Thursday, December 23, 2010

Saving Private Ryan (1998): What Is Happening?


Take a nice, long look at that flag. You’ll see it in the opening shot of this film, and you’ll see it again in the final shot, too. What does it mean to you? Does it look patriotic? Does it look like the type of flag you’d be waving around in the air on the Fourth of July?

Here’s what I see: a flag that is desaturated, drained of the color that would otherwise pump it with life. The red hues have turned pink, the white hues haved turned gray, the blue hues can barely be made out at all, and the stars have turned black. It is a transparent flag, waving back and forth in the middle of a cool dusk, while the sunlight pierces straight through its heart. "This isn't standard-issue symbology," writes critic Bryant Frazer. "The flag is blasted out, leached of all color. It signals that something fundamental has been lost forever, bled from our national psyche. But its mere presence in the frame insists that something elseperhaps something still more importantremains behind."

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) begins and ends with a shot of this flag, and there’s a reason: it is mourning a lost time, a dying generation. The brave American men who fought to keep banners like this one at the tops of our flagpoles are all but dead now, and Saving Private Ryan is a film that was made for them. In a review for Cinepad, critic Jim Emerson couldn't have said it better: "Saving Private Ryan may be the best movie ever made about heroism and honor in wartime. And that's because it shows how heroic conduct can be extraordinarily difficult, instinctive, impulsive, deliberate, and lucky—all at the same time."

Confessions are in order: Saving Private Ryan is not a perfect film. I’ve been defending it for years, but in order to properly defend Spielberg’s war epic it is necessary to concede that it has flaws. Spielberg worked from a screenplay by Robert Rodat that was well-written, but conventional. The structure—a journey through wartime, focused on a specific mission—was nothing radical. And while Spielberg’s film received honors both in the critical community and at the Academy Awards, there’s been a bit of a backlash against it in more recent years.

This isn't really a surprise, of course; practically all of Spielberg's "serious" films have had to suffer a backlash in the Hollywood elite community (no matter what the subject). But acclaim for this film, in particular, has been hard-won indeed. Out of the few negative reviews of Saving Private Ryan published when it was first released, perhaps none has been of greater service to the film’s most impassioned dissenters, in recent years, than the notorious 1-star review that was published in the Chicago Reader by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

“For all the care and thoughtfulness that follow in the story,” Rosenbaum complained, “I never could shake the impression that all I was watching was every other war film Spielberg had ever seen… it becomes clear that the major lesson Spielberg has to teach us about war is what he’s learned from a lifetime of moviegoing. And what he’s learned turns out to be something for everyone rather than a single vision: war is hell, war is absurd, war is necessary, war is unnecessary, war is uplifting, war is depressing, war is a lesson in morality, war is a lesson in immorality, and so on.” He added, “I got mainly secondhand memories of All Quiet on the Western Front, [Samuel] Fuller’s war films, Kubrick’s war films, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and third-hand memories of John Ford’s war films and many others.”

In fairness, Rosenbaum has a point. Spielberg himself admitted in an interview with Richard Schickel, "You can’t have seen as many World War II movies as I’ve seen, and not have some of that rub off on Saving Private Ryan.” And, see, this is where Spielberg has a point, too: there have been so many war movies already made by various other filmmakers in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond. How could Spielberg and Robert Rodat not have had some of the old Hollywood war movies in mind when writing out their film? The same arguments Rosenbaum throws at Saving Private Ryan could easily be directed at Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, another masterful war movie from 1998 that wasn’t entirely original in its perceptions of the subject. How do we know Malick’s perception of war as ugly, beautiful and naturalistic wasn’t a viewpoint he hadn’t already adopted from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now? War films make for a rather limited movie genre; there are only so many things a filmmaker can say about the subject. How can war movie conventions not make their way into just about any modern war movie, especially after so much has already been said in previous efforts?

I think Samuel Fuller is really the only filmmaker, out of all the filmmakers Rosenbaum mentions in his review, who had a significant influence on Saving Private Ryan. Fuller and Spielberg were evidently good friends during Fuller’s lifetime (Spielberg had cast Fuller as the Interceptor Command officer in 1941), and, Fuller’s influence is already present in a handful of Spielberg’s later films. Short Round in Temple of Doom, for example, was named after the kid from The Steel Helmet; and, in Minority Report, a violent scene from House of Bamboo is playing on television during the sequence in which Anderton’s eyes are taken out. Saving Private Ryan, thus, has a lot of scenes that reek of the influence of scenes from Fuller’s own war films. From The Steel Helmet, Spielberg recycles a scene in which GIs shoot in all directions at a sniper hiding in an elevated area, as well as a scene in which GIs contemplate executing an enemy POW. From The Big Red One, Spielberg recycles the device of a soldier who starts out a pacifist and ends up a cold-blooded killer by the end (Jeremy Davies’ Upham = Mark Hamill’s Griff). And you can tell that Spielberg probably watched the D-Day sequence in The Big Red One dozens of times before heading off to shoot the D-Day sequence for his own film.

But I’m not naming off all of these Fuller influences in the film just because I’m impressed with Spielberg’s knowledge of classic films. I mention them because Spielberg picked an appropriate influence; Fuller was, himself, an infantryman who served in World War II, so who better to borrow images and sequences from than a soldier—a fellow filmmaking artist—who was actually there? When Spielberg set out to make Saving Private Ryan, his desire was to erase the images contemporary audiences had of the war which they had received from dated, pro-war Hollywood propaganda. The time had come for a World War II movie that was going to be more realistic and more faithful to what the veterans saw. Therefore, when recreating D-Day, Spielberg was in better hands learning from Fuller’s The Big Red One, and not from something like The Longest Day (1965), in which producer Daryl F. Zanuck portrayed D-Day as a kind of joyous, aw-shucks event (I still remember Sean Connery jumping out of the boat yelling, “Come out, ya dirty slobs! FLANAGAN'S back!”). That was a movie that made it look like every Higgins boat had made it to shore safely—as if every GI made it halfway across the beach before getting killed. It had made D-Day look like fun. Spielberg had another vision in mind entirely.



“Spielberg is doing something unheard of with the opening of this movie,” says Quentin Tarantino. “Saving Private Ryan made me aware of some issues raised by the cinema of war that I was unable to ask on my own. The idea that forty men on a boat are exterminated in seconds by a volley of machine gun is terrifying. Can you imagine the most atrocious carnage? Obviously, yes. Except that throughout the scene, you are persuaded to attend the worst slaughter in history.” Tarantino has further pointed out that he was no longer able to look at either The Longest Day nor The Big Red One in the same way again; Spielberg had tossed aside Zanuck’s version of D-Day, picked up Fuller’s version and then had picked up from where Fuller had left off. Never before had we seen this event portrayed so gruesomely. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) assures his men, “I’ll see you on the beach!," but from the moment the murder holes of the Higgins boats are thrown open, Spielberg unleashes absolute hell. It is any wonder that at least a quarter of Miller’s men are finally able to join him on the beach.

Some of them drown. Some are burned alive in flamethrower streams, others in boats that explode. A soldier is shot in the heart just as Miller rescues him from the shores. Another picks up his own severed arm from the sand. One man is shot in the helmet, is dumbfounded by his survival, removes his helmet to examine the damage, and is then shot dead in the skull. Another man cries as his intestines spill out of his stomach. Miller requests assistance from a soldier in Shore Party, only to find a giant hole in the soldier's face. Miller and his men do finally capture the hill, but it is no proud victory. When he sees two GIs murder two surrendering Germans, he is appalled at their cowardice.

We notice that a soldier by the name of Sean Ryan is one of many who has died, his body one of many that have washed onto the bloody shores of Omaha. Two of Ryan’s other brothers, Peter and Daniel, die in other battles on the same day, and this will set into motion the film’s basic plot to find the last surviving brother, James. But Roger Ebert writes that there’s another reason why Spielberg opens Saving Private Ryan with the D-Day landing: “This landing sequence is necessary to establish the distance between those who give the order that Pvt. Ryan be saved, and those who are ordered to do the saving.” Indeed, after the invasion ends, Miller's men are distraught at the carnage they have each participated in. When Caparzo (Vin Diesel) picks up a Hitler Youth knife from the corpse of an enemy soldier and makes a joke about it, Mellish (Adam Goldberg), an American Jew, isn’t amused. “And now it's a shabbat challah cutter, right?” He bursts into tears because it has come down to this—a war for the freedom of Jews and the other races of the Earth. I love, too, the moment when Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), looking on, collects a pound of soil to add to his world collection; Spielberg recognizes that these men have come a long way. The struggle is not over for any of them.



And what are we to make of Captain Miller? He is a Jeffersonian man, both because of his charisma and because he is a man of contradictions. He claims to the younger men in his unit that he sympathizes with Private Ryan's mother, yet he later confides in Horvath that he doesn't think one man is worth any rescue mission. He screams at his men for attempting to rescue a young girl (Anna Maguire) in the crumbling French town of Neuville, since his objective is to follow orders and not waste time by "doing the decent thing." Then, he turns back on his own words by telling his unit to intervene against a German force occupying a radar site, even though it goes against the orders of the mission to find Ryan. “I don't feel good about this,” worries Reiben (Edward Burns). “When was the last time you felt good about anything?” Miller bitterly snipes back at him. And look at the scene in which Miller is forced into the awkward situation of sitting down and explaining to James Frederick Ryan (Nathan Fillion) why they've been sent to find him.


“Well, there isn't any real way to say this,” stammers Miller, “so, uh... so I'll just say it: your brothers are dead. We have, uh, orders to come get you... 'cause you're going home.” Though Miller puts a soft emphasis on the word “home”, the rest of his message to this Ryan feels devoid of care and emotion. His delivery is so coarse and hurtful that even after it is revealed that this is the wrong James Ryan (he's from Minnesota instead of Iowa, and whatever brothers he has are still in grammar school), it doesn't really ease the young man's sadness after already having to endure the earlier news. Miller makes absolutely no effort to apologize, and James Frederick Ryan is left on his knees, sobbing, begging to get home—an opportunity he will not get, even though Miller has just promised it to him (even the cynical Reiben, who has hated the mission from the very beginning, observes Miller’s carelessness with disgust). When the unit finally does locate the real James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), Miller repeats this exact same process all over again, and—as he did with the first Ryan—makes no effort to mention the names of his dead brothers (Sean, Daniel, Peter). Perhaps that is because he hasn't bothered to remember them.



There are brief appearances by recognizable actors in Saving Private Ryan, but none of them are the sort of distracting Hollywood A-list star cameos you may have seen in The Longest Day. Paul Giamatti had one of his first screen appearances in the film as Sergeant Hill, who escorts Miller through the ravaged French town. Dennis Farina emits a fatherly presence as the Lieutenant who assigns Miller the rescue mission. The late Harve Presnell (you may remember him as William H. Macy's wealthy father-in-law in Fargo) marvelously portrays the great General George C. Marshall, and has a truly memorable scene in which he reads from Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby of Boston to remind his officers of the significance of Miller's rescue mission. One of his colonels is played by Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame); another is played by Dale Dye, who put Spielberg’s actors through boot camp hell in their training for the film. If I had to pick a favorite, however, I'd go for the cameo by Ted Danson, a long way from Cheers in his performance as Captain Hamill, who doesn't share the cynicism of Miller's men and sympathizes with the mission to locate Ryan. “I got a couple of brothers myself,” he tells Miller. “Good luck… I mean it. Find him. Get him home.”

The score by John Williams is valiant in key scenes of observation and dialogue, but Spielberg has the score removed from all of the battle sequences; this is not an action film or a thriller, and no music is needed to set up the violence. Michael Kahn's editing gives us a variety of different perspectives and angles, but never to the point of alienating us from what is happening. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography drains the movie of its color to accentuate the ugliness of this war-infested atmosphere; you can practically smell the burning flesh at D-Day, the sticky bombs at Ramelle. A lot of Spielberg's typical cinematic trademarks are present here, too. The image of ripples moving craftily through a peaceful pond recalls the ripples in the cup of water in Jurassic Park. Ryan tells Miller that he has forgotten the faces of his brothers; Christian Bale's Jim had a similar problem remembering his parents’ faces in Empire of the Sun. There is even a strange nod to Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories episode, 1985’s “The Mission”, when a lieutenant (Leland Orser) tells Miller about a general getting killed in a plane crash while trapped inside a cockpit.



Spielberg is unafraid to show some of his most heroic characters looking astonishingly vulnerable during the worst moments of combat. Much of this culminates in the final battle at Ramelle, which lasts 25 minutes—roughly the same running time as the D-Day opening sequence. The moment when Horvath is shot in the leg and is forced to retreat, for example, reminds me of just how serious it is to be caught in the line of fire. Later, even the fearless Private Ryan is seen screaming in terror when a flurry of bullets flies straight at him. And there is a terribly wrenching scene in which Mellish is upstairs fighting helplessly, brutally, with a Waffen-SS soldier (Mac Steinmeier) holding a knife; it eerily seems to have been foreshadowed by that scene at the beginning, in which Mellish had broken down over the Hitler Youth knife. There is also that painful moment when Mellish actually tries to convince the soldier... to stop. He actually tries to reason it out with this soldier, and put the entire purpose of the fight to a halt. But the Waffen-SS soldier, who “sings” Mellish into a sort of painless sleep, knows that he cannot stop. They are enemies with the objective of killing each other, and this is war.



But I think that the emotional peak of the film occurs at the halfway point, during the scene in which Captain Miller chooses to release a German POW (Joerg Stadler) even though his men, bloodthirsty after the death of their medic, Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), seek revenge and want to have the POW executed. This scene not only divides Miller's men, it also divides the audience. None of us know what it’s like to have to deal with an unarmed enemy soldier in the middle of wartime; do you release him, or kill him? Do you go “against the goddamned rules,” as Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) jeers, or do you release him and risk putting him back into circulation? At one point, Reiben throws a fit over the political correctness of Miller’s decision, and Horvath, defending Miller, pulls a gun on Reiben, prompting Jackson (Barry Pepper) to pull a gun on Horvath. Meanwhile, Upham, who has never killed a man in his life, stands back and marvels. “What is happening?” he mutters to himself.

Miller, who has seen what happens when innocent people are killed in battle (the GIs murdering the surrendering Germans at D-Day), explains to his men the reasoning behind his decision: “I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” But what really brings on the debates over Saving Private Ryan is the conclusion of the Ramelle sequence. Unable to save Mellish from death, the timid Upham is then unable to save Miller from being shot by “Steamboat Willie”—incidentally, the POW that Miller had let go earlier. When Upham finds the courage in himself to take “Steamboat Willie” and his fellow German soldiers hostage, he is so embittered that he shoots Steamboat Willie in cold blood. Troubled by this scene, my colleague Craig Simpson writes, “it's hard to tell what Spielberg means for us to take from Upham's apotheosis. He seems to be aiming for something along the lines of Michael Corleone's turning point in The Godfather—that the real tragedy isn't the person who gets killed but the person who does the killing. If that's the case, however, then why should it matter who shoots Miller? That it does matter in the movie is nothing less than a dubious rebuke of Upham's earlier decency, that he's not really a man until he pulls the trigger.”



Simpson is not alone in his criticisms of this scene. Spielberg is often accused of making Upham’s killing of “Steamboat Willie” appear as if it's supposed to be justified. But to respond to Simpson’s point, I think the reason why the filmmakers have Steamboat Willie shoot Miller (not that he wants to; there's no way for Steamboat Willie to discern, through all that smoke on the Ramelle bridge, that he has just shot the man who saved his life at the radar site) is so that Upham’s senses of right and wrong, in regards to killing, can be put to a test. The previous times in which Upham has failed to kill were times in which he should have. Now that he has to live with the shame of those previous failures, can he still manage to avoid killing at a time when it would be wrong for him to kill? There’s a key moment to look for: in the instant after he shoots Steamboat Willie dead, Upham realizes his mistake, and lets the rest of the Germans go. Spielberg moves the camera forward and provides us with a haunting close-up of Upham's face, enclouded in the white smoke of battle, looking down gravely at Steamboat's Willie's body lying offscreen. It is in that moment when he understands that after his successive cowardly failures, his first kill in the film is not an heroic achievement at all but, rather, a further act of cowardice.



Now, about those bookending scenes featuring an elderly James Ryan (Harrison Young) and his heartbreaking visitation to a memorial cemetery. There’s a lot of fuss about Ryan’s infamous line to his wife (“Tell me I’m a good man”), but after watching the scene again, I think I’m content with this line; the movie is, after all, about “doing the decent thing” and “earning the right to go home.” What I find more distracting about the cemetery scenes is the strange appearance and behavior of Ryan's family members, who react hysterically when he falls to his knees in sorrow at one point; a powerful close-up of Ryan’s face is very nearly ruined by the absurd facial expressions of the actors in the background playing his family members—particularly the bemused looks on the faces of Ryan’s three blonde, teenage granddaughters (wickedly described as “big-boobed women” in a negative critique of the film published by screenwriter William Goldman). But there’s one detail about the scenes with the elderly Ryan that I love: that closing moment when Ryan salutes a fallen comrade's gravestone. It doesn't feel fake. It nicely reinforces the whole point of the film.



Is Saving Private Ryan a pro or antiwar film? Honestly, I don't think it's necessary to ask such questions. An earlier scene has Miller and Upham conversing philosophically about war in the shadows of an abandoned church, and Upham is quoting Emerson: “War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.” Miller acknowledges this is one way of “finding the bright side,” but the quote makes no difference to him, personally. To quote Sam Fuller, “Pro or anti, what the hell difference does it make to the guy who gets his ass shot off?”

Few can argue against the fact that World War II was a necessary war, but Saving Private Ryan refuses to accept the crass, sentimental “message” of previous war films that the carnage was worth celebrating—that such conflicts should be welcomed. What Spielberg instead warns his audiences, more than any other American filmmaker ever has, is that the war was a costly sacrifice. Are we willing to let something like this happen again? To send our boys back to another hell on Earth? And he asks us to consider if our generation has any of that same strength—not strength for another world war, mind you, but strength that we can use to ensure that another world war does not happen again. Spielberg's father, World War II veteran Arnold Spielberg, puts it best on the film's DVD: "I think it's important to keep telling the stories—understanding them, and understanding what the basis for this was. The more you talk about the horrors of the war, the more you are less likely to try to get involved in another one."


There is a scene towards the end of Saving Private Ryan that is easily overlooked. On a second viewing, it takes on an importance of its own. This is the scene in which Miller advises Ryan to try to remember the faces of his brothers by recalling a memorable experience with them. Miller uses the example of his wife tending to a rose bush garden at home to help further his point. Ryan takes Miller's advice, tries it out, and it works. Then Ryan asks Miller if he wouldn’t mind sharing the memories of his wife and her rose bushes. “No,” replies Miller. “No... that one I save just for me.” With further viewings of the film, we look at the scene, observe its quiet brilliance, and then, oh, how devastating it is when we realize that Miller will be taking his memories to the grave.

42 comments:

  1. Powerfully argued, Adam. As I told Steven Santos during a debate over last year's Inglourious Basterds, you're making me work a lot harder.

    To begin, the most compelling takedown on Saving Private Ryan that I've ever read is the one written by Tom Carson for Esquire right before the 1999 Oscars. I mention it off the bat because it helped organize my own thoughts about this film back to the time I read it.

    On to your points:

    I want you to take a nice, long look at that flag. You’ll see it in the opening shot of this film, and you’ll see it again in the final shot, too. What does it mean to you? Does it look patriotic? Does it look like the type of flag you’d be waving around in the air on the Fourth of July?

    First time I saw the movie, and that flag appeared (in tune to a forlorn horn from John Williams's score), I groaned. The desaturated image is more cunning than outright jingoism; it's Spielberg stamping an imprimatur of "authenticity" on his movie before it's even started.

    The brave American men who fought to keep banners like this one at the tops of our flagpoles are all but dead now, and Saving Private Ryan is a film that was made for them.

    With at least one eye on the Oscars.

    When Spielberg set out to make Saving Private Ryan, his desire was to erase the images contemporary audiences had of the war which they had received from dated, pro-war Hollywood propaganda: the time had come for a World War II movie that was going to be more realistic and more faithful to what the veterans saw.

    This is the problem with the movie in a nutshell: Spielberg wants his cliches and conventionality along with the cache of purportedly telling us How It Really Was. In my opinion, he doesn't earn it.

    (Part 1 of 2....)

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  2. (Part 2)

    Therefore, when recreating D-Day, Spielberg was in better hands learning from Fuller’s The Big Red One, and not from something like The Longest Day (1965)—in which producer Daryl F. Zanuck portrayed D-Day as a kind of joyous, aw-shucks event (I still remember Sean Connery jumping out of the boat yelling, “Come out, ya dirty slobs! FLANAGAN'S back!”). It was a movie that made it look like every Higgins boat had made it to shore safely—as if every GI made it halfway across the beach before getting killed. It had made D-Day look like fun. Spielberg was planning to reverse it.

    But those films also got something crucially right: The length of time those soldiers spent on the Beach. As Carson points out, Saving Private Ryan stages the landing in what feels like real time, creating the impression that Miller's Rangers secured Omaha in about 20 minutes. Like many other sequences, this is hidden beneath a barrage of carnage to create the illusion of realism.

    The late Harve Presnell (you may remember him as William H. Macy's wealthy father-in-law in Fargo) marvelously portrays the great General George C. Marshall, and has a truly memorable scene in which he reads from Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby of Boston to remind his officers of the significance of Miller's rescue mission.

    I thought it was a terrible scene that stops the movie cold (followed by another one: the Ryan farm draped in golden sunshine). Makes me dread his Lincoln movie all the more.

    If I had to pick a favorite, however, I'd go for the cameo by Ted Danson, a long way from Cheers in his performance as Captain Hamill, who doesn't share the cynicism of Miller's men and sympathizes with the mission to locate Ryan.

    I thought Danson was distracting, and Ed Burns awful. Nearly all the other performances are fine, though; which makes criticizing this film such a tricky business: I can admire the actors even though I don't like where they're being taken.

    (More coming....)

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  3. (Part 3)

    Simpson is not alone in his criticisms of this scene. Spielberg is often accused of making Upham’s killing of “Steamboat Willie” appear as if it's supposed to be justified. But to respond to Simpson’s point, I think the reason why Steamboat Willie ends up becoming the man who shoots Miller is so that Upham’s sense of the rights and wrongs, in regards to killing, can be put to a test: the previous times in which Upham has failed to kill were times in which he should have. Now that he has to live with the shame of those previous failures, can he still manage to avoid killing at a time when it would be wrong for him to do so?

    That's the most persuasive argument I've read regarding this scene. But I don't buy it in the context of the rest of the film, which goes out of its way to depict Upham a coward and a wimp (like all intellectuals are), and the Germans irredeemable scum by definition. Having Steamboat Willie be the one who kills Miller suggests that the act is somehow duplicitous, a rather absurd implication in a war movie. The real tragedy should be Miller's sacrifice; it shouldn't matter who pulls the trigger. Sorry, but Spielberg trots out too many contortions for the moment to register with me. I'm not sure he's even aware of what he's showing us.

    What Spielberg instead warns his audiences, more than any other American filmmaker ever has, is that the war was the ultimate sacrifice: are we willing to let something like this happen again? To send our boys back to another hell on Earth?

    Well, three years later something would happen that prompted our nation's leaders to ask for sacrifice. I'm not going to blame Spielberg's movie, as some have done, in preparing a generation for cannon fodder (any more than I'd cast blame for "ruining movies" or other such nonsense). Yet I have to concede Tom Carson's point that Spielberg's methods muddy the message. "(I)f I were seventeen," he writes, "I'd have left the theater with a woody to enlist."

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  4. Another beautifully written piece, Adam. Thoughtful, articulate and, as Craig said, wel-argued (I agree totally with your take on the opening and closing shots of the flag). Well done. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is another one of Spielberg's masterpieces and although it doesn't have the personal significance for me as SCHINDLER'S LIST does, I still regard it as a great and challenging film and one of the most memorable theatre-viewing experiences I've ever had.
    A couple minor points:

    I think you're right in that Tom hanks' disapproval of what he sees the two American solders do right after the D-Day sequence is the point of that scene. I've actually heard people who've watched that scene and thought that he not only approved of it but that Spielberg did too. That just stuns me. It's amazing how two people can watch the same movie and yet still see two completely different movies. What makes that scene more interesting is the fact the two soldiers who are surrendering were actually, as I've read elswhere online, Czech and were saying things like, "Don't shoot. I haven't killed anyone. I'm not German. I'm Czech." They were apparently members of what the Germans called Ost [East] Battalions, men - mostly Czech and Polish - taken prisoner in eastern European countries invaded by Germany and forced into the German army. Although that knowledge doesn't change the essential emotional point of that sequence, it does make the moment all the more heartbreaking I think.

    Again, like the "I could have done more" speech and the full-color ending to SCHINDLER'S LIST, I am not of those who hates the bookending scenes to PRIVATE RYAN. I can acknowledge that the film doesn't NEED these bookends, but I have no problem with them being there. I've heard that the reason Spielberg included them was because he himself witnessed an elderly veteran collapse at a soldier's cemetery while he was traveling around Europe promoting DUEL. It doesn't justify their inclusion perhaps but I think it explains why Spielberg might've felt compelled to couch the story in some kind of modern context because for a lot of his audience (as with himself), that is our only exposure/experience with this event.

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  5. Craig, thanks for the long response! I'll try to respond to as many of your points as I can.

    I'll go ahead and begin with the whole Upham thing, since that's what bothers us most of all. Where do you get the sense that the film "goes out of its way to depict Upham a coward and a wimp (like all intellectuals are), and the Germans irredeemable scum by definition"? Spielberg once admitted in an interview (I don't remember which one) that of all the characters in the film, he is most like Upham. Roger Ebert said in his own review that Upham reminds him of himself. The film isn't making a banal statement that intellectuals are "wimps", just that war isn't exactly an appropriate environment for an intellectual. I think I'm most like Upham, for that matter. It's easy for all of us to judge his actions in this film, but how do any of us know we wouldn't lose control and shoot an unarmed man in the wake of a fallen comrade's death? That's what happens to a lot of soldiers, even to this day.

    I've also never understood this criticism that the film supposedly hates Germans. If that is the case, then why are there so many scenes of Americans acting cruelly to Germans? I'm speaking primarily of the scene in which the two GIs at D-Day kill the two Germans who surrender--and Miller looks over angrily at those GIs. Don't you think that scene is in there for a reason? What about the Waffen-SS soldier who tries to kill Mellish as mercifully as possible? All of the Germans in Saving Private Ryan are seen as simply fighting for their fatherland. Nothing wrong with that.

    And in the scene where Miller releases Steamboat Willie and gives his speech, watch the way Spielberg sets the scene up: by the time Miller has gotten to the most crucial point of his speech ("every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel"), John Williams' music is swelling up and all of Miller's men are reinspired to continue the mission. Clearly Spielberg sympathizes with Miller's decision.

    As for the film's message about sacrifice, your allusion to 9/11 only strengthens the point I was trying to make! For the first time in our lives, Americans had to consider if we were worthy of the men from D-Day. This is sentimental, sure, but it's also a humanistic message--no matter what your politics.
    And as for the film's depiction of the time spent on D-Day, if I'm correct, Fuller's D-Day sequence in The Big Red One was much shorter than Spielberg's sequence, so I'm not sure what you mean...

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  6. Damian, thanks for commenting. Again, I envy you that you got to see this on the big screen. I was 7 years old when it came and I remember beginning my parents to take me to see it, to no success. lol

    The moment when Miller sees the GIs murder the surrenduring Germans is definitely crucial. I think it mirrors the scene where Upham murders Steamboat Willie. The movie is, I think, making a statement about "the goddamned rules" of war, as Upham calls them--and from what I gather, it believes in them.

    I tried writing about this movie exactly last year, in December 2009, but my review was so overbloated that I had to take it back to the cutting room floor. One of the things I said in my old review is what you say here, about the bookending scenes being unnecessary. I sorta agree with you, but I kind of like the scenes because they allow the film to have that great moment where Ryan salutes Miller's grave. I think we could have done without those buxom granddaughters in the background, but hey: Spielberg probably just cast them because he thought they looked cute. Besides, he had already accomplished so much by then, so I'm willing to forgive him.

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  7. Thanks, Adam. I'll try to keep it shorter this time.

    It's easy for all of us to judge his actions in this film, but how do any of us know we wouldn't lose control and shoot an unarmed man in the wake of a fallen comrade's death?

    That's my point. I don't think the movie is condemning the action as you see it. I think it's condemning Upham for not doing it sooner.

    I've also never understood this criticism that the film supposedly hates Germans. If that is the case, then why are there so many scenes of Americans acting cruelly to Germans?

    Behavior later validated by the compassionate release of Willie, who ultimately kills Miller. (Also, I see the SS officer's sadistically protracted stabbing of Mellish as anything but merciful.)

    And as for the film's depiction of the time spent on D-Day, if I'm correct, Fuller's D-Day sequence in The Big Red One was much shorter than Spielberg's sequence, so I'm not sure what you mean...

    I mean that Fuller returns again and again to a dead soldier's watch in order to show the hours the soldiers spent trapped on the beach, whereas Spielberg gives the impression that the Rangers ran right up the hill in less than 30 minutes (i.e., it's staged in real-time). Read Carson's piece that I linked to previously for more.

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  8. Sorry for the late reply; holiday traveling slowed down my blogathon progress for a whole day! Now back to business...

    Craig, I went ahead and read Tom Carson's piece. I gotta admit that all I got from it was Carson somehow making Saving Private Ryan out to be a movie with some kind of "shut up and love your country" message, if that makes any sense. Does Carson honestly think that a filmmaker as subtle as Spielberg stoops down to such blindly patriotic undertones??? This includes his superficial readings into the flag as well as his claim that Miller is supposed to be a "saintly" figure (how is Miller a saint when he's shown throughout the movie to be a man capable of grave mistakes and embarrassing contradictions?). I don't get his mentioning that the movie is more suited to the sensibilities of Bob Dole than it is to Clinton, either. The movie takes no big political stances. It has views on war morality for sure, but it's never spoiled by loud politics, ever.

    Carson says that Spielberg portrays D-Day as if it only lasted 25 minutes. Didn't it ever occur to Carson that Spielberg is only showing us part of D-Day? For all we know, Miller's men may have reached the shores at the tail-end of the battle. Or, hell, they may have even reached it during the middle of the day. There were a whole bunch of different shores being attacked at Omaha--many of them out of sight from the others. This is even indicated in The Longest Day, a movie that spaces out each and every one of the different attacks on the different Omaha shores.

    True, Saving Private Ryan doesn't attempt to show us every specific of D-Day, as The Longest Day no doubt attempted. But then again, such an attempt isn't necessary. Is there anybody who seriously walked away from Saving Private Ryan under the assumption that D-Day only lasted for 25 minutes? I'd be very surprised if anybody did. The more important thing for a filmmaker to capture is the atrocious carnage of the event, which Daryl F. Zanuck and his team of hired directors certainly did not do. The Big Red One was probably the first movie that actually captured some of the actual horror of D-Day, whereas Spielberg's movie plunges straight into it. I have a feeling critics like Tom Carson feel compelled to claim The Big Red One has a superior D-Day sequence only because Sam Fuller had a far more limited budget and, therefore, is sympathetic as a kind of starving artist. I can easily understand that sentiment, but in terms of aesthetic power and emotional true, Saving Private Ryan's D-Day sequence just totally outdoes D-Day in The Big Red One. If we can't agree on that, let's at least concede that BOTH films outdo The Longest Day!

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  9. Regarding the issue of the Waffen-SS soldier who kills Mellish, I found an excellent interpretation by a critic named Karen Jaehne, who writes:

    To increase the tension of this scene, the German soldier maintains a steady stream of talking - or, rather, hissing at Pvt. Mellish. Most viewers seem to think he is torturing Mellish, threatening him or cursing him, because the harsh sound of the language indicates something dreadful, even evil. But nothing could be further from the truth.

    What the German is saying to Mellish is quite different: "Let it be, let it be, let it be." (Pace John Lennon.) "Let it be, and it won't hurt you so much. It won't be so painful." In short, the German is trying to show the American the easy route to death. Why? This is not the sadistic, vicious enemy we know in WWII pictures. No, Spielberg is trying to humanize the German, and particularly in this duel to the death, to show the German bringing mercy to the ghastly business of being a soldier. Yet, because nobody knows what's going down - we resort to old cliches.

    I never thought I'd find myself begging for subtitles, but the entire point of this scene is lost if we don't know what the German is trying to tell his victim. I suppose all manner of implications can be devised and debated, and there's always room for interpretation both
    shallow and subtle. But no interpretation is possible without the language itself providing the foundation for this microcosm of the war in which Mellish must die and the German must survive – however temporarily.


    Adding to what Jaehne says, I think that it was a mistake on Spielberg's part not to include subtitles in this scene. It's a flaw of the film. But knowing what the Waffen-SS soldier is actually saying to Mellish does make it all the more painful of a scene. The Waffen-SS soldier doesn't want to kill Mellish, but to fight for Germany, he has to. All the same, Upham, as a fighter for America, should have killed the Waffen-SS soldier before letting him stab Mellish, but that's beside the point. The point is that once they're all there, all three of them have no other accepted choice but to kill, whether they want to or not.

    Jaehne also writes of the scene in which Steamboat Willie and his fellow soldiers shoot Miller:

    On the other hand, Spielberg can never handle a theme with straightforward consistency. In "Saving Private Ryan," he indulges his usual artistic schizophrenia in an earlier scene that gives a face to the enemy, when Hanks' little platoon takes a P.O.W. and makes him dig graves. When the Americans are ready to let him dig and fall into his own grave, Captain Hanks refuses to let them follow their instincts. He sticks to the Geneva Convention, but unable to be burdened with a P.O.W. in his mission, he simply grants the German his life and sends him on his way. In the final scene, that soldier has done what a soldier must do - rejoined his ranks. There he is among the Germans attacking the bridge Hanks is defending. In the final moments, they face each other in the village square. "I know that guy," cries the German in the friendly tones of "Hale, fellow, well met" - in German (again sans subtitles), but too late. The German soldiers aim at Captain Hanks and shoot him dead. So much for the Geneva Convention. They are at war.

    Thing is, I think the film recognizes the criminality of Upham shooting Steamboat Willie in cold blood just as much as it recognizes that this is merely the sad truth of what good men can be driven to do in war. That's why the scene at D-Day--in which Miller watches the two GIs murdering surrendering Germans--is there, too. Like Upham, those two GIs were probably strong and intelligent men in the moments before watching their buddies get killed and then being driven to commit despicable acts.

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  10. Adam, I think all of this comes down to how each of us (or anyone else) experiences Spielberg's movies. You're astonished that anyone wouldn't find Spielberg subtle. I'm astonished, frankly, that anyone would.

    Carson goes too far with his thesis, but sometimes a push in the opposite direction is needed to establish equilibrium, and I think his overarching point is that Spielberg is so unreflective that sometimes he doesn't know what he's showing us. Case in point: The D-Day landing. Yes, Miller's Rangers may have come near the end of the landing, and that may be why they're only on the beach for 25 minutes, but that's inferring the director's intent about something he should be showing us. (Even that implies that Miller's troops took care of business while everyone else failed -- we don't see them huddled on Omaha for any length of time -- so in a way the point stands.)

    You ask if anybody would come out of Saving Private Ryan seriously believing the Beach was taken in 25 minutes? I think, yes, actually, some would; but even if nobody did, the man with the camera is suggesting that it was so, whether he's aware of it or not.

    I think Spielberg is a huge talent. When he's on, no one can touch him. But when he's off he misses by a mile. And like many filmmakers with legions of fans, I see him too often letting those fans connect the dots and do the heavy lifting for him. Some directors are challenging (Kubrick, the Coens, Kieslowski), and it does take some effort on part of the viewer to understanding what they're showing us. Other than Munich, I can't recall ever being truly challenged (much less mentally taxed) by a Spielberg film. A commenter on Ed Howard's review of Minority Report, proposing the Anderton-is-haloed theory that we talked about before, warned that we "should never underestimate Spielberg." Honestly, I think the real danger is giving the guy too much credit.

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  11. I have got to agree with Craig on Spielberg's lack of subtlety.

    And I'll add a comment to his films' quality. Spielberg learnt from Jaws that if the story is entertaining, quality control can go out the window. That's why Ryan's family looks so out of place. Spielberg doesn't care what the busty blondes are doing cause the story is in Ryan's face, everything else is just screen filler. Follow that logic and all the looks and dialog delivery that your piece refers to are more than likely actor generated than Spielberg dictated.

    He is no Kubrick.

    Then then idea that viewers might believe the beach was taken in 20 minutes is valid, but not Spielberg's fault. I'd bet most American audiences think the entirety of WW2 was fought and won by American solders. That's how Saving Private Ryan (and Band of Brothers to an extent) depicts it. The pacing in Band is much more realistic for anyone irked by the beach scene, more than enough amends.

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  12. But Craig, what about Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, A.I. and The Terminal? You don't find these to be subtle films? They're all multifaceted commentaries on war, genocide, human evil and race paranoia. None of them could be summed up in 25 words or less. I would certainly add to that canon Munich, which you've already acknowledged, as well as Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report. While I don't share LoneStranger's exact opinions on the latter film (he adopts the halo-dream theory, I adopt the "bittersweet ending" theory), I agree 100% with him that Spielberg shouldn't be underestimated. You have a point that there are times when he's probably given too much credit, but I would only apply this to things like, say, the Marxist theories written in support of Duel and Jaws. There's a lot of crazy Spielberg fanboy stuff out there for sure. But LoneStranger and other wise Spielberg scholars have been able to connect dots. And biographers ranging from Joseph McBride to Nigel Morris have written some of the most insightful literature on Spielberg's cinema out there.

    Spielberg has said that when he was shooting the D-Day sequence for Saving Private Ryan, a lot of it was improvised, so I don't think he could tell us for sure if the specific attack launched by Miller's unit takes place early in the morning or later in the afternoon--why is it so important that Spielberg knows for sure, though? The argument that Spielberg is committing a fallacy by showing only 25 minutes of D-Day isn't too far away from the argument by contrarian, anti-Spielberg elitists that Schindler's List portrays the Holocaust as if all the Jews end up living.

    Many critics have lauded Spielberg for what he shows in Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, and yet there are some critics who still insist that he shows too little. But if Spielberg had shown more, wouldn't these same critics have then criticized him for stretching the amount of harrowing subject matter so far across his films that it ends up compromising the delicacy of his narratives? Too much Holocaust genocide in Schindler's List would have interfered with Oskar Schindler's story of rescuing his workers. Too much D-Day would prevent Saving Private Ryan from being successful as a story about fighting men rescuing another fighting man while struggling with their morale along the way. It's a damned-if-I-do-or-damned-if-I-don't situation in Spielberg's case: push the genocide factor as far as it can go, or keep it intact with the narrative? Under the circumstances he does a great job attempting to combine both, I think.

    Besides, dozens of Miller's men die in the attack. Several of them are killed while he's trying to save them. The reason why he handpicks Caparzo, Jackson, Reiben, Wade, Mellish and Horvath for the mission is because they were among the ones who survived. No doubt he would have picked other men in his unit who were just as strong--perhaps some of them even stronger--if he could have, but they were killed. And that Miller, Caparzo, Jackson, Wade and Mellish are all dead by the end of the film is yet another testament to the fact that none of them are invincible in the line of fire. Out of the 8 ment sent to find Ryan, the only ones alive by the end are Reiben and Upham!

    Again, I don't see how Spielberg's portrayal of time on the beach is anything inferior to Sam Fuller's portrayal as seen in The Big Red One. Fuller had the great shot of the hand with the watch on it, whereas Spielberg focuses on one specific attack on another side of the beach. I mean, if there's really people who came out of Saving Private Ryan thinking D-Day only lasted for 25 minutes, I'd ask those same people if they thought a baby carriage really rolled down the Odessa Steps during the Russian Revolution just because Eisenstein portrayed it that way.

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  13. Greg, I disagree with you that Jaws is a movie absent of quality control. Brody, Hooper and Quint all make up the quality of that movie, and the shark is of second importance. Spielberg has never been a filmmaker who believes that quality control is unimportant--that's just a ridiculous thing to say. And how does Saving Private Ryan depict World War II as if it was won by Americans?

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  14. I should probably know better than to jump in, but what the hell. Adam, my basic point about the D-Day sequence is that SPR claims to show us "how it really was" -- and doesn't. What The Longest Day (for all its sins) and The Big Red One (for all its expressionism) both show accurately is that the men on the beach stayed pinned down there for hours -- paralyzed, confused, and terrified. They didn't jump right up from being massacred at the shoreline to knock out every German in sight, which is just comic-book heroics masquerading as realism.

    Trying to excuse this with the idea that Miller's unit landed later in the day doesn't make much sense to me, since there's nobody else on the beach ahead of them and it's clear they're supposed to be in the first wave. If they had landed later, that sector of Omaha -- like all the others -- would have been absolutely crammed with dazed men, vehicles and landing craft, not to mention casualties.

    Incidentally, there were five invasion beaches-- Omaha is the most famous only because it was the bloodiest -- and those are the "different shores" shown in The Longest Day. One big cheat in SPR is that no paratroopers landed behind Omaha at all; any unit sent to rescue Ryan would have come from Utah Beach instead. But D-Day on Utah was a walkover, and Spielberg wanted that opening massacre.

    As for the idea that I prefer The Big Red One just because Fuller had a smaller budget and qualified as a "starving artist,"c'mon, don't be silly. That's like saying you like SPR just because it had a big budget and Spielberg is popular.

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  15. Tom, I went ahead and looked at the sequence again. When Miller's Higgins boats reach the shores, there are already dozens of dead bodies scattered on the beach below the German turrets. Miller could very well have reached that sector later in the day (they wash up on the Dog Green Sector, according to the opening titles), so it's definitely possible that they arrived at the tail-end of the battle. There's no evidence indicating that they're part of the first wave. By the time Miller reaches the beach, there's already a ton of casualties.

    And to me that's no less sinful than the way Fuller portrays D-Day in The Big Red One. The device of the watch on the arm did allow Fuller to depict the passage of time on D-Day--but, well, in a sequence that was extremely brief. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg makes the time of day and the passage of battle ambiguous because he recognizes that the absolute carnage of the battle (which had never quite been depicted truthfully) was a higher priority and needed to audiences as it was. Spielberg, like Fuller, knew damn well that portraying the entire passage of time on the beaches in a dramatic film is impossible; that's why he only shows us part of D-Day, just as Fuller showed an even smaller part of it.

    Even The Longest Day doesn't have the most accurate depiction of time spent on the beaches. True, that movie tries to cover the whole day, but if I remember correctly it makes it look like each of the different waves of Higgins boats makes it up the shores in a mere matter of minutes. I remember the Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery characters, respectively, making it up the beaches in no time.

    About the Omaha/Utah mixup, that's probably a goof on Robert Rodat's part, but surely this minor inaccuracy can be forgiven, can't it? The D-Day sequence is used to open the film because one of Ryan's brothers dies in the battle and also because, to quote Ebert, it's necessary "to establish the distance between those who give the order that Pvt. Ryan be saved, and those who are ordered to do the saving"; nevermind any inaccuracies regarding paratroopers.

    Many thanks for reading and commenting though, Tom. This was by far one of the most fruitful discussions of the blogathon and your two cents made it all the more memorable. Also, just a theory: I think if Spielberg read your comparison of him to Leni Riefenstahl, he might be flattered. Make no mistake: she was a great filmmaker!

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  16. When Miller's Higgins boats reach the shores, there are already dozens of dead bodies scattered on the beach below the German turrets.

    That there are "dozens" of bodies (rather than hundreds or thousands) strongly suggests that Miller's team was the first wave.

    And to me that's no less sinful than the way Fuller portrays D-Day in The Big Red One. The device of the watch on the arm did allow Fuller to depict the passage of time on D-Day--but, well, in a sequence that was extremely brief.

    I don't follow your logic here: How does length of screen time equal authenticity? The Big Red One isn't about just D-Day; it covers several areas of the war. Yet, despite this, it gets an important element right about that day which Spielberg, for all his airs, does not.

    In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg makes the time of day and the passage of battle ambiguous because he recognizes that the absolute carnage of the battle (which had never quite been depicted truthfully) was a higher priority and needed to audiences as it was.

    Honestly, Adam, isn't carnage the easiest thing to get right? As Francis Davis said: "The invasion of Omaha Beach (scene) was good, but why shouldn't it have been? It probably cost as much as the actual invasion." For a movie to roll around in blood and then dry itself off with a flag is the height of pomposity. It's also -- to these eyes -- artistically vacant.

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  17. Well, I only said there were "dozens" of bodies because that was the first word that came to mind for me. But if you look at the scene again, there are several bodies already scattered around the beach by the time Miller arrives.

    Regarding what Fuller gets right about D-Day and whether or not Spielberg gets it right as well, that's precisely what we're debating about! The question is whether Spielberg fudges up the actual time spent on the beach. Because there are already bodies on the beach we can assume Spielberg is only showing the end of it. He may not explicitly cover the passage of hours as Fuller did, but then again that's not necessary for the part of the battle he's depicting. He only shows us the end of D-Day to introduce us to Miller, Horvath, Caparzo, Reiben, Mellish, Wade and Jackson--all of whom are handpicked for the mission to save Ryan because they survived D-Day--therefore, they are trusted to have admirable fighting skills in the line of fire.

    There hadn't ever been a film before Saving Private Ryan that had been truthful to the totality of D-Day's carnage. Today it might be considered easy to display that kind of carnage onscreen, but before Spielberg it hadn't been attempted. I've quoted Quentin Tarantino's comments about the sequence in the piece above. Here's his comments in their entirety:

    Spielberg is doing something unheard of with the opening of this movie. When you watch the sequence of the landing, it’s no longer possible to look the same way at The Longest Day, or even Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One. I was shaken in a similar manner by Schindler's List. Even though I have seen many films about the Holocaust, none up to that point had managed to get at the feeling of what it was like to be in the inside of a concentration camp. Saving Private Ryan made me aware of some issues raised by the cinema of war that I was unable to ask on my own. The idea that forty men on a boat are exterminated in seconds by a volley of machine gun is terrifying. Can you imagine the most atrocious carnage? Obviously, yes. Except that throughout the scene, you are persuaded to attend the worst slaughter in history. The sequence of the knife fight between a U.S. soldier and a Nazi at the end of the film is also as notable as the landing. I hate war movies where they show a soldier killing his opponents without sweating, as if it were insignificant. If I was fighting to save my skin, I think it would be a little more difficult. It's hard to kill someone, it takes sweat, and even with this, you have no guarantee of reaching your goals. Spielberg managed admirably to stage this scene with that dimension.

    It's definitely arguable whether Spielberg's movie is bombastically patriotic, too. Coupled with my own interpretations of the bookending flag shots, I can't see how an overly patriotic movie would shows GIs murdering innocent Germans or have a camera that pans up the beaches to show corpses of both Americans and Germans (side by side) washing around the shores. I won't say the movie isn't patriotic, since the John Williams score is obviously written in such a way as to honor the veterans. But one of the strengths of Saving Private Ryan is that as much as it pays tribute to the troops, it was one of the first WWII movies that refused to shy away from the fact that some soldiers were dishonerable and crossed the lines of the Geneva Convention.

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  18. The question is whether Spielberg fudges up the actual time spent on the beach. Because there are already bodies on the beach we can assume Spielberg is only showing the end of it.

    I just watched this again tonight. When the doors of the first transport open, there is no one on the beach. There's even an angle from the German POV that confirms this. They are clearly among the first wave.

    Now, if we abandon the Miller's-unit-got-there-late argument, we're back to the more valid artistic point: No movie can show everything about a historical event, it has to pick and choose. Fair enough. I think the time spent on the beach -- or lack thereof -- is important, if not essential, for reasons already discussed. Clearly, you don't.

    I come at Saving Private Ryan based on my memories of 1998. I kid you not: You could not say one bad word about this movie without hell raining upon you. An aggressive PR blitz let us know how many weeks that Hanks, et al spent in boot camp, that this was the "most realistic WW2 movie ever," that Stephen Ambrose gave it his seal of approval. On and on it went. Then I go to the theater and see the movie start with the flag in our face and this horrible elderly actor and then the flashback where American soldiers storm up the beach in 25 minutes and everything else that happened after that and I think..."What are they talking about?" I try not to let what's said or done offscreen affect what's onscreen, but when the filmmakers themselves bring authenticity into the discussion, then I think it's only fair to call bullshit when their work doesn't measure up to that.

    That's why I was so grateful to read Tom Carson's piece when it came out -- to know that I wasn't the only one who disliked this picture. (Tom, if you're still reading this, let me thank you directly here.) It became fashionable to accuse Miramax of buying the vote after their upset Best Picture win at the Oscars, but I've a hunch that a lot of other people genuinely (privately) didn't like the movie either. You're coming at it after the backlash, but that wasn't always the case.

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  19. Craig, are you sure you're not looking at the wrong frame or something? The first time we ever see the angle from the German POV (right under their turret gun), there are bodies of dead GIs scattered around all over the sand right when Miller's Higgins boats arrive. So I'm not sure if you're looking at a pan-and-scan version or what. For all we know, Miller and his men could be part of the second or third waves.

    I mean, true, there are some inaccuracies in the scene. Not just the matter of the Utah paratroopers, which Tom already pointed out, but also the irony of how there are no Allied ships behind Miller's boats as they're driving towards the shore. These minor inaccuracies don't hurt the narrative, though, and the matter of time spent on the beach is never skewed into such a way as to explicitly suggest the BEGINNING and END of the Omaha beach assault; if that were the case; Spielberg would have done what Zanuck did with The Longest Day and showed Germans on the beach flying into panic after first seeing the boats coming straight at them.

    Spielberg doesn't do that, though. He just tells the sequence from the perspective of boats that are caught somewhere in the middle (the end?) of the battle, thus avoiding any major inaccuracies that would give great weight to your and Tom's criticisms regarding the portrayal of the length of time.

    You're probably correct that I don't see the portrayal of time spent on the beach as so jaw-droppingly essential to the narrative as you do, but then again I don't think the issue is ripe for any convincing criticism as it's played out in Saving Private Ryan. I've looked at the scene again, and I don't see anything to suggest that Spielberg is trying to show D-Day from beginning to end; I see a sequence that's only showing part of it. Now, criticisms of the bookending scenes of the aged James Ryan? I'll give you that.

    Also, can you and I please trade places for one day, Craig, so that I can be the guy who gets to see Saving Private Ryan during its theatrical release in 1998 and you can be the 2nd grade kid begging his parents (unsuccessfully) to let him see Saving Private Ryan at the movie theater in the Downtown Disney square during a vacation to Orlando, Florida? I'll even endure those lectures by Stephen Ambrose and his fellow veterans demanding that I enjoy the movie, dammit!

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  20. One last time: Here is the image in question. Yes, there are some bodies on the beach. Realistically, though, does it look like it's meant to be a first wave, second wave, third wave, or last wave?

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  21. But you said in your last post that there was no one on the beach! Is this the image you were talking about that time, too? Spielberg makes it ambiguous which wave it is, but the evidence in the scene of bodies on the sand indicates that whatever wave it is, it can't be the first wave.

    And this shot is also fairly small; it only shows 2 Higgins boats and a handful of the dead bodies (not every boat and every body on the beach), so this shot alone can't be used to make a case that Miller's men arrive on Omaha at the very beginning.

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  22. Hi, guys --

    OK, just to clarify. If Miller and his men had landed in one of the later waves, there wouldn't be only "dozens of bodies" on the beach. It would have been crammed with casualties, survivors, vehicles, landing craft, etc., etc. -- you know, just an unbelievable mess. I'm pretty sure this is supposed to be the first wave.

    We can also disagree about whether the Omaha/Utah confusion is a major or minor inaccuracy. To me, it's a major one -- sort of like having Pickett's charge take place at Chancellorsville instead of Gettysburg, just in case there are any Civil War buffs out there. Maybe that's just me.

    But in case I sound like a pedant, my big objection to the D-Day sequence is that it's *emotionally* untrue to the fact about Omaha Beach that I think is most moving. Namely, that those guys really did stay hung up there for hours in a state of shock as more and more of them landed and got killed -- and THEN they found the wherewithal to get up and move forward. By that time, the whole thing looked like such a nightmare to the commanders offshore that they were seriously debating whether to write off Omaha and evacuate everybody somewhere else. Then they found out they didn't need to.

    To me, the real Omaha landing's desperate conversion of what everybody thought was a disaster into victory is a million times more moving than the quick-time heroics we see in SPR. And I wouldn't have gotten nearly as annoyed if it weren't for the way everybody claimed Spielberg was showing us how it really was. Otherwise, Mr. Zanzie, congratulations on a really terrific post, comments thread included.

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  23. Hey Tom, thanks a million for your feedback here as well. I think our conversation here about Saving Private Ryan is one that's been long overdue in the blogosphere. You and Craig obviously had quibbles with the movie that you felt had to finally be brought out in the open, and I myself had wanted to address so much about the movie that hadn't gotten its due. Also Tom, I want to apologize to you if my comments about you 1998 review were insulting. Had I known you were so civil and esteemed a critic and debater, I would have kept my mouth shut.

    I know we've been beating this issue about the D-Day landing to death, but Spielberg does make it evident that there are a lot of casualties and survivors on the beach. True, we don't see American landing craft on the beach immediately when Miller's boats arrive, but then again this is all based on the angle Spielberg first shows of the beach by the time they've landed. The first shot of the men already dead on the beach doesn't show the entire beach, so it's safe to assume (from what Spielberg doesn't show us in the shot) that there are more bodies elsewhere. Of course, we can't know for sure, because once Miller and his men blend in with the already-dead GIs it's difficult to make out who has recently died, and who has been dead.

    Craig is probably correct when he charges that the length of the scene matters more to you and him; to be fair, I had never given deep thought to the matter before, since most critics of Saving Private Ryan I've encountered over the years prefer to snipe about the flag, the scenes with the old Ryan, the Steamboat Willie incident and the sometimes-soapiness of Rodat's dialogue. Those are all fair game, in my opinion. The problem I have with criticisms of the length of time of the D-Day sequence, however, is that Spielberg, well... doesn't ever make it clear that he's trying to present the battle from beginning to end, from point A to point B. There's not enough evidence in the scene to give convincing weight to that argument. Trust me, though: if Spielberg HAD committed such an offense, I'd probably be sniping alongside you guys. I certainly can't argue with the argument that the bookending scenes with the old Ryan are silly and superflous--though I appreciate that small moment when he saltues Miller's grave at the end.

    Sine I'm not a diehard WWII buff (although the subject fascinates me), I can't say the inaccurate detail about the Utah paratroopers bothers me enough to feel like it compromises the narrative. If such an inaccuracy occured in a Civil War movie I might be more considerate; but since WWII was such a massive war, and since D-Day was such a spaghettied battle, I'm willing to forgive Rodat that inaccuracy. I doubt it grinded very many of the nerves of the veterans who went to see the movie--other than those who were Utah paratroopers, of course.

    Anyway, without killing the conversation (because I have no desire to end it; it's fine with me if you guys want to continue debating the movie here, and I'll try to invite others to join in, too), I'm really enjoying the stuff we've said here so far. Good or bad, Saving Private Ryan is a film that benefits from an exchange of ideas from its fans and critics.

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  24. Thank you for writing this detailed and thought-out piece. I got into an argument about this film last night and desperately needed to read something fleshed out about SPR.

    This was the perfect tonic.

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  25. Mad Hatter, thanks a ton. I wish this movie had more ardent fans, because I tell ya: writing this was not easy. It's difficult to coalesce all of the thoughts one has about this film into one single blog piece, which just goes to show how complex a work it is.

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  26. @ Adam... Based on this post and on the argument I had, I might very well create a post of my own in the next week or two. I think there's a lot about the film - good and bad - to be discussed, so hopefully it measures up.

    Perhaps I'll send you a link when it's done.

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  27. Hey Adam - All done and admittedly it was tougher than I thought it would be. I struggle to write about my favorite films sometimes, as I find myself really having to push hard to get past "itsawesomeitsawesomeohbythewayitsawesome".

    Hopefully in your eyes it measures up!

    http://mcneilmatinee.blogspot.com/2011/03/another-day-saving-private-ryan.html

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  28. Sounds awesome, Mad Hatter. I'll read it sometime this weekend.

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  29. You should see Russian film called The Men Who Fall Last. It is just like Saving Private Ryan but less stupid and childish. It has opening battle too, and not as unrealistic as Spielberg battle.

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  30. Thank you for the recommendation, Alexei; I'm not familiar with The Men Who Fall Last, but I did admire Elen Klimov's Come and See a great deal and I'm always seeking out good Russian films about WWII.

    With that being said, however, I'm curious to hear why you find Saving Private Ryan "stupid and childish" or why you charge that the opening battle sequence is "unrealistic". I can't think of many more ways to make that sequence realistic, personally. Spielberg pretty much pushed it as far as it can go.

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  31. Postscript: Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted about this back in December 2010.

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  32. From 2007: A thought-provoking defense of SPR from the House Next Door by Matt Zoller Seitz, in response to a negative review of the movie by critic Sean Gilman:

    I don't think Gilman is saying that war is clean and perfect. I think he's saying that the narrative of "Saving Private Ryan" frames certain acts (acts defined as war crimes) to be necessary, and he objects to that.

    I love this movie (with certain major reservations) but I linked to Gilman's piece because it's an unapologetic contrarian view, and it intrigued me.

    I think he has a point about the movie presenting certain war crimes as necessary — particularly the whole subplot where the American GI's let the German prisoner go rather than kill him, and he turns up in the final act, fighting against them on the German side. I think Spielberg is saying, "Yes, the need to not face an enemy again is a very solid, self-interested reason to kill him while you can." But I also think he's saying, "But killing him would be wrong." Sometimes the right choice exposes us to great danger. The story of the movie — a platoon of U.S. soldiers die rescuing one man, mainly for PR reasons — raises many of the same conundrums on a larger scale.

    Critic Curtis White was disturbed by this as well: "I have discussed the movie with several distinct groups of friends as, it seems, many viewers of the film have, both in the privacy of our homes and on the messy public airwaves of "talk radio." I have been surprised that my friends–intelligent, sophisticated people on the whole–had no idea what I was talking about when I elaborated my understanding of the film's "lesson." At one level, Private Ryan is about a command not to kill a German prisoner who then goes on to kill several members of an American platoon. Thus the movie's frightening lesson (one that I've come to think of as archetypically North American) is: Always choose death, for if you do not, death will come anyway, later, multiplied."

    He goes on to write, " I think a reading can expose this film for what it is, a crypto-fascist work of historical revision. It's not even revision. It's: "Remember what we used to think? About patriotism? The glory of war? Let's think that again, and really mean it, so that it will be harder than hell to dislodge next time." Which is to say, this is a very dangerous movie."

    I think Spielberg portrays these killing as a necessary element of all war — not defensible, just a fact. I think he's aware of every irony inherent in the story and lets it be there so we can argue about it — that in other words, it's all done on purpose. Just because some viewers might come away reading "Ryan" as a simple, sentimental, gung-ho action movie that reinforces stale ideology doesn't mean the movie itself is doing that. The movie's not either/or, patriotic or questioning, middlebrow or sophisticated, familiar and new — it's all those things at once, and the contradictions are enfolded in the narrative. By the same token, "Goodfellas," an equally complicated popular movie — a sociopath's point of view on a life of crime — is sometimes enjoyed uncritically by people who think it's badass. That's not Scorsese's fault, either.

    Just more stuff to argue about.

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  33. I think that Spielberg tried to make an anti-war film. But in the end, I think he failed. I just didn't buy. The movie came off as too pretentious to me, especially in the second half. He and Hanks didn't bother trying to make "BAND OF BROTHERS" anti-war, except in the two Bastogne campaign episodes. I feel that with "THE PACIFIC" they finally achieved in creating a production with a solid anti-war stance. Unfortunately, this is probably one of the reasons why the 2010 miniseries is not as appreciated as the 1998 film or the 2001 miniseries.

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  34. Rush, I don't know how you would've gotten that impression. This movie is not speaking about war in simple "pro" or "anti" terms. As Spielberg himself says on the D-Day edition DVD: "We know that war is hell. The other story is: 'How do you find decency inside the hell of warfare'?"

    That's precisely what Spielberg is interested in: decency and heroism in warfare, and how it can sometimes get twisted and lose its meaning (i.e. Corporal Upham). So if you're disappointed that Spielberg didn't succeed in making a mere antiwar film, I suggest you look a little deeper than that because that's *not* what the film is trying to achieve. I am reminded of what Kubrick once said about Full Metal Jacket: "Full Metal Jacket suggests that there is more to say about war than it is just bad."

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  35. Okay. Fine. It's just . . . this movie has never been a favorite of mine. I guess I wasn't interested in finding "decency and heroism" in warfare or how it got twisted . . . at least from Spielberg's point of view in 1997/98. In the end, I simply found the movie a bit too manipulative for my tastes. But that's just me.

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  36. What a great discussion guys. You all made me think and re-examine what I consider to be one of the great war films ever made. My two-cents on the length of the Omaha Beach would be this: It may not have reflected the true length of the actual battle, but given the carnage and ferocity of war on display, many viewers, like me, came away feeling like it was the longest 25 minutes in film history. ~BB

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  37. Saving Private Ryan was a movie that rely shows the horror of the war, and I think, if you never fight in a war, you don't know what rely is. so don't comment if you don't know

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  38. Believe it or not, I’ve just seen SPR all the way through. I’ve been avoiding it for what I believe it will be and I my fears where confirmed. I can’t argue as elegantly as some but I am in agreement in that I can’t see how it has become elevated to this mythical status of being unique in its fearless focus on reality.
    Yes there are clever character developments and complex ethical arguments –but strip out the Omaha scene and it’s another crowd pleasing war movie except with a very famous - can do no wrong director.
    Why is it not real? well 2 reasons I think one ‘factual’ if you like and one ‘emotional’
    First the factual: For 3 months huge armies were locked in a grinding war of attrition (not just 20 minutes of Omaha) yet in SPR, 8 men can amble across Normandy in broad daylight meeting a machine gun nest and a solitary half-track – which were presumably doing the same thing till they met Tom and the boys. Any officer who put steel plates in a glider for personal protection and risking his men would be in very hot water from his superiors – but of course in Hollywood that’s what Generals do. Matt Damon and his, what looks like 6 mates, are all that’s protecting the most important river crossing in France (which looks as if a soldier could jump across if someone blew the bridge) the American army with its 1000s of men, tanks and artillery is off doing something else presumably. The Germans send a couple of tanks and a few men to take aforementioned bridge. Yes the Omaha scene is different in that is shows men being smashed by bullet and shell, with heart rending death scenes: but only our side – the Germans just drop down dead as they did in Kelly’s Heroes. And General Marshall has apparently been so busy worrying about Private Ryan he has forgotten to send a single Sherman tank over in the invasion.
    Now the emotional: in reality soldiers are men (well often boys) who would much rather go home – they don’t like fighting and do their best to survive. Always in Hollywood, and SPR is no different, they are hardened efficient killers – who leap up to take machine gun nests or blow up tanks as soon as an officer shouts “charge” – again and again. The reality was different the vast majority had to constantly make themselves go forward into risk, it was very common for officers to have to drive men forward – not because they were cowards but because they wanted to survive. Some couldn’t do it – between 10 and 25% of the allied armies had to be treated for battle fatigue; the Germans had less of a problem but most historians agree that was because Officers had no hesitation in drawing their Luger for encouragement. Read any sensible history and you will meet this – it even happened to the Rangers on Omaha who were stopped by machine gun fire until senior officers led them forward. This huge complex argument of how most men (though not all) of citizen armies fighting in France, Italy, Burma and the Pacific screwed down their fear and battled onto victory is ignored by Hollywood and crowd pleasers like Band of Brothers. If a film included this it might start being able to claim reality.

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    1. I'm not going to address your complaints abut the film's historical accuracy because that's not my area of expertise. But this jumped out at me:

      Now the emotional: in reality soldiers are men (well often boys) who would much rather go home – they don’t like fighting and do their best to survive. Always in Hollywood, and SPR is no different, they are hardened efficient killers – who leap up to take machine gun nests or blow up tanks as soon as an officer shouts “charge” – again and again. The reality was different the vast majority had to constantly make themselves go forward into risk, it was very common for officers to have to drive men forward – not because they were cowards but because they wanted to survive.

      First of all: Corporal Upham (the Jeremy Davies character) is EXACTLY this type of soldier. He has never fired his weapon outside of basic training and is terrified of combat. I am curious as to how carefully you were paying attention to the movie, since you're complaining about about the film lacking "soldiers who don't like fighting" despite the fact that Upham (one of the most important characters in the story!) is without question a soldier who would rather not be fighting. Not only that, but when he finally kills somebody at the end of the movie, he's actually killing an unarmed POW -- making him way more of a coward than he ever was.

      Second of all: this movie is about a rescue mission. Miller obviously wants the best men for his team. With the exception of Upham, who is only brought along as a translator, all the other men on Miller's team are brought onboard because he knows that with their toughness and sense of bravery, they are the guys who will get the job done.

      Do you seriously think he would want to recruit soldiers who are terrified of battle? Honestly, this makes me question how much of a WWII expert you really are.

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  39. Thank you for this Adam: if you’ll forgive me, and at the risk of sounding pompous – this is my point. We are meant to take our history from formulaic war movies – and SPR is one - with added gore so we are in awe of its realism. The allied armies (there were others as well as the Americans) were huge and had to be filled with volunteers and conscripts – all the professionals were long since casualties. Many were barely 20 including the officers rather than the easily 30 we are shown – even elite units like the Rangers in Millar’s unbelievable rescue mission. They understood the reason to fight but they wanted above all to survive and go home – wouldn’t you? They weren’t super human or some glorious generation –but just like young men on a street or farm today. If you like the majority were like Upham rather than the other way round – this doesn’t make them cowards as the Hollywood standard character list has it – but all the braver for battling on to victory. This is my frustration really: this complex reality has always been ignored by Hollywood or HBO who would have us believe we owe our freedoms to hard charging Vin Diesels rather than the fearful flesh and blood who ground on day after day: and ultimately saved us.

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    1. I think I certainly have a lot more in common with Upham than I do with the other characters. What I said was: the most cowardly thing he does in the movie is shoot an unarmed POW. Up until then, he's understandably afraid of combat.

      How are Miller's men in this movie "superheroes"? They all have their flaws. Miller admits that every time he kills somebody, he feels farther away from home and much less like himself. Wade and Caparzo miss their parents. Mellish loves to taunt POWs, but during the knife-fight with the Waffen-SS soldier, the scared kid in him comes out and he begs for his life. Private Ryan has committed to staying to fight at Rammel, but during the film's final moments, when he's run out of ammo and it appears all hope is lost, there is a slo-mo shot of him screaming because he knows he is going to die.

      You apparently watch this movie and see a recruitment film. I watch it and am so horrified, I would never want to go to war. At the same time, the movie makes me thankful that others did so that I wouldn't have to.

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  40. Adam, a good debate, but I’m afraid you won’t convince me its anything other than clever, crowd pleasing and highly commercial film making.
    I think you do yourself a disservice describing yourself as Upham because he is just a cipher as with all the others. Wimpy intellectual, never fired his rifle, doesn’t know what FUBAR means – he could get a job on The Big Bang Theory.
    Going back to you I’m sure you would do what you had to do – like so many normal guys did all those years ago (I hope I would) but I’d be scared stiff , nervy from the constant mortaring and seeing those guys from the 17th running back shouting the “Germans are coming”.
    What I dislike about SPR is it claims to be something it’s not i.e reality; what - because it includes some gore? (Insulting us that we didn’t know what really happens when lead hits flesh) Thinking about it about it I found a quote from the now dead English actor Richard Todd who was an officer with the paratroopers who landed ahead of the seaborne attack – one of his companies suffering 80% casualties by the end of the day – his view of SPR’s Omaha scene – “rubbish - overdone”.
    Then there’s Mr Speilberg the old salesmen, when it was first released saying it might not be commercially successful being so uncompromising – yeh right Steve. We can all sit in the cinema munching our popcorn thinking ‘ew isn’t it awful, aren’t we noble watching it, but wow look how great all those guys did, how sensitive their last words are, even the coward came good and then old glory at the end - “earn it!” - not a dry eye in the theatre. And then off home happy – what a film – can’t wait for Band of Brothers.
    But true reality – men creeping along a sunken lane suddenly cut down by a hidden MG42 run back in panic and have to be held up by an officer with his 45 drawn, a French family with children run for cover but are gunned down by a marauding P47 mistaking them for soldiers, the little girl is hit in the stomach her intestines torn open, her mother screams helplessly at the pilot; a sergeant trying to get his men to break cover is throw into the air by a shell explosion and lands apparently uninjured dead from a broken neck, a medic refuses to endanger himself to save a wounded man whilst another runs out into heavy fire repeatedly dragging soldiers to safety. A lot of the “glorious generation” behaved wonderfully, most did what they had to, some behaved disgracefully. That’s what it was really like – but would people spend millions of dollars watching it – I’m not so sure.
    Forgive me I sound a tedious bore – Mr Speilberg has made some great films but this isn’t one them. I too admire the men who fought to make us free and if I may be pompous try the books of Rick Atkinson (not Stephen Ambrose – he was another shameless crowd pleaser) or Anthony Beevor’s D-Day for the real nuanced story; or my current favourite for a British perspective of men in combat ‘Tank War’ by Mark Urban which features the real Pluto Ellis.
    Take care.

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