Aug/Sep 1998 Film and Cinema

Saving Private Ryan

reviewed by Mark Leeper

Capsule: This is perhaps the most realistic
and at the same time perhaps the most violent war
film ever made. Eight men are sent on a mission of
mercy in the week following the Normandy Invasion.
Along the way we see the invasion of Europe from
the perspective of a grunt soldier. It is not a
pleasant sight. This is an answer to every war
movie that ever made battle look glorious.
Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)


I am sorry that John Wayne is not around to see Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Wayne made many films of the glory of war. Perhaps during the war that was what was needed. But it presented a totally artificial view of what war was really like. In a John Wayne film when someone is killed they fall over—usually bloodlessly. Nobody has to deal with people who have been cut in half by machine gun bullets, with wounded solders looking for their own severed arms. The deaths in Saving Private Ryan are anything but bloodless. And at a time when so many films show gratuitous gore, as a special effect Steven Spielberg may be the only director who knows how to shoot blood so that the viewer feels the pain.

There are four boys in the Ryan family, or at least there were the week before D-Day. Mrs. Ryan will get three telegrams in one day about the loss of three sons. The last remaining son was airdropped behind enemy lines and nobody knows if James Ryan is alive or dead. The brass wants to see him back safely with his family. A squad of eight men is sent to find Ryan and send him home. But the squad is decidedly ambivalent about the assignment. Eight men are risking their lives in highly dangerous territory to save the life of one private who is being sent home in what may be only a public relations gesture. Is he more deserving of special treatment because of what happened to his brothers? When they find him is he even going to want to go home? Might he be already dead and the whole mission pointless? Are eight people likely to be killed for some general's quixotic notion of mercy?

No film in memory has ever taken such a gritty and un-romanticized view of what the dog soldier experiences. The battle scenes are as vicious and unrelenting as any film has ever shown us. The action begins with a 25-minute subjective view of the squad landing on the Normandy Beach-right in front of a nest of machine guns. There are no dramatics here. It is just a bunch of men being delivered into to mouth of a meat-grinder. Most of the delivered soldiers last just seconds before they die in any of a variety of ugly ways. The survivors of the squad are chosen for the Ryan mission and with some trepidation they go off to find the private. Captain John Miller, a blood-and- guts commander, played against type by Tom Hanks leads the squad. Unknown to the high command but suspected by the men, Miller is starting to crumble under the stress of constantly dealing with the dying and dismembered. The squad is a heterogeneous mix of personalities and ethnic types borrowed from any film like A Walk in the Sun or The Big Red One. It includes the loyal Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), the uncooperative Private Reiben (Edward Burns), the Jewish Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), and a timid translator, Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies). Among the issues contested by the unit is the question of how to treat surrendering Germans and the individual's responsibility to be sacrificed for the many.

Spielberg has not returned to the black and white of Schindler's List but he does some playing with the color and look. At times he will wash out the film, giving the feel of amateur photography of the time. During battle scenes he will use a special filter to tint the scene. Then he strobes the action so while the film is not slowed down, it will give fewer images per minute. In this way it looks like the viewer is not able to take in all he is seeing. He will use hand held cameras to put the viewer into the action. Miller's physical state of shock is represented by near silence on the soundtrack in the middle of a battle scene. During some of the battle scenes we get almost all of our information visually and the sound is reduced to the din of battle. Other times Spielberg lets the sound tell the story, particularly in scenes where the squad is hearing the earthquake-like rumble of approaching tanks. Spielberg makes his point in the loud numbing battle scenes or in quiet moments as when Mrs. Ryan just folds up and sits on the floor of her porch when she knows she is about to be given bad news. He can make a point by letting his camera wander over the geometrical lattice of a field of crosses in a military cemetery. Curiously enough for so professional a production, there are some inconsistencies in the Robert Rodat script. Early in the film we are told that the boys at first served together and were separated only after the five Sullivan brothers died in the Navy when the boat on which the five served was sunk by the enemy. That true incident, by the way, was probably the inspiration for this fictional story. We see a picture of the brothers all in uniform. But later we are told that when one of the brothers went to boot camp was the last time they were together. One more minor glitch if I saw what I think I saw, the men invading Normandy seem to have guns covered in polyethylene to protect them from the water. Nope. That is a decade or so too soon for that. What they did tend to use is latex, which would have been more tight- fitting. It also would be a product produced for another purpose. (Information on polymers and WWII provided by Harold Leeper, Chemistry Docent for the Tech Science Museum, San Jose, California. He and I go way back.)

The honesty and realism of some of the scenes of this film may forever change the war film. This is not a pleasant film, but it is a truthful one in a way that few war films have ever been truthful. I rate it a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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