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 else—perhaps something still more important—remains 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.
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.