“Dear Madam: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln.”
Before 1998, the war film had always been an experience for moviegoers that kept them at a distance to some degree. Films featuring actual battles such as D Day and Gettysburg tried to always fit the scope of the battles on screen, but hardly ever were able to make the audience feel as if they were on the battlefield. Films like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far were able to illustrate some of the human drama on the battlefield, but the combat in each film was lackluster. Many films give the effect of seeing a battle re-enactment you would witness at a pioneer or Civil War festival rather than experiencing the harsh realities of battle. Some films have come close by using fierce close-ups and good camera movement, like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. However, no director could accurately capture the chaotic and intense nature of real combat until Steven Speilberg took on the task.
Breakthroughs would start in the early 1990’s. Historical epics such as Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans and Ed Zwick’s Glory both showed battle scenes with scope that were very emotionally involving. Mann’s film used a very forceful kinetic energy to tell its story. Star Daniel Day Lewis seems to be perpetually running in the film and the plot goes along at a break neck pace. Glory, the story of the Massachusetts’s 54th Infantry, the first black unit in the Civil War works due to the fact that it tells a very involving story. While the battle scenes feature no flashy camera work, or a real visceral nature, the movie has a solid emotional core built around a good story.
The real breakthrough came with Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart. Gibson’s biopic of Scottish hero William Wallace takes all the lessons learned in both of the above films and adds a much more visceral quality to the battle scenes by placing its camera in the middle of the action. Using quick editing and great makeup, Braveheart showed a viciousness to battle that had never been shown on screen before. Along with the romantic sweep of the film, Gibson was able to parlay the raw intensity of Braveheart into wins for Best Picture and Best Director.
The bar would be raised even further in 1998. Steven Spielberg would take it upon himself to direct a film that would change the look and feel of war films forever. Spielberg would once again take his trademark style of film making and make a huge epic with intimate proportions. This film would be Saving Private Ryan.
Saving Private Ryan Starring Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
The first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan is a reconstruction of one of the greatest battles of the 20th Century. The D-Day invasion is shown in all of its glory and horror, and never before has a battle scene been as unflinching about what happens to soldiers in the face of combat than it is in this picture. Shown from the perspective of Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller, the battle begins with machine guns ripping apart soldiers as they try to exit their landing boats, following bodies and bullets under the waters of the English Channel, and finally reaching the beaches of Normandy where Miller rallies to reunite his unit. The action of this sequence can be fast and brutal, but where Private Ryan raises the bar is in those quite moments when it lingers on a detail. Many times the action slows to show another soldier fall, lose a limb or cry out in terror. The battle scene is a masterwork of choreographed intense action and expert camerawork.
Three days after the battle, Miller and a small platoon are given a mission that would appear to be of little significance. An Army Private has lost his three brothers in the D Day invasion, leaving him as the sole son alive in his family. It has been deemed by Gen. George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) of the Joint Chiefs of the United States Armed Forces that it is important enough that the Private be brought home to his mother. As a result, the Captain and his men must trek across hostile territory of the French countryside to find the young Private James Ryan and bring him home. Miller’s team consists of Sergeant Mike Horvac, played by Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns’ Private Reiben, Barry Pepper’ Private Jackson, Adam Goldberg’s Private Mellish, the group’s Medic Wade, played by Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies’ Corporal Upham and Private Caparzo, played by a then unknown Vin Diesel. The group is an eclectic troupe of different types of men that were typical of the fighting men of World War II. Each are hesitant to put their lives on the line to find a stranger, but follow their Captain’s orders and are dutiful toward him.
The mission takes the team to the small French village of Newville where they suffer their first casualty. Private Caparzo, while trying to save a small girl, is shot down by an enemy sniper. The scene is an elongated death for Caparzo, begging his friend Mellish to mail a letter written to his father. The scene is punctuated by showing the prowess of Pvt. Jackson, a deadly sniper in his own right. Jackson dispatches the enemy and the troupe moves on after taking care of their fallen. The squad is given rest for the night after meeting up with troops led by Captain Hamill (Ted Danson). Their search for Ryan proves unfruitful while in Newville and they must keep looking elsewhere.
Tragedy befalls Captain Miller’s group again as they take it upon themselves to attack a Nazi gun emplacement. The group’s Medic, Wade is gunned down and dies in a very harrowing scene. To make things worse, tensions with the group rise to a fever pitch as the group questions their mission and the fate of a German prisoner that they have taken. Pvt. Reiben and Sgt. Horvac come to blows, bringing all feelings about the mission to the surface. It is finally Captain Miller who puts an end to the ill feelings, by sacrificing a private part of himself to help his men remember what they are fighting for.
When reaching the town of Ramelle, the group finally has some good fortune when they find the man they are looking for. Pvt. James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) is with a small platoon guarding a very important bridge in Ramelle, but he refuses to leave his post even after hearing the news of his brothers’ deaths. Tensions again seem to rise to the surface, but once more Capt. Miller quells them. Instead, Miller devises a plan to combine forces and utilize the tools of both groups.
This all leads to the climactic battle of the film. It is of smaller scale than the opening battle, but scope is replaced with the affection we feel for the individual characters. As they die, there is more than just the horror of the entire situation, there is the sorrow of losing a person we’ve followed on this journey. The action is still brutal and the shots linger even further than before. The end shatters the most hardened viewer into tears.
For many directors, the epic wartime film is almost a right of passage. Francis Ford Coppola was obsessed with Apocalypse Now to the point that it nearly killed him. The results were spectacular, but with a high cost. Martin Scorsese worked for years to get his epic Gangs of New York off the ground. The tales of its delayed production and release are legendary and the film is one of the few examples of a film going through so much turmoil and ending in a success. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator actually returned the director to a prominence he had not had since his early success with Alien. After getting the studio to bank on him and the long dead sub genre of the Roman epic, Scott was rewarded with what was a phenomenal success at the box-office and a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Steven Spielberg’s right of passage may be the best of all these films.
War films usually lie in camps of those that are anti-war or those movies that are used to validate a country’s involvement in a conflict. What Spielberg has ingeniously done is make a film that appeals to both sides. On the one hand, the film is very stirring and patriotic in several instances. The American Flag is used to bookend opening and closing shots for the film along with the moments where the General Marshall reads a letter from Abraham Lincoln about the “solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” The film is a testament to those that died in battle.
On the other hand, Spielberg packs the movie with so many horrifying images that no other film before it could possibly have as strong an effect towards detering someone from going into the military. No film before Private Ryan illustrated what the veterans of war had gone through to survive and why soldiers returning from war were not the same as when they left. Not only that, the film is populated with soldiers filled with doubt about a mission that most of them die for, not ever wanting to be there. They see the mission as a “Public Relations” tool and do not buy into it. Americans are not always shown in the best of light in the film either, sometimes killing unarmed men and those that have surrendered. Private Ryan is a masterstroke of storytelling from Spielberg as he is able to weigh in all these dissenting opinions, and yet still hold the film together.
Helping out the director are the performances in the film, which are of the highest caliber. Many have actually said that the film has too many cliche’d performances and have faulted the film for it. However many veterans agree that all of the soliders are very representative of the diverse types of men that fought in World War II. In Many ways also, Spielberg uses Seven Samurai as a template for Private Ryan, with a small group of soldiers sent out to accomplish a suicide mission with little glory in it, but much personal honor to be gained. The group even ends up saving a small village from overwhelming forces.
The performances are also indicative of this Seven Samurai template. There is the charismatic, but quiet leader (Hanks), his stalwart second in command (Sizemore), the upstart loudmouth (Burns), the expert killer (Pepper), the funny men (Goldberg and Diesel), and the naive youngster (Davies). Only the medic (Ribisi) breaks from the Samurai template. The film is still able to work because Spielberg and the actors totally make these roles their own and not just cliches.
Hanks pulls in perhaps the performance of his career. He is a quiet soldier who does his duty and does his best to keep his men safe. He deals with the loss of his men internally and inspires the others around him to be better soldiers. Hanks embodies what a soldier should be, but also there are other moments in the film where he makes Capt. Miller a complete character and not just a caricature by showing his flaws. Miller’s hand shakes before going into battle, a fact which he hides from his men. He weeps heavy tears at moments where he thinks he is losing the parts of his personality that made him who he was before the war.
All of the other characters are very rounded, with many illustrative stories of their pasts, making them all more human. Of the supporting performances in the film Sizemore, Ribisi, and Burns get the meatiest scenes. The characters are unique and developed enough that if one is killed in combat, there is an emotional attatchment that makes the death not just a kneejerk action cinema death, but a deeper feeling of sorrow.
Spielberg had touched upon World War II and the fight against fascism, several times in his Indiana Jones Triology
, and Schindler’s List
, but this is the first time, Spileberg went full blown into what the combat was like against the Nazis. This was a bold new step in his film making career and a bold new look for the action in his movies. Much like Seven Samurai
served as a watershed to future film makers, resulting in The Magnificent Seven
, The Guns of Navarone
, and The Wild Bunch
, Saving Private Ryan
has already started a new legacy of feature films that have emulated its combat style of footage. These films include Gladiator
, Black Hawk Down
, We Were Soldiers
and the spectacular Korean War Epic Tai Guk Gi
just to scratch the surface. Private Ryan
will endure as one of the best war films ever made and a benchmark in Spielberg’s career. Spielberg didn’t just glorify those who fought in World War II, but he made a world remember what they had fought for and the hell they went through to preserve freedom.