Wednesday, 30 December 2015

War Movie Week: Saving Private Ryan (World War II)

Steven Spielberg's 1998 film Saving Private Ryan marks his third film to cover the events of World War II (Spielberg had previously visited this subject in Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List). Unlike his previous efforts, which focused on the impact the war made on civilians, Saving Private Ryan puts the viewer straight onto the front lines and into the heat of combat. From the famous Omaha Beach sequence that sets the story in motion to the desperate last stand that marks its conclusion, this is a story about soldiers, and their experiences in the field.

It is a curious film in that regard, as it is hard to firmly label Saving Private Ryan as a pro-war film in the vein of Bataan or The Green Berets, or an anti-war film like Paths of Glory. It is not hard to see inspiration from both sides. The entire structure of the film's narrative, which centres around the camaraderie between a diverse group of men with an emphasis on heroics, is easily lifted from the World War II combat films produced in Hollywood during the 1940's. On the other hand, the harsh battle sequences could easily have drawn from the likes of Paths of Glory. There is a patriotic tone to the overall movie, which is even bracketed by a shot of an American flag, but at the same time there seems to be something else.

There is definitely a sense that the film intends the viewer to respect the soldiers, but it is worth noting that Saving Private Ryan makes no effort to cover up the horrors of war. The famous Omaha Beach sequence has no trouble emphasizing the thousands of American soldiers who don't survive. There are even realistic depictions of gunshot wounds, and many of them are obviously scared even before the Normandy invasion begins, and when they are being shot at, many of them are more concerned about their immediate survival than ultimately winning the war.

While the focus is purely on the American military (nothing is shown of the Canadians or Brits who also participated in the D-Day invasion), it is hardly glorified. In fact, Saving Private Ryan seems to deliberately emphasize that World War II was not black and white. Most of the few enemy soldiers depicted are shown to be frightened human beings not much different from the Americans. The Americans are also shown to not be above committing war crimes, as is evident when after taking Normandy they proceed to execute soldiers who are obviously trying to surrender and even joke about it.

Even the one German who directly confronts any of the Americans, credited as "Steamboat Willie" (Joerg Stadler) is obviously just a man following orders. When he survives their raid on his machine gun nest, he is simply scared for his life and begs to spared. He is also clearly nervous when he is forced to dig graves, and knows the implications of being forced to do so. This is just an ordinary man trying to survive, not much different from any of the American soldiers. It is true that he later shows up at the end of the film and shoots Captain Miller, but this is likely nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence.

Of course, Saving Private Ryan is not completely anti-war. Spielberg obviously made this film with the intent of respecting fallen soldiers, and there is a sense of victory (if at a cost) which emerges at the end. The war is hardly glorified, but it does appear to suggest at least America's participation was not unjustified, and that good did come out of it. This makes it a curious experience to watch, as Spielberg seems to be intent on showing both sides of the war, the good and bad.


  1. Excellent points about this movie. The Omaha Beach sequence is among the most harrowing ever committed to film. Another interesting thing Spielberg did was choose to move the narrative forward mostly through combat scenes. I agree there's something more going on, but it's definitely a full-on patriotic undertaking.

  2. The first 20 minutes is excellent and it does show the horrors and issues the soldiers faced including prejudice. My ex who knows quite a bit about military machines etc.. said it was very detailed about the tanks etc...and that Spielberg got it right. I was no enamoured with how it showcased as if the Americans were the only ones there and especially the bit that the soldiers at Caen are "holding them back" which was us Canadians! A bit too flag waving at the end for me but overall a good movie-Great review you gave

  3. I'm still not sure about this movie. The message feels muddled and I get the feeling that Spielberg wanted to come down a bit harder on war as a futile and costly endeavor. But the Omaha beach sequence is so powerful and well executed that it ends up overshadowing the rest of the film for most viewers. In fact nearly every time I see the film mentioned, it is only to talk about that sequence.

    But the rest of the film has this odd mix of 40s cliches (with characters delivering obvious "dead meat" speeches right before they get killed) with in your face horrors of war. There is flag waving and finger wagging at the same time. I don't have a problem with a complex view of war in films. But when the movie ends I didn't know what Spielberg was attempting to convey. That seems to be a misfire in my book.

    Of course I have to be careful saying that because I've had some folks jump down my throat for not thinking that "Saving Private Ryan" is the greatest WW2 film of all time. I actually thought "The Thin Red Line" was a better film.