and help him lower Wade’s body into the earth. This is a beautiful and symbolic moment, shot in silhouette, showing how they are truly are a band of brothers. But what makes it even more poignant is the fact that they bury the German dead too. A life is a life, regardless of race or nationality, and they are showing respect to their fellow soldiers.
This respect or love within Miller’s squad is represented physically during the film by “the letter.” As Caparzo lies dying he takes from his uniform a letter written to his parents and asks Mellish to make sure they get it. The letter is tattered, rain-soaked and blood stained. Medic Wade is the first to his aid but by then Caparzo is dead. Wade takes the letter and later that night transcribes the words, not willing to give Caparzo’s parents their son’s final thoughts covered in his blood. Wade carries the re-written letter until he is shot and killed. Here, as the entire squad gather around Wade’s body, Miller takes the letter and puts it in his own pocket, intent on making sure that Caparzo’s words make that final journey. In the final sequence, as Miller defends the bridge, he too is shot and killed. Reiben, as he tries to administer whatever first aid he can, kneels by his Captain’s body and takes the letter from Miller’s pocket. It has become more than a letter, but a symbol, itself a mission and on this score Miller’s men will not be found lacking either.
The audience never find out whether the letter makes it back to America, but it signifies the bond, the connection that these men had, they were not willing to let it get lost in the tumult of war or buried in French soil or lost to the wind. It was too important as it was the dying wish of one of their own. They were willing to take on the responsibility out of their profound respect and love for each other. This is one of the ways in which they are trying to save their own integrity, honour bound to complete this journey. That to me is the heart of Saving Private Ryan and it is one of the reasons why I love the film as I do.
As Spielberg films sometimes tend to be, Saving Private Ryan veers toward sentimentality in the opening and closing sequences; those featuring “Old Ryan” – but these bookends nicely juxtapose the horror of the reality with the saccharine of the “memory of the loved and lost.” But these overly sentimental moments are designed to give weight to Capt. Millers final words to Ryan. Before he dies, Miller whispers, “James…earn this. Earn it.” By this it can only be assumed that Miller wants Ryan to live a life as full as can be and Ryan honours that by returning to Miller’s grave surrounded by generations of his family, as if trying to prove to him that he earned it. As Old Ryan stands by Miller’s grave in Normandy, crying, he asks his wife, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” That is an emotional kicker, the memory that Ryan has carried with him all his life of what eight strangers did to ensure he lived has shaded everything he has done in his life. I defy anyone to not get emotional as Old Ryan looks upon a vast ocean of crosses and stars in the sprawling graveyard in Normandy, his eyes filling with tears at the memory of a war that stole a generation, that in there somewhere is a little cross representing the man who gave his life to ensure that Ryan survived. That thought on its own is enough to stir your emotions, let alone the sight of a grief stricken old man returning to honour his fallen comrades.
Saving Private Ryan may be remembered for that disturbing and breath-taking scene on Omaha beach but there is far more to this film than just a gratuitous battle sequence. It is full of hope and despair, of love and respect, of fear and humanity; it is one of the most emotionally engaging films I have ever seen and if you have not seen Saving Private Ryan in some time then I hope, maybe after reading this, that you might revisit a film that, for me, ranks as Spielberg’s finest but also as a poetic tribute to the generation of men who died on battle fields all across Europe and the Pacific, soldiers who fought for freedom but died for each other.