Saving Private Ryan is not a great movie. There are many reasons for this: Tom Hanks is in it; the narrative is lumpen and sentimental; it is at least half an hour too long. But it contains that scene: the high-point of Steven Spielberg’s illustrious career and one of the most effective and affecting set-pieces ever staged. It’s the most famous and fabulous cinematic representation of warfare ever filmed: a heart-stopping, gut-wrenching tour-de-force which has never, and may never, be bettered.
Depicting the D-Day landings at Normandy, Spielberg opts to show the realities of war. Stripped of romanticism and ego, these soldiers shake, vomit and pray as they wait for the inevitable onslaught of German bullets which will greet their arrival on French shores. Filmed on shaky hand-held cameras, Spielberg positions the viewer directly amongst the troops in order to witness the horrors and realities of warfare close up.
The senseless massacre is captured magnificently as bullets zip through the air and rip into soldier’s flesh, pinging their way through metallic armour and knocking them to the ground. Some men are shot in the water as they attempt to swim for shore – clouds of dispersing blood signal their demise. The action is slowed down and speeded up, the sounds amplified: it’s an all out assault on the senses.
The truth of war is laid bare here: confusion reigns and death is commonplace. Some die quickly and peacefully, others in terrible agony. Spielberg seems determined to depict every eventuality as soldiers pick up their own lost limbs, push their intestines back into their stomachs and drag their mutilated comrades up the beach.
It’s not just decapitations and deaths which stir the senses. The landscape is brought vividly to life with explosions of sand, water and blood showering the characters and the camera. The garbled dialogue is forced to compete with the huge wall of sound created. As a result, words are missed and whole snatches of dialogue make little sense: yet another tool which places the audience amidst the carnage.
Apparently Spielberg storyboarded very little of the action, trusting instead that his instincts would provide him with the best available shots. It was a brave move but one which pays off handsomely: the lack of forward planning ensures an immediacy which replicates exactly the kind of hysteria and panic which those participating in the landings must have felt.
There is no glory in these scenes. For this, Spielberg deserves applause. It’s easy for filmmakers to create superhuman heroes in such circumstances. The director does no such thing. Rather, he shows his fellow Americans as fearful, fallible and even cruel: as burning Germans escape from a flame-filled building one soldier orders his comrades to ‘let them burn’ rather than shoot them. It’s brutally honest – although such sentiment is not evident throughout.
Instead, Spielberg does what he often does and lapses into mawkishness. An unnecessary opening scene hints that this may be the case – a wordless veteran visits a WWII graveyard with his whole family in tow in an attempt to tug the heartstrings so blatant that it’s reminiscent of James Cameron’s Titanic. Elsewhere, war’s hard edges are blunted by sentimentality.
But it’s an inherently sentimental storyline, based on the real events. Following the death of three brothers in the war, the US Army’s Chief of Staff is stirred by the tragic events and orders that a fourth brother, the titular Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) be returned to his grieving family. Following the landing at Omaha Beach, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) leads a team of eight men on a mission to find the missing Ryan.
Their efforts are predictably dramatic and eventful, but there’s little which hasn’t been done, and done better, in other war films. Although the platoon’s soldiers are not as one dimensional as might be expected, they are rather stereotypically drawn – despite some convincing performances from the likes of Ed Burns and Giovani Ribisi.
Perhaps Saving Private Ryan’s biggest strength is also its biggest problem: the opening scenes are impossible to follow. The predictable story which follows the nerve-shredding beach-landings cannot compete with the strength and intensity of the early drama. But, even if you turn it off after thirty minutes, you really must watch this movie.