I’ve eaten so much food today and I really don’t know why. Well, that’s not strictly true. I did because I’m bored. I’m meant to be getting my life (aka my house) in order before I head back to work but it really doesn’t appeal. So instead, I’ve been lying down, stuffing my face and watching soldiers die horribly in Steven Spielberg’s 1990s epic war film. It’s been a while since I saw this film and have preferred to watch the version shown on the Adam and Joe Show. Yes, it may be played out with stuffed toys and not people but that doesn’t mean its not as good as the original. Still, after watching Dunkirk I decided it was time to rewatch Spielberg’s war epic. Saving Private Ryan was one of those films that changed the way war films were made. It inspired several directors and, according to Quentin Tarantino, inspired Inglorious Basterds. It was also, apparently, the first time that people realised that World War II was awful. The majority of things I hear people say about this film is along the lines of “it really brought home to me the reality of war”. As if, before 1998, there existed some people who thought World War II was a fucking picnic for everyone involved. Personally, I’ve never needed Steven Spielberg to paint me a vivid picture of what a real battle sequence might be like to know its somewhere I don’t want to be. I’ve never really thought to myself “I really wish I was alive in the 1940s because it seems like it might be fun”. Still, it’s good to know that this film helped some people get over the crazy notion that was is good.
If there’s one thing that Steven Spielberg can do it’s create a memorable visual. We all vividly remember the water glass from Jurassic Park, the girl in red from Schindler’s List and ET and Eliot flying in front of the moon. The one that sticks with most people, though? The opening of Saving Private Ryan. It’s the thing that so many people have referenced in relation to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk because it is still considered to be the best interpretation of war ever created for the big screen. I’m not going to sit here and deny that the opening sequence isn’t great. It really is. It’s a horrific representation of what happened on Omaha beach in 1944 and it places the audience uncomfortably in the middle of the action. Even now, nearly 20 years later, this sequence still feels as gruesome and important as it did way back when.
However, the problem with these magnificent film moments is that people become blinded to the faults that come before and after. The sequence of the Normandy landings is regularly referred to as the film’s opening but it isn’t. No no. The film is patriotically bookended with some muted shots of an American flag flapping in the breeze as well as the overly sentimental prologue and epilogue showing an elderly Private Ryan visiting the graves of fallen soldiers. Had we opened in the midst of the D-Day sequence this film would have had an entirely different feel to it but, thanks to these brief moments, the film ends up feeling more like another attempt by Hollywood to bolster the myth that WWII was the good war and showcased the American spirit. It prevents the film from being the kind of critique of war that the first battle suggested it could be and, instead, turns into an American story of American heroes.
Spielberg’s film has been hailed as something of a masterpiece from the moment of its initial release and it’s easy to see why. The film is incredibly well made and the visuals are stunning. The battle sequences have still never been beaten in terms of realism and it more than adequately shows the waste of life that occurred in Europe. The main part of the narrative is intended to show us the ridiculous nature of war. We see a group of 8 men sent out on a mission to save the life of one soldier all because his mother had already lost 3 sons. It’s a sad story, obviously, but it is a preposterous notion. How can the army justify the lives of so many for the sake of 1? Every single man in the group agrees and, when all is said and done, don’t really give a shit about the life of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). How can his mother’s suffering be more important than their own?
Still, this is war and they have to follow their Captain, John Miller’s (Tom Hanks), orders. So the group set off on their mission through Nazi occupied France. They lose men along the way and struggle to keep themselves going. But, somehow, they do. The hapless group find Private Ryan and a small group of soldiers defending a bridge. After a harrowing and spectacular opening sequence, Saving Private Ryan kind of loses its way during the main bulk of the narrative. Spielberg clearly tries to push his message about the futility of war but it kind of gets lost. Saving Private Ryan falls back into the Hollywood tradition of the Wild West movie. We see our band of heroes make their way through the landscape and heroically fighting the bad guys whenever they need. The script may make the occasional reference to the absurd nature of their assignment but there is an inescapable sense that what they are doing is both moral and brave.
I don’t hate Saving Private Ryan by any stretch of the imagination but, aside from the depictions of warfare, it doesn’t portray its message adequately enough. This film didn’t go far enough to blow the lid on the meaningless sacrifice that was made by the men who died in combat between 1939 and 1945. It is every war movie cliche rolled into one. It doesn’t directly say that war is heroic and the soldiers are fighting for their country but that is the message we are seeing. It glorifies the men on screen instead of adequately questioning the men in charge. When I reviewed War Horse for this blog I criticised Spielberg for sugaring the pill for his younger audience. He desensitised the audience by hiding the death with cutaways. Here he has no issue with showing us how deadly the war was for the people involved but what follows is sheer Hollywood. The story of a whole load of men dying so one mother can be slightly less sad.
Saving Private Ryan isn’t a bad film. It’s a very good film that showcases everything that has made Steven Spielberg as popular a director as he. It features strong performances from its cast and had a profound affect on the people who sat in movie theatres to watch it back in 1998. It’s a great film but is it a masterpiece? Or is it just a great 20 minute sequence surrounded by harmless Hollywood schmaltz?