Let’s Talk About… ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

Film #26 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

I remember when Saving Private Ryan came out in theaters.  Sadly, this was a point in my life where I wasn’t old enough to go without parents consent and they never went to movies.  So I was relegated to 2nd hand stories from my older sisters or friends who got to see it.  I recall my 7th grade science teacher describing the experience.  He said at the start of the movie everyone had their drinks and snacks in hand, chatting it up during the previews and 15 minutes in after the D-Day sequence everyone was sitting silent in awe due to a range of emotions.  He said people couldn’t watch and walked out, others had to cover their eyes, hell the movie was blocked in India initially due to the violence.  You could hear a pin drop.  Shortly after the home video release was my first viewing of the film, and I found all the hype to be true.

Characters

In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg does an amazing job of balancing spectacle with great character development.  It was a passion project for Spielberg and my favorite WWII film, though I have not seen Dunkirk yet.

This movie had a line up, with the likes of Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Giovanni Ribisi, and even Matt Damon all in supporting roles.  Even Ryan Hurst, Nathan Fillion, and Ted Danson get a couple minutes of screen time.  Tom Hanks (Captain Miller) plays the role of the calculating, stoic leader that is given “the difficult missions” because his team completes them under his guidance.  No one that serves with him actually knows what his job was before the war and there was a running wager on his profession before he confessed to the unit that he used to be a school teacher.  More to come with that.  Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Horvath) plays the grizzled hardass who is 2nd in command and will follow Captain Miller without question and makes sure the rest of the soldiers do the same.  This role is played perfectly by Sizemore as he throws in a fist sized chaw in his mouth before the beach landing right up to the point where he is shot square in the chest and responds “I just got the wind knocked out of me.”  Another fan favorite is played by Barry Pepper (Private Jackson).  He plays the southern Christian kid gifted with incredible aim.  Speaking prayers all the while focusing his rifle, which isn’t even designed for his left-handedness, he depicts the young boy sent to war and finding out he is a serious tool of destruction that likely would’ve never been discovered had he not been called to duty.  Honestly every actor involved in this performed great.

Omaha Beach

I touched on this earlier; this scene alone sets this movie above and beyond any other war movie I have seen.  It depicts the events of June 6th, 1944 when American soldiers hit the Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion.  The grainy film, Captain Miller’s shaky hand, soldiers puking and others stricken with fear builds the tension for when the boats hit the beach head and the gate drops.  Sergeant Horvath’s speech, “Plenty of beach between soldiers, five men is a juicy opportunity, one man is a waste of ammo” set the stage for what is to come.  Over 1000 extras were used for this part of the film along with 40 barrels of fake blood.  Several of the extras were amputees with prosthetics to depict their limbs being blown off.  Ingrained in my memory forever is the soldier holding his intestines outside his stomach screaming “Momma!” along with the Miller’s shell shock sequence where the soldier is casually rummaging through gear to pick up his arm.  The sounds alone are overwhelming.  Spielberg instructed theaters to turn up the volume and it is apparent in this scene because of the alternating silence and chaos, filming under water and the shell shock sequence provide marked moments of silence amidst the disarray.  Making the scene further affective is the toggling of viewpoints from the Americans to the Germans.  You will see a while timed burst of the German machine guns could take out an entire boat of soldiers in seconds.  After you see it, you will understand why some had to walk out and many veterans couldn’t sit through it.  Others still needed counseling following the viewing.  Spielberg came out swinging with this scene and it knocks the wind right out of you.

Neuville Sniper

I love Vin Diesel’s (Private Caparzo) role in this film because it is the first, and only, role I have seen him play as a supporting character with real human characteristics and not another over the top, cocky, action star.  We are introduced to Private Jackson when he shoots open the bunker at Dog 1 on the beach head, but this is where we get to see how much of a badass the southern kid really is.  This scene is my favorite, closely followed by the bridge defense.  The rain enhances the colors, the run down city layout, Caparzo trying to hand over his death letter as he is dying just feet away from fellow soldiers; all while the two snipers are scanning for each other.  This city to city combat was a common occurrence.  This scene also depicts how civilians are drawn into the war against their will and how basic human emotions (Caparzo just wanted to save the girl that reminded him of his daughter) can get you killed during a time of war.

Side note: If you enjoy this scene and have not seen Enemy at the Gates, then I strongly suggest you add it to your ‘must watch’ list.

German Machine Gunner

During the entire movie up to this point the soldiers under Captain Miller have questioned the point of their mission.  Why wouldn’t they?  In a war that would eventually take the lives of over 400,000 American soldiers, why was this group of men wasting their time and skills for one random soldier?  Miller had held strong in their mission objective, we see parts (his hand twitching uncontrollably) where the war has taken its toll; but this is where we see his character’s lapse in judgement.  Upon discovering a fortified bunker of German gunners, rather than go around and stay on mission, Hank’s character decides to take it out.  Even Horvath questions his motives, showing that this isn’t going to end well.   It doesn’t.  And you watch, along with all his brothers in arms, as T-4 Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) dies slowly in their arms.  Further controversy arises when they want to kill the unarmed German gunner but Miller won’t allow it.  To keep his team together Miller finally casually confesses his profession and what he did prior to the war.  We find out Miller was a normal guy before the war just like those under him, and he just wants to complete his mission and get home but has no idea how he is going to explain everything he has done or seen to his wife…essentially lead a normal life.

Ramelle Bridge Defense

Essentially the climax of the movie, it provides an array of emotions because many of your favorite characters die, some in a blaze of glory (Pepper), others in a one on one knife battle where the blade is pushed slowly into their chest (Adam Goldberg as Private Mellish) all while the translator (Jeremy Davies as Corporal Upham) sits on the stairs, gun in hand, frozen in fear!!  This was infuriating and so sad for Mellish, who is with us since the beginning.  Stepping back though, it shows us that paralyzing fear that can happen, especially to a man such as Upham, who hadn’t seen combat and wanted to avoid the fighting.  And in reality who am I to judge?  I would hope and pray I would react differently but I haven’t been in that situation; and no man wants to allow a teammate to die due to their own fear and inaction.  I think this is what Spielberg was going for and Jeremy Davies played the role to perfection, because I despised him.

The overall scene is cut wonderfully, showing the slow progression of the German forces progressing through the city towards the bridge.  I am unsure on the reality but we see ingenious tactics such as ‘sticky bombs’ and using mortar rounds as grenades.  The sound editing with the camera work make you feel as though the German tanks are invading your living room.

In the final flash back scene we see Miller tell Private Ryan (Matt Damon) to “Earn this” before he dies.  It is really sad, because….how?  How could anyone ‘earn’ the honor of an entire group of men dying just to get him back home?  It is an impossible task that, along with a slew of other issues likely causing PTSD, will weigh heavily on him every day.  As the flashback fades away we see old Private Ryan at the tombstone, with what we can presume is a large family with many kids and grandkids.  So it would appear he did what he could, he lived his life to the fullest which in the end is all he could do.

If you haven’t seen this film, you should, regardless of your stance on war films.  It is the best depiction of what spawned “The Greatest Generation” in America.  It’s the gold standard as far as war films are concerned, balancing the major battles and large scale fight sequences with the smaller, focused plotlines.

Interesting Facts

The film is loosely based on the Niland brothers story.  Other similar stories include the Borgstrom brothers and Sullivan brothers, the latter leading to amending the US Sole Survivor Policy.

Most contracts issued for soldiers during the time were “For the duration, plus 6 months.”  Meaning they would rotate in and out of combat zones but because we were at war, they were away from the US for much longer then current day contracts.

The D-Day invasion claimed the lives of around 2,500 Americans included in around 4,400 allied forces lost.

As most WWII films are from the American perspective, it should be noted it took us a long time to get involved, we joined very late, and other countries sacrificed much as well.  For example, in the month long Battle of Kiev the Soviet Union lost over 600,000 troops, more than America lost during the entire war.  The Soviet Union lost (military and civilians) over 20,000,000 people.

I saw this I reddit a ways back and imdb confirmed that the two German soldiers trying to surrender during the Omaha Beach sequence were actually speaking Czech, saying “Please don’t shoot me, I am not German, I am Czech, I didn’t kill anyone, I am Czech.”  The Germans would force prisoners from eastern European countries they had invaded to fight for them.

The “grainy” filming I keep referring to that I liked so much is probably due to Spielberg reducing the color saturation by 60%.

Tom Sizemore was battling drug addiction to the point where Spielberg gave him an ultimatum that he would be fired and replaced if he didn’t pass daily blood tests.

  • sailor monsoon

    He’s not a famous actor nor is he someone that pops up a lot but just like a rash, he shows up from time to time and ruins everything

  • Tanis11

    Hahaha, had no idea

  • sailor monsoon

    He’s an indie darling
    He’s the poor man’s Ethan Hawke
    He sucks ass

  • William Dhalgren

    Saw this with my best friend from high school. We both walked out crying. The movie has its flaws, but it will always be one of my favorites.

  • William Dhalgren

    I don’t think they’re caricatures. Maybe archetypes. This is what men were like once. I love the movie, but agree that it has its flaws.

  • William Dhalgren

    Well, his star faded quickly, so it’s not like you have to worry about seeing him in a ton of shit..

  • Tanis11

    In general or just in this film? I legit haven’t seen him in anything else

  • sailor monsoon

    I fucking hate edward burns.
    That is the only complaint i have with this film and he’s actually not that bad in it.

  • Tanis11

    Ugh, you are 100% right about that scene…I think that is exactly what they wanted but man that scene makes my blood curdle every time I watch it.

  • Tanis11

    Wish that were the case here…our propaganda is pushing Russian involvement in literally everything, so you can tell we have reflected little on the past wars. Veterans Day and Memorial Day are really when the older wars come up.

  • Vincent Kane

    This one of my all time favorite war films. Yes does it have some old tropes but the performances are great and there is not much else to say about the opening that hasn’t been said. However, best scene to me is when Mellish is fighting the SS soldier with Upham not helping. That one on one struggle and the sound was a masterful scene.It puts the viewer in several different positions. What would I do and how would I feel if I was Mellish, the SS soldier or Upham. Upham carries it for me.

    Solid write up.

  • Tanis11

    Aside from the one that took out their medic no you really don’t. It was very much one sided.

  • Poppity🍂

    I reviewed an old WWII British “propaganda” film last week and I actually really enjoyed it, much more than I ever thought that I would. So I think that you are right and that I could get a lot of out of this.
    WWII is still very prevalent a theme on the French television and every weekend at least one channel has a Hitler-themed documentary airing. You can still feel the effects of the two wars here and there, mostly through the landscape and architecture. There are still plenty of older folks that were around to witness the war(s) firsthand but their numbers are dwindling.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Indeed. It’s a psychological, atmospheric take on war narrative. Strong story but they sacrifice characterization for realism: the soldiers are all just young men trying to survive, not be heroic. It’s fantastic though and I found myself caring about the character plenty. You also never once see a German soldier which is a really interesting choice. The enemy is literally faceless.

  • Tanis11

    Honestly with most of Spielberg films, I agree and I don’t get super attached to the characters, and I didn’t in this film. I think Private Jackson was the one I was sad to see go but I enjoyed all the characters. From what I read of Dunkirk it is a lot less dialogue correct?

  • Tanis11

    As great as the opening is, there are the other ones I referenced that a great and also others I didn’t mention on account of review length. Private Jackson’s sniper sequence is really good.

  • Tanis11

    I can only imagine, I have not visited those old battle sites but the numbers are quite staggering when you look at the deaths compared to more recent wars. Even if you aren’t a war movie buff, I think this is one to watch just for the historical significance. I don’t ever see them making another film with D-Day or many more WWII films (from the American perspective at least)

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Oh don’t get me wrong, I enjoy most Spielberg films, but I feel like his reliance on sentimentality worked less well here than it normally does even if it was enjoyable in its own right. And Dunkirk is a very different film, but solves the caricature problem by letting the characters be stand-ins for all soldiers, not specific characters in their own right.

  • Tanis11

    Did not remember this until you posted it here.

  • Tanis11

    “script is really cheese-y with a reliance on war cliches that make each of the characters into caricatures of soldiers”

    I won’t deny this but I think most films fall into that trap and this movie does it better then most (Edit: What I mean is, I just really enjoyed every actors’ portrayal of those stereotypes). Band of Brothers was great. And I REALLY need to see Dunkirk.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    I don’t think this movie is very good, actually. I think it was groundbreaking at the time and I think the opening is masterful, but the script is really cheese-y with a reliance on war cliches that make each of the characters into caricatures of soldiers. I think Spielberg went on to use this film as a basis for the best piece of war based storytelling ever in the form of Band of Brothers, but this to me is only an ok film. I actually prefer Dunkirk.

  • Joe Newman

    Grwat write up and kudos for referencing Enemy at the Gates.
    https://youtu.be/DPLFVKhWkyQ

  • Poppity🍂

    Tanis, I applaud you! 😀

    I, too, have not seen this but I’m not a huge war film buff as I’ve noted before in some of my articles. I have visited Omaha Beach and the huge American cemetery in Normandy as well as the smaller, much more discreet German one. It never fails to touch/spook me when I happen upon abandoned bunkers.
    I’ll definitely try to catch this one if I have the chance.

  • I’ve never seen this film in full but I’ve seen that opening plenty. One particular time was after a girl in my history class did an article comparing the film to the real life events. Only she never watched Private Ryan. Which pissed off my history teacher. Who then proceeded to bring the film to class the next day and say “were going to watch the opening for anyone who hasn’t seen it” and then stared at her. Ah, those were the days.

    This deserves a proper watch one year tho.

  • Brett Lovejoy

    Just an incredible movie, this one. Anytime I see the opening scene, it clicks that we needn’t ever get another Normandy invasion scene again, because it doesn’t get better than this.