War is Hell, as most people who have lived through it will tell you. And through every conflict that mankind has fought, the legends and the tales of heroism grow out of it too. Many authors, painters, historians, and of course filmmakers have tried in their best own way to encapsulate the war experience through their selective artform, and though many of them are engrossing in their own way, few rarely capture the actual feeling of combat in a personal way. As a result, over time the way we look at some of these wartime stories begins to change. Many times, the lessons learned from a war begin to dilute and the image taken from these relics of the past come across as less cautionary and more glorifying of the war experience. We look at Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, and the first feeling that we might elicit from them is that war creates glorious legends like Achilles and Odysseus, but upon a closer reading, we read a more melancholy side to the legend where heroes are undone by their arrogance and that war makes it impossible to return home the same way that you left it. And yet, more than likely, you see wartime stories legends often held up as one of the positives of conflict, and this in turn helps to perpetuate a glorification of war itself as a means for creating order in the world. War itself is spectacle, and that sadly makes it alluring to audiences who are unattached to it. This is largely why anti-war narratives tend to struggle in defining themselves, because the very nature of war makes the stories being told much larger than life, and as a result, more thematically exciting. That usually runs deep in the heart of the cultural divide when it comes to accurately depicting war in any form of art, especially in film. Usually, filmmakers who’ve never seen combat never internalize the actual human toll that war brings, and they feel disconnected from it as faceless pawns are just there to fall prey to visually resplendent mayhem. But, some films do dig deeper and try to find the truth behind the gunfire, and most importantly, the humanity.
This was the goal of Steven Spielberg when he set out to create his own war flick, Saving Private Ryan (1998). His depiction of a brief but pivotal moment in time during the Normandy invasion on D-Day during World War II was going to do something that most war films up until that time had never even attempted and that was to show the actual experience of war unfiltered. The story itself in the movie is standard for the genre; a small troop of soldiers are tasked with searching a war zone to find a lone soldier whose brothers have all been killed in combat, making him the last survivor. The story was actually inspired by the real life incident of the Niland family, whose youngest member was sent back home after it was learned that his three brothers all died in short succession of each other, though one was later found alive in a POW camp. It’s a captivating story to be sure, but one that merely serves as the framing for what Spielberg wanted to bring to the screen. The war film up until that time usually followed along the lines of epic film-making, with the directors often emphasizing scope over intimacy. Though those movies often didn’t shy away from the brutality of war, such as masterpieces like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986), they nevertheless made you always remember that you were still watching a movie. Spielberg believed that he needed to rethink the way a battle needed to be shot and that led him to not looking at the grander picture and instead focusing his camera right into the heart of battle. In doing so, whether he intended to or not, he revolutionized the way conflict is depicted on screen, and as a result the war flick would never be the same.
When someone thinks of the movie Saving Private Ryan, the first thing that will come to mind is the harrowing opening scene that recreates the Normandy invasion and landing on Omaha Beach in stunning and often grisly detail. I, in fact, picked this as the greatest opening to a movie ever in my list here. In a bold cinematic move, Spielberg devotes a good 30 minute chunk of his movie towards this battle scene, played out in real time, and even more surprisingly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the narrative itself. It is merely what sets the stage and introduces the characters who we will be following for the rest of the movie. The story doesn’t actually start until we cut dramatically to a military office where condolence letters are being typed up for the families of the fallen, and where one lady notices the names of the three brothers of the titular Private Ryan. By this time, Spielberg has already plunged us into the hell of war and the remainder of the movie leaves us guarded for what will come next; sort of in the same way that the real soldiers might have been. Putting us in the mindset of the soldiers of this movie by showing us the combat through their eyes is the movie’s greatest masterstroke. Spielberg dispensed with high angle photography and stylized lighting and instead incorporated a documentary style handheld camera point of view for the Omaha Beach scene. When the soldiers run, we run with them; when they take cover, we do too; and the camera will pan away from a live soldier for a moment, and that same soldier will be blown to pieces when we pan back a second layer. It’s chaos the likes of which we’ve never seen in a film before, and that in turn makes it closer to a true combat experience. Remarkably, though, it’s not unwatchable either. Spielberg still manages to frame every second in the battle with an unflinching amount of attention; mainly due to the effect that he himself was the camera operator for most of the shooting of this scene. Every glimpse we get is carefully chosen, from the one-armed soldier staggering around the field looking for his missing limb, to the soldiers sinking in the water under the weight of their own equipment, to the heartbreaking glimpse of a soldier screaming for his Mama while his guts are spilling out. No other depiction of war has ever captured this amount of intimacy.
And this is what made Saving Private Ryan so groundbreaking as both an experience and as a narrative. Spielberg had managed to do what few other filmmakers had ever done before; he captured the heartbreaking savagery of war unfiltered and presented bare. It can be argued by that alone that this is an anti-war film at it’s core, because it does not glamorize the experience of war one bit. At the same time, while Spielberg himself shares many anti-war sentiments in general, I don’t believe that he intended for his film to push any type of agenda either. Indeed, the movie is about the cost of war, but also about the individual heroism displayed by each soldier. The central question the movie asks is what one man is worth in the grand picture of a war? The soldiers in the movie keep asking that question the whole way through, and even Ryan himself can’t comprehend why it’s got to be him that so many are going to risk their lives for. Essentially it comes down to the way each one rationalizes the mission, and as Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller puts it in his monologue, “You tell yourself that this life taken was in the service of saving three or more other lives.” Whether it’s true or not, it shows that on the individual level, heroism in war is about saving the life next to you rather than racking up the most kills along the way. That’s how Spielberg crafts his heroes within the movie, by showing how much they will risk in order to spare a life, even at the cost of their own. And Spielberg never tries to make these characters martyrs for some message nor instantly larger than life. They are all flawed in some way, but never in a way that characterizes them as unsympathetic either. Even the often unseen German soldiers are not so easily defined. There really is no villainous presence in this movie other than the conflict itself. This is perfectly illustrated in a moment where the troop faces the ethical quandary of executing a German soldier in retaliation while he is begging for his life. It’s through tough choices like this that Saving Private Ryan becomes a much deeper war film than we first realize.
In one way or another, Steven Spielberg managed to walk that fine line between condemning war and honoring the soldiers who fought within it. As such, it has since become one of the most influential movies we’ve seen in the 20 years since it’s been released. For one thing, the visual aesthetic of Spielberg’s “you are there” combat sequences has been often imitated in most war films since then, though rarely matched. Some movies have used the aesthetic well, like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), and David Ayer’s Fury (2014). The hand held approach even seems to have found it’s way into war depictions of all kinds, regardless of time period or genre, as evidenced by similar battle scenes found in Ridley Scott’s Roman Empire epic Gladiator and even in fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings (such as in the Two Towers’ famous Helm’s Deep battle scene). Even still, while the Private Ryan model is effective in creating a visceral feeling of battle on screen, fewer films have ever managed to capture the sense of overwhelming dread that permeates the entire movie. I’d say that the only one that comes close is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), as that movie did an exceptional job of ratcheting up the tension as the specter of death hangs over the characters throughout the film. But there are plenty of other films that merely imitated Private Ryan, but only used it’s aesthetic in a shallow way to reinforce their own spectacle. The worst offender of these was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a disastrous attempt to mash the thematic elements of Saving Private Ryan and Titanic (1997) into one cynical movie. Bay uses the same shaky cam photography and muted colors of Private Ryan, and even tried to imitate the gruesome slaughter depicted in the latter, at least in the R-Rated director’s cut. But, what Bay failed to do was to make us care abiut the people caught up in the battle, and as a result it almost feels like the director takes delight in presenting the destruction on screen, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t based on a real disaster, with many real life victims seemingly considered to inconsequential. Spielberg knew that for this kind of depiction to work, the humanity needed to be paramount, and sadly few other war films seem to understand that.
Perhaps the greatest legacy that the movie left behind though, other than the groundbreaking visuals, is the effect that it left on the public afterwards. In particular, the way it affected the veterans who fought in the war. By the time that Saving Private Ryan was released into theaters, the WWII generation had reached retirement age and were beginning to either die off or loose their memories of their time in the service. There were many soldiers that had documented their tales during the war for years, but there were a significant many others who simply didn’t want to talk about the war for the longest time. This was mainly due to their experiences being too painful to relive, or because they were too ashamed of some of the acts they committed during the war. Thus, for the longest time, veterans were content with Hollywood sort of taking the lead in presenting what the war was like for most audiences for years. You see this in previous war flicks like The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Patton (1970), all well crafted war films, but ones that were still withdrawn enough from the reality of the war to make it easier to digest for a larger audience that was perhaps too weary of war. But, Steven Spielberg’s unfiltered look at the way combat felt to the actual boots on the ground soldiers stirred up a much different reaction, and one that was long overdue. The images of the movie brought back much of the heartache that many of the veterans had tired to forget about over the years, and many were traumatized once again after seeing the flick. But surprisingly, this caused many of these soldiers to open up and start telling their own stories about the war, some of which they’ve kept secret for decades, even to their loved ones. Much like he did five years prior with Schindler’s List (1993) regarding the Holocaust, Spielberg had managed to open the floodgates and start a conversation again about the experiences that shaped this event in our history as a people.
World War II was one of the costliest wars ever in terms of a human toll, and every generation that has come after has in some way been touched by the legacy of the war. The same is true with my own family. I am the grandson of two World War II veterans, both of whom served honorably in the United States Navy during the war. Their names were Lieutenant James Edwin Spencer and Private Bill Vaughn Humphreys. They served in different theaters of the war, my Grandpa Humphreys mostly in the South Pacific, while Grandpa Spencer served in both the Pacific and in Europe. I’m grateful that both made it home alive, because I wouldn’t be here otherwise, as both my parents were born after the war. But, for the most part, they never talked too much about their experiences in the war. Spencer remained in active service until retiring in the 70’s, and became an eye doctor in sunny Long Beach, California after the war ended. Humphreys left the Navy behind and became a successful bank manager on the Oregon Coast. My Grandpa Humphreys died in 1993, so he never lived to see Saving Private Ryan, but my Grandpa Spencer did, living up to the year 2000. Though he was a naval officer and not a soldier like those in the movie, he still said that the movie did a remarkable job of capturing the real thing that he and his fellow veterans remember experiencing. What’s more, he even shared things about his time in the war that I never knew before as we were discussing the movie with him. I learned that he was actually on one of those ships that ferried soldiers across the English Channel on D-Day, and that he actually had to lie to my Grandmother about where he actually was at that time in order to keep the mission secretive. He also said that he set foot on the beach afterwards when it was safe. The bodies had been cleared, but the craters and bloodstains remained, in his words. I’m sure that if my Grandpa Humphreys were alive at that time too, he would have shared even more stories as well. This is the great effect that Saving Private Ryan had on our culture, because it opened up the narrative of what the War was actually like on a personal level, and that every family (including my own) had their own stories to tell, and were finally being told.
More than anything, this is the greatest single thing that Saving Private Ryan leaves behind; the simple basic sense that every individual life lived through the war matters, and that every experience is worth remembering, even despite the pain. Old men who were afraid to weep for their fallen brothers in arms because it was thought that it showed weakness were now able to express the pain that this conflict left behind, because this movie gave us our best sense yet of what it was actually like. It was not a sugar-coated or sanitized view of war; it was the truth, presented plainly for the world. And it’s one that takes in the full complexities of the subject itself. Much like the war it depicts, it’s a movie that addresses the moral dilemmas of combat without ever dismissing the fact that good things can come out of it. World War II is one of history’s most complicated and bittersweet conflicts. It does have one of the highest death tolls of any war fought in human history, but it’s outcome did leave the world in a much better place, stopping the rise of Fascism and stopping the systematic genocide committed during the Holocaust. But, without a personal examination of the cost of war on every family, the lessons learned seem to be forgotten over time and new conflicts arise as a result. So, the fact that this movie brought out a reckoning for most veterans who lived through the war helps to give us a better perspective on the long ranging after effects that define most conflicts in history. At the very least, it helps to make it clear to all the WWII veterans out there that they are not forgotten or insignificant. It can be said that Private Ryan did a great deal to raise awareness of the average war vet; including helping them to gain much needed gestures of gratitude like the long overdue monument on the National Mall, as well as countless other film depictions that tell more of their stories, including the Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced miniseries Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010). In any sense, Saving Private Ryan answers it’s own question of what a single man is worth in the end, and that’s to say if they are able to return home, start a family of their own, and share their own experiences to teach us more about what war is actually like, then their worth is beyond measure.