My earliest memories of Saving Private Ryan are not exactly positive. For one thing, I didn’t even get through the first ten minutes during my first viewing (who would’ve thought one exceedingly long and uncommonly gory battle sequence would be too much for a nine-year old?).
When I finally did pluck up the courage to give Saving Private Ryan a second chance, the Normandy landings sequence was still absolutely terrifying, albeit for slightly different reasons. The first time around, I honestly think I was just freaked because it was loud. Watching it as a (relatively) grown-up person now, what got me the most was the utter hopelessness of the situation. One volley of gunfire destroying countless men instantly. The colours of life waning into an ashen echo; that is, save for the tides, which wash blood-red as the camera pans out over the Norman coast.
The film follow a group of soldiers on a mission; risking their eight lives for one Private Ryan. The rationale behind this is unclear in the minds of the men. Are they doing this to ease the suffering of Mrs Ryan, the mother of three sons who have died in battle and a fourth who is missing in action? Perhaps they suppose saving Ryan is something they are fundamentally obliged to do; it is the honourable thing to do. Ultimately, Hanks’ Captain Miller says it best:
The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home; if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission. I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.
One of the most affecting scenes takes place in a church, with the young medic Irwin Wade telling his comrades about life back home. He tells of how his mother worked long hours at night, and therefore how he often did not get the chance to see her. Sometimes, she would come home early, but Wade would pretend to be asleep. She’d stand in the doorway looking at him, wishing just to find out about his day and just to talk to to him.
This idea of looking through a doorway is curiously mirrored in the scene itself, as Wade is actually seen through a row of shadowy balusters as he recounts his story. The composition is powerfully unsettling; we are not only allowed an insight into what his mother went through, but also we get a sense of Wade’s own feelings of entrapment in his own actions —what’s done cannot be undone.
Spielberg captures these themes, the futility, regret and unpredictability that comes with war, very well. And while their is often nuance and honesty in this film’s storytelling, I am also simultaneously at a loss over what to make of it. In some ways, it reminds me of one of those old war films that classic Hollywood churned out by the dozen.
It is old-fashioned in the sense that it paints warfare in mythic (albeit desaturated) colours. For example, and I’m afraid I put this rather bluntly, the members of Captain Miller’s group either die gloriously in battle or escape completely unscathed. There isn’t that inescapable truth that everyone seems to sweep under the rug; men carrying with them the trauma of war, whether it be mental wounds or physical ones, for the rest of their lives.
Although I am not certain that the message of Saving Private Ryan is one which I entirely agree with, I nevertheless believe that, as a piece of cinema, it is remarkably effective. To me, and, I imagine, anyone who has never fought in battle, the horrors that the characters face are unimaginable.
We simply cannot fathom what war feels like, and Spielberg comes outstandingly close to showing us the abrupt reality of war. We also gain an insight into the men who fought these battles, ordinary guys who were scared and tired, and longed only to return home. It is on this front that Saving Private Ryan is most successful.