War Movie Mondays: ‘Saving Private Ryan’

This week’s pick salutes Steven Spielberg’s epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) which tells the story of an eight man rifle squad which is chosen to find and safely bring back Pvt. Ryan after it is discovered that his three older brothers have all died in combat just days apart from one another. The film stars Tom Hanks (Capt. John H. Miller, Charlie Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion), Tom Sizemore (Sgt. Mike Horvath), Ed Burns (Pfc. Richard Reiben), Jeremy Davies (Cpl. Timothy E. Upham), Barry Pepper (Pvt. Daniel Jackson), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Stanley Mellish), Vin Diesel (Pfc. Adrian Caparzo), Giovanni Ribisi (Pvt. Irwin Wade), and Matt Damon (Pvt. James Ryan).

Saving Private Ryan is best known for its first thirty minute opening which is one of the most brutal depictions of combat ever put on film. Elements of Capt. Miller’s (Hanks) battalion prepare for the assault on Omaha Beach on the fateful morning of June 6, 1944. While the assault force approaches the Normandy coast aboard the landing craft, each man is preparing themselves for the inevitable. Many men are seasick, while many pray silently to themselves.

The operator of the boat alerts them that they will hit the beach in just thirty seconds. Miller instructs his men to move fast and to clear the “murder hole” (the opening of the craft). When the ramp hits, you are immediately plunged into the intense combat. Rows of men are cut down from German machine gun fire before they can even leave the craft. Other men are instructed to jump over the sides, only to drown due to the amount of heavy equipment many troops carried into combat.

Miller helps a fellow soldier ashore while they make their way through the maze of anti-tank traps and dead bodies at the water’s edge. The camera is submerged under the water, and then surfaces. The use of sound in this scene is fantastic. When submerged, the scene is tranquil and peaceful but when on the surface, you are subjected to the sound of machine gun fire, explosions, and bullet ricochets off of men and the tank traps that were placed to keep American armored vehicles from reaching the beach.

Once Miller is ashore, the sound once again goes silent.  This gives the effect of total sensory overload. Miller witnesses the carnage and can not hear anything but a dull roar in his ears. Images of soldiers missing limbs, others cowering behind objects to avoid being hit by enemy fire gives the viewer a first hand look at how costly an operation this was.

Miller and the rest of his platoon converge at the front of the German defenses. Miller, his men, and many from mixed units break the German defenses and capture that section of the beach so that more men and material can be brought in to secure a beach-head. Once the initial adrenaline of combat subsides, Miller’s men such as Caparzo (Diesel) and Mellish (Goldberg) begin to loot the bodies of dead Germans for spoils of war. Caparzo turns to Mellish and says “Hey Fish, look at this. It’s a Hitler Youth knife.” Mellish replies “Yeah and now is a Sabbat Challah cutter now.” Mellish begins to break down and cries after he jokes to mask the fear he’s feeling. Miller’s adjutant Sgt. Horvath (Sizemore) begins to fill a tin with dirt marked “France” on the lid.  He places it in a bag with other tins marked “North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.” Even in the aftermath, Horvath still finds time to take a souvenir as a reminder of his exploits in the war. The camera then pans to bodies washing up on the beach and the high angle camera pulls in on one dead soldier with the name RYAN stenciled on his backpack.

News from the U.S. War Department of not one, but two other men named Ryan have been killed in combat in Europe and one in New Guinea. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall played by veteran character actor Harve Presnell learns that all three men were brothers and that the youngest son James is somewhere in Normandy fighting with the 101st Airborne Div. Marshall’s aides believe this rescue mission to be suicidal and a misuse of valuable resources. Marshall reads to his staff officers a moving letter written to a mother from President Lincoln about her five sons who were killed in the American Civil War. Marshall orders that James Ryan (Damon) be found and brought back from European battlefields to be reunited with his family before he too is killed.

As Miller’s men endure hardship and begin to slowly crack under the strain that they are possibly searching for a dead man, makes all of them question whether it’s practical to sacrifice eight men just to save the life of one? As the film progresses, Miller and his squad find themselves not only trying to save the life of Ryan, but are trying to save themselves in order to return home to their loved ones.

Saving Private Ryan was an international sensation which grossed half a billion dollars worldwide in 1998. It also sparked a resurgence in interest pertaining to American involvement and the history of World War II. Spielberg shot the film mostly in Ireland using many troops from the Irish home guard defense. As many as thirty amputee extras were used to simulate those who had limbs blown off in battle scenes such as in the Normandy assault. Actor and military technical advisor Dale Dye (a former U.S. Marine Corp Captain) advised the actors how to walk, talk, and act like American dog faces in World War II. Spielberg and Dye placed all the main actors in a rigorous boot camp to take on their roles. Damon was the only one who was not a part of this training so actors like Burns, Goldberg, and Pepper resented Damon, which showed on their faces in many of their scenes together.

I believe that since is release over twelve years ago, the film deserves to be reexamined and appreciated for its portrayals, directing, cinematography from Spielberg alumni Janusz Kaminski, editing, and music; despite inaccuracies that were voiced by many critics, historians and veterans. Many critics blasted the film for its stereotypical portrayals of the squad e.g. The Irish hothead from Brooklyn (Reiben), the Italian New Yorker (Caparzo), the avenging Jew (Mellish), the religious southerner (Pepper), the soft spoken medic who tries to save lives, despite uniforms (Wade), the idealistic voice of reason (Upham), and the tough Sgt. trying to hold everyone together (Horvath).

Other critics also voiced that the concept of the film was flawed. Would the military actually order such an operation to save the life of one man? In fact, operations like these were actually conducted during the Civil War. Author Robert Rodat came up with the story after encountering a monument in Pennsylvania which was erected to honor a family of brothers who perished during the war. Spielberg said that he was trying to make a war movie that would “inspire him where to put the camera.” The actions of all the actors are phenomenal and many were robbed for best supporting roles in my opinion such as Sizemore, Pepper, and Burns.

My favorite scenes in the film are the beginning half with the assault on Omaha beach, and towards the end when Miller’s men find Ryan who is fighting with a small band of Airborne troopers who are defending a bridge outpost that the Germans want to use in order to flank the advancing Americans coming from the coastal beachheads of Omaha and Utah. These scenes are some of the finest depictions of combat ever. Spielberg’s placement of the cameras, the photography, and action are perfectly done, especially when a squadron of vintage American P-51 Mustang fighters arrive to mash the German Tiger and Panther tanks which are assaulting the bridge outpost.

Saving Private Ryan one several Academy Awards that year for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound.

Saving Private Ryan is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc from DreamWorks/Paramount Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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