Original release: July 24th, 1998
Running time: 169 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Robert Rodat
Composer: John Williams
Cast: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Ted Danson
How do you make sense of the madness of war? Steven Spielberg attempts to answer this question in Saving Private Ryan. His third and (to date) final serious film about World War II is the most influential of the three and in its storytelling approach, perhaps the most interesting.
Unlike Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan strips World War II of its wider context and focuses solely on the fighting. Spielberg, a Jewish director responsible for Hollywood’s first honest attempt at a Holocaust film, doesn’t tread the obvious route and attempt to find meaning in the atrocities of Auschwitz; Saving Private Ryan never looks for external answers. Instead, it looks within.
The film begins with the famous siege of Omaha Beach, a shocking sequence that depicts war as an almost literal hell. Twisted bodies are strewn on the sand, the blue water of the ocean rushes to the shore tinged with blood, fire bursts and smoke billows as gunfire and explosions rip through this once peaceful location.
It’s a sequence that’s impossible to passively watch, and at one point Spielberg’s cacophonous direction forces us to get involved. As the soldiers progress up the beach, the camera – our head – briefly turns to look at a man writhing in agony, before rushing forward again. He was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s husband or boyfriend. We should mourn him, but in war he’s just another dead body we can’t afford to linger on.
Spielberg’s way of finding meaning in such madness may seem straightforward, but it’s not. Forget the title, because Saving Private Ryan isn’t really about saving Private Ryan (Matt Damon); it’s about saving the man who saves Ryan.
Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is a typical Spielbergian hero, an educated everyman who is noble, brave and worships the home. He’s also somewhat unknowable and distant from his men, who don’t even know what their leader’s real-life profession is and have a sweepstakes running on it.
Saving Private Ryan was one of the first films Spielberg made after reconciling with his father in the mid-90s, and Miller represents his most complete father figure – a man we’re asked to accept as heroic, despite (and perhaps even because of) his flaws.
Service has corrupted Miller. When the company arrive at the French town of Neuville, Miller commits the ultimate Spielbergian crime. A desperate citizen in a decimated house hands his daughter to the men hoping they’ll protect her. Private Carparzo (Vin Diesel) takes the girl, but Miller objects and is ultimately proven right as Carparzo is shot by a German sniper. It’s an inversion of the ‘girl in the red coat’ sequence from Schindler’s List.
Whereas Schindler saw innocence in his young girl and felt compelled to intervene, Miller sees danger. Taking the girl may be the right thing to do, but such ideals have no place in war. The girl is not part of the mission and so must be left behind.
Miller’s choice is echoed later when the group encounter a German machine gunner. Miller insists on taking the gunner out, despite it not being part of the mission. The decision is motivated by his need to assuage his guilt for the number of difficult decisions and mistakes he’s made throughout the film. The gunner is captured, but at the cost of the company’s medic (Giovanni Ribisi).
At the end of the firefight, the men debate the gunner’s fate, most wanting to kill him in revenge. Miller, however, frees the soldier in an act of humanity that contrasts sharply with his pragmatic attitude to the girl. “I guess that was the decent thing to do, huh Captain?” asks one of the men. Miller can’t answer. War has turned him into a split personality: the humanitarian who wants to do the decent thing and the pragmatist who frequently can’t. Ryan is about solving this conflict.
The battle for Miller’s soul reaches its conclusion in the climactic tank battle that claims his life. Mortally wounded by enemy fire, Miller sinks to the ground and whispers two words to Ryan with his final breath: “Earn this”. Spielberg then cuts to a shot of Ryan’s hand filmed from Miller’s eyeline. It is still, in contrast to Miller’s hand, which has been shaking throughout the film due to his experiences in the war.
As a sombre Ryan stands by Miller’s body, General Marshall can be heard on the soundtrack, reading a letter to Ryan’s mother that explains her son’s recovery. Ryan and Miller are inextricably bonded by this sequence. In a microcosm for the War at large, the latter has died so the former can live and it’s now up to Ryan to justify that sacrifice. Only by resolving Miller’s conflict and living the good and decent life he never could, can Ryan do this.
How can the audience do the same? By turning the film off. Throughout Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg references indicators of sight. We cut from the present day opening to the past with a shot of eyes and repeatedly look down or through the barrels of guns and tanks. This is nothing new for Spielberg – he often uses sight and eyes as a representation of cinema and the knowledge and understanding it provides. Here though, that knowledge is limited.
Using another key Spielberg motif – light – the final shot is of an American flag, backlit by the sun and billowing in the wind. Some critics have identified this as a patriotic affirmation, yet it’s anything but. Instead of a booming red, white and blue, the sun mutes the colours, making for a rather sombre Star Spangled Banner. The film is asking us a question: have you justified the sacrifice?
With Ryan (and all WWII veterans) approaching the end of his life, the burden has passed to us. We have become Miller’s saviours. But to fulfil our obligation we must reject the fiction of movies and ‘earn it’ in real life. Only then can we begin to make sense of the madness of war.
Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.
When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.