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.