Saving Private Ryan

Saving-Private-Ryan-Wallpapers-3My 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.

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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.

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45 Comments

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  1. A review punctuated with personal story and view point always charms me. Thank you. Having been a teacher – and at Tom Hanks’s high school, though after his tenure – I resonated with the idea of a man of peace surrounded by war. Hanks, of course, is too nice to be a killer. The premise of the film SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is in some ways similar to the current MONUMENTS MEN with the blessed absence of George Clooney. SPR is without doubt a much finer film.

    1. What a lovely comment —thank you. Yes, it is particularly sad to see men as humane and gentle as Miller going off to fight a violent war. In fact, all the soldiers of the film are clearly not the fearsome warriors one always likes to imagine, but really just all too human.

  2. Interesting.

    While I don’t hate Saving Private Ryan and cringed like everyone else through those brutal opening scenes, Terence Malick’s film, A Thin Red Line, spoke to me more about the atrocities of war. Speilberg’s tidy bookends kind of turned me off while Malick’s closing left me with a little more self reflection. (i.e. What would I do in this circumstance? How does one survive war? etc.)

    Great films. Great post. And thx for the follow!

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      And I agree entirely about the neat bookend structure of Saving Private Ryan. To me it seemed a little unnecessary and avoidably sentimental. As for The Thin Red Line, I have rather inexcusably not seen it yet! When I do, perhaps we can discuss it :)

  3. Great review! I think the fun of writing is exploring vocabulary, which you do so well. I love your review because it is not just plot, it evaluates unexplored kings which e.g o do myself. Film should evoke emotion, whether is trot, sadness, laughter… I think the opening scene is truly awful and frightening. I think worst in terms of having to look away and close your eyes is the 2 soldiers fighting with one dying by knife. To see his life drift away shook me like no other scene.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments :)

      Thank you also for mentioning the scene with Pvt. Mellish and the German soldier, which I didn’t write about in my review. It’s one of the most brutal and deeply unsettling scenes of the movie; either (or both) of those men could have met their deaths, and when ultimately the knife does go in, it is a laboured and deliberate action (very different to, but no less frightening than the instantaneous shots which kill throughout the movie).

      Also very powerful is the quick scene that follows it: Upham, who has heard all the events unfold, sees the German walk down the stairs. The low-angle shot enhances his feelings of hopelessness; the imposing soldier towers over Upham, and decides to let the guilty and inept man go free.

      1. Your are very welcome! I’m not sure of your age, but it’s great to talk to someone who appreciates the old classics. Most my age react to my passion with who? What? Really? Saddo. You have a great talent for writing and I just could stop reading. I look forward to reading your views on further classics :)

      2. I agree! It’s been great reading your blog. I haven’t been able to put it down. You have a great talent for writing and its refreshing to be able to talk about classic film. Most people my age react with who? What? Really? Saddo! I look forward to reading further reviews you clearly have a great knowledge of film :)

      3. Yes, that’s probably the best part about writing this blog. Not only can you express your thoughts and ideas about cinema, you can also share these ideas with some of the most eloquent and exciting film enthusiasts out there!

        As for my own age… well, let’s just say no one would ever call me old :P But that’s just the thing about film; it doesn’t matter at all; great movies can be discovered and appreciated at any age. Thanks for reading :)

  4. Hello again, I am currently reading a beautiful book called All The Best Lines which is a beautiful book to read if you love film. I came across an interesting fact in regard to Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg made all the main stars complete tough military training apart from Mat Damon in order for them to resent Mat Damon’s character.

    1. Sounds like a very interesting book; I might have a look around for it some time soon :) And yes, I had heard about this Matt Damon thing, which I think was just a very brilliant idea on the part of Spielberg! The close, almost familial relationship between Miller’s soldiers shows through very much, and Damon does indeed look like an outsider when he is among them.

  5. Hi there, Rachel. I’m thankful that you decided to become a follower of my blog and that you’ve liked my first movie review. Your blog and movie reviews make for an engaging read. You obviously have a passion for classic films and the stars that appeared in them. i’m sure that I can glean much from the thoughts and opinions that you impart in your posts as well as the information that I can get out of them.

    By the way, about your thoughts on “Saving Private Ryan,” I do agree with your impression that it provides a stark view of the suffering that World War II caused to all those who had participated in it. The bloody violence and outright madness that is portrayed in the movie made it memorable because they really did happen. Nothing can mask the fact that there was terrible suffering and death during those times. Those who were lucky enough to survive the conflict were forever scarred with the memory of their fallen comrades and the notion that their lives had been irreparably changed forever. This movie stood as a timely reminder of the heroism and sacrifice that they exemplified

    1. Thank you for your comment!
      And thank you also for that wonderful review of “The Lego Movie”, which I though was great fun. Can’t wait to read more from you :)

  6. It’s hard to argue those who survive the battle at the end emerge unscathed. Upham is certainly scarred by his experiences — he goes from an awkward clerk who can barely carry his pack to shooting that German prisoner in cold blood. Reiben has seen all of his friends die. And Ryan has to spend the rest of his life haunted by Captain Miller’s final words, wondering whether he did in fact earn this.

    Which I think is the point of the entire film. Aside from removing some of the nostalgic curtain from WWII and showing that it was just as brutal, surreal and terrifying as our more recent wars (just with a more noble purpose attached to it), Spielberg is asking if we — both the audience and the country — have earned what the simple bravery of these men has bought. And I think, judging by the desaturated, almost colorless way he shoots the American flag at the beginning and end of the film, Spielberg doesn’t think we have.

    1. That is certainly a fair point; one can definitely infer that the survivors suffer emotional scars, although this (apart from the transformation of Upham) is not particularly explicit within the time frame of the movie. Then again, that is not the point of Spielberg’s film. As you put very eloquently, it is about the sacrifice of ordinary men, and whether those that they fought for have lived their lives worthily.

      Thanks for the follow and this thoughtful comment :)

  7. This is a life changing film. My oldest brother, whom I never knew, was a paratrooper who died on D-Day but not on the beaches. My husband and I visited on a rainy dark August day. It was truly sacred ground. This film brings it alive for people who never have that chance!

    1. Your comment is very true. People often take for granted the immense power of cinema…that ability to move profoundly, and to transport to another time and place. Thank you for sharing this Anne.

  8. Hello. You wrote “the members of Captain Miller’s group either die gloriously in battle or escape completely unscathed.” Vin Diesel’s character didn’t die gloriously in battle. He was dropped by a sniper as he stood out in the street arguing about a little girl; and a few minutes later he died in the rain. Ribisi’s character died painfully, with multiple hits from a German MG, asking for more morphine, knowing what the extra dose will do; and asking for his mother right before he died.

    You are also incorrect in your assessment of this movie not showing the trauma of war, not showing the mental and physical wounds of the soldiers who live through war. We see the shell shock in Private Ryan in the opening sequence, and in the final sequence. We also see Capt. Miller’s hands shaking once in a while; and had he lived, he certainly would’ve lived with PTSD all or most of his life.

    I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan” about 10 times; and in many of the scenes, it does show the mental wear and tear on the soldiers. And of course, it always shows us the tremendous sacrifices of U.S. soldiers during World War II as they fought to keep America and the rest of the world safe from the evil ambitions of Hitler and the Japanese Empire.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Bear with me as I try to justify my interpretation of “Saving Private Ryan” :P

      Firstly my line “the members of Captain Miller’s group either die gloriously in battle or escape completely unscathed” seems to have caused some controversy! (If I remember correctly, Richard Dickson in a comment above yours also had a bit of a problem with this assessment). What I meant, essentially, was that their deaths are portrayed as “glorious” because they died doing the right thing. (If you really get down to it, the end of a life, especially in battle, is always sad and ugly). Diesel’s character, in trying to save that girl, loses his life, but maintains his decency and goodness. Irwin Wade too dies a hero; he follows his captain’s orders, and despite realising that he’s struggling against something which is certain to end in failure, he does it anyway, honourably putting himself at risk to save the lives of others.

      My point wasn’t exactly that “Saving Private Ryan” does not accurately portray the trauma of war. I do think Spielberg and his cast of actors do this very well. As I mentioned in my reply to Richard one can definitely infer that the survivors suffer emotional scars throughout the rest of their lives, although this (apart from the transformation of Upham) is not particularly explicit within the time frame of the movie.

      This film celebrates and elevates so tremendously the idea that these men were heroes. And of course, they were; serving in battle, many did heroic things and displayed remarkable courage in situations which we cannot even imagine. We should, of course, admire and respect this. But first and foremost, I think we should remember them as ordinary men —wrenched from their homes, wrenched from their lives to fight for their country. Of course it was an honourable cause, but I don’t believe something so devastating and tragic as war should be remembered so fondly. By painting his picture so neatly, I feel Spielberg does exactly this.

      1. Points taken : ) But I still think “glorious” isn’t the appropriate word for the deaths of most of Miller’s men. Meaningful, yes, but not glorious. But I understand your point of view.

        Also, I don’t think “Saving Private Ryan” lets us remember WW II fondly, though. Every viewing of this movie leaves me shaken, and grateful for the ordinary men and women who did their duties and suffered during that war.

        Bottom line, I think we can agree it’s a very good movie. And of course, every person has their opinion and interpretation of what a movie is about. : D

        Keep watching those movies and keep writing!

        –M

  9. I understand your point regarding the deaths being “glorious,” but I still disagree. A meaningful death doesn’t necessarily equate to a glorious one.

    Also, I don’t think there are many people who would look at WW II with fondness, and I certainly don’t believe “Saving Private Ryan” is a movie that looks at WW II with fondness. Spielberg says clearly in interviews that he was trying to show the horrors of WW II as well as the sacrifices that U.S. soldiers made. And every time I watched “SPR,” that’s what I got. No fond remembrances.

    Of course, you ask 100 people about a movie, you’ll get 100 different responses. That’s just how people are, I think. And I happen to not want to get too serious about something that’s not important, and so, I leave you with a funny, little tidbit. When this movie came out, a comedian mentioned a porn version of this movie called “Saving Ryan’s Privates.” I’ve always wondered if that movie was real. Hmm…time to Google it, since I’m already on the internet!

    –M

    1. Yes, I thing we’ll just agree to disagree for now :)
      And of course SPR is a fantastic film: it is well-crafted, emotive and portrays the plight of war in a way that is still very powerful today.

  10. Rachel, Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece, but I have only watched it one time. We saw it the week it opened. The theater ws crowded, but not a soul moved the entire movie. When it was over you could hear the tears throughout the audience. I appreciate your review/commentary on the movie and agree. If given an opportunity I would not watch the movie again. There are just certain movies you don’t need to see more than once, for me this is one of them. Take care Bill

    BTW, thank you for visiting my blog again.

    1. Saving Private Ryan is truly a wonderful film, and I can definitely understand why you would choose only to see it once. Thank you for sharing this lovely movie memory Bill.

  11. A film that every person in this country should watch. It shows that freedom in this country or any other country isn’t for free. The valiant sacrifices by those soldiers on the beaches in France that day could never be repaid. It is a movie that leaves an indelible mark on any person that watches it. I am forever grateful for the sacrifices by the men and women in uniform past and present. When you come down to it, nothing else really matters when you don’t have people willing to stand up and fight for their freedom.

  12. During the war, five brothers went to war and all five were killed. They were the Sullivan brothers, and a film was made about them “The Fighting Sullivans.” My friend , Eddie Ryan, played the youngest of them. Because of this catastrophe to one family, our country decided that not all the sons of one family would be deployed. Thus, “Saving Private Ryan” is about that decision. Your review is excellent.

    1. Sounds like a fantastic film; I’ll be sure to check it out some time. By the way, I’ve just had a little wander through your blog and I must say you are a wonderful storyteller! Thank you so much for sharing these lovely memories.

  13. I remember reading at the time about D – Day veterans walking out because the opening sequence was too real for them and too painful. Well just Hollywood PR hype aimed at selling tickets. Well that is until I got 10 minutes into the movie and I can very much believe that the stories were true, it is amazingly powerful.

    1. Absolutely. That opening landing sequence still remains one of the most harrowing movie experiences for me. On a completely different note, (and perhaps to lighten the mood) your profile pic is absolutely brilliant :P

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