Joel and Ethan Coens’ True Grit is so lovingly crafted a film—so wonderfully acted, directed and photographed—and so undoubtedly one of the most entertaining movies of 2010, that it’s a real shame it doesn’t finally resonate with the power and complexity we have come to expect from the best films of the Coen Bros. It has remained amazingly faithful to the popular 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and that is both its strength and, unfortunately, its problem. There were times watching this film when I began considering if one of the greatest American movies ever made was unfolding itself right in front of my eyes. What a clear shot the Coens had. What a grand opportunity they have missed.
The Coens have been so true to the original Charles Portis text—and have obsessed themselves so much over each of the unforgettable characters and action sequences—that the dubious political undertones of Portis’ story seem to have flown completely over their heads. As regular readers of Icebox Movies are aware of by now, my history with True Grit (both with Portis’ novel and with Henry Hathaway’s Oscar-winning 1969 film starring John Wayne) has always been in bad blood, largely because of my suspicions that Charles Portis wrote the book in order to stress his endorsement of "frontier justice." I walked into True Grit with high hopes that the Coens had a plan up their sleeves to deconstruct Portis’ right-wing sensibilities, and walked out in awe of their visual accomplishment, but also in disappointment of the areas in which they failed to act. Is it fair for me to conclude that the Coens have somehow managed a fine film out of a story that is simply banal?
In a time when Mike Huckabee is declaring that the death penalty is the only fitting punishment for the crime of treason, why do we need a remake of True Grit? What lessons could we possibly learn from this kind of gung-ho, old-fashioned Western? After Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) so profoundly closed the door on “frontier justice” by telling the sad truths about it (“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got, and everything he’s ever gonna have”), a movie like this can do nothing else but open that door right up again, putting us back in the middle of an uncomfortable period in our nation’s history. I don’t think it ever occurred to the Coens that True Grit is a complete rejection of the lessons of Eastwood’s film.
Another problem with True Grit is how it crassly reverses everything the Coens have ever said to us in their films about crime, violence and religion. In Fargo, Marge Gunderson was not afraid to be tough when she needed to be, but she also believed in the good-natured concept of talking to the criminals in her custody (“There’s more to life than a little bit of money… don’t you know that?”). In No Country for Old Men, Ed Tom Bell realized that John Wayne-style law tactics could not conquer an atrocious human evil, and gave up. In A Serious Man, when God did not solve his problems for him, Larry Gopnik had to deal with them himself, and somehow found a way around most of them.
So, how does True Grit contribute to this beautiful cycle the Coens have been building up over the years? Does it at all? Traditionalist critics and audiences are always complaining about the Coens’ penchant for deviating away from the norm, and now it looks like the Coens have finally caved in to them; they’ve taken a step backward and made a film stressing another one of those banal insights about how crime doesn’t pay, coupled with a divine message (strictly Judeo-Christian) about how God will hold us all accountable for our actions. Doesn’t this contradict practically everything the Coens have ever taught us in the past? Aren’t they selling out a little?
The plot: 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is saddened and infuriated when her father, Frank Ross, is gunned down in the streets by the family’s tenant, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), after Ross tries to peacefully intervene during another one of Chaney’s drunken outbursts. Angry because her family took Chaney in out of kindness, and believing he deserves nothing less than death by hanging for his horrendous crime, Mattie (narrating as a woman in her 40’s) recalls her burning hatred for Chaney in a bitter opening voiceover. "You must pay for everything in this world one way and another," she says. "There is nothing free except the Grace of God."
Because local authorities in Fort Smith are hesitant to pursue Chaney into Indian Territory, Mattie seeks out help from the marshals in town, and handpicks Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) from the selection because he is the “meanest” and is said to have his fair share of “grit”. A Texas Ranger in town by the name of LaBeouf (Matt Damon) is also hot on Chaney’s trail, but for an entirely different crime (LaBeouf wants to arrest Chaney for assassinating a Texas senator and his “bird dog”). Both Cogburn and LaBeouf make amusing entrances in the film; we first see LaBeouf, in the darkness of the evening, laying his boots up on the front porch, a la Henry Fonda in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). And Mattie’s first encounter with Cogburn occurs not immediately after Cogburn’s trial against the infamous Wharton brothers, but—in the movie’s first big joke—outside the door of an outhouse.
The outhouse joke is one of many bits of humor (typically Coensian) scattered all around the film; the Coens have recognized some of the more absurd moments from the book, and have cheerfully taken advantage of them. The “Grandma Turner” joke, for example, is milked until its dry. As is the odd line from the undertaker presiding over Frank Ross’ body (“If you’d like to kiss ‘im, it’d be alright”), which is repeated in the screenplay not once, but twice. And Rooster Cogburn is, himself, a big ham if there ever was one. He kicks around two Indian kids who are abusing a poor horse. He orders Mattie to climb a tall tree (in a scene not from the book) and cut down a corpse hanging from a branch, inspects the dead man’s face, and delivers what is probably the single funniest line in the movie. He and Mattie are dumbfounded (in another scene not from the book) by a peculiar man riding through the snow dressed in bear skin. The oldest and saddest joke in the movie is a pure satire of the racism of the times; in an earlier scene, when Mattie attends a public hanging, the two white men are allowed to say their last words, but the Indian is, of course, denied that rightful privilege.
I want to talk more about this hanging sequence, though. It is a scene taken from the book, but I have never understood its purpose in the story. What compelled Charles Portis to dream it up in the first place? Is he trying to make some kind of statement about capital punishment with this scene? Not likely, since, after Mattie leaves the scene, her bloodlust is regained. She still wants to see Tom Chaney hanged. Watching men hang in public has not affected her plans in the least, even though (at least in the book) the sight of watching it has grieved her somewhat. It doesn’t, you see, change her opinion that Chaney deserves to be swinging from the other end of a rope, and I think Portis meant for his readers to share her bloodlust. Do the Coens mean for their audiences to share her bloodlust, too? Are they trying to make a political statement of their own?
I could go on and on throughout this review complaining about the politics of this movie, but if I did that, you would never want to finish reading it. And neither would I. It should be obvious that I take some moral objections to this story, but make no mistake about it: True Grit is an admirable film. With the help of their usual technical collaborators (cinematographer Roger Deakins, musical composer Carter Burwell), the Coens have again demonstrated their impeccable talent for putting on a hell of a show. And there is another artist of notable credibility who has teamed up with them this time: Steven Spielberg. I was momentarily surprised when I saw him listed as one of the executive producers in the end credits, and he couldn’t have supervised over a better duo of directors. I hope that he and the Coens will collaborate again in the future. With True Grit, the Coens have achieved a rarity in that they have fashioned a remake that is better than the original film. I will go even further than that: their film is better than Charles Portis’ book.
The casting is inspired. Jeff Bridges may have been the only actor in Hollywood who could have convincingly changed our perceptions of Rooster Cogburn without memories of John Wayne getting in the way. I must confess that I have never admired Wayne’s portrayals of Cogburn—that includes his work in the original True Grit as well as in the abysmal sequel, Rooster Cogburn and the Lady (1975), which paired him up with Katherine Hepburn and which was more a rip-off of The African Queen than anything else. As good of an actor as he was in other films, Wayne was simply too old for the part; his booming line delivery didn’t help things much, either. I think Bridges has found a better approach to the character, and what the Coens have had him do is a masterstroke: they have directed Bridges to speak in a gruff, incomprehensible voice so that it is (intentionally) difficult to make out just what the hell Cogburn is mumbling about in each passing scene. Fans of the original Hathaway film kept jeering in the previous months about “the Dude filling in for the Duke”, doubting that Bridges was up for the task. He has proved them wrong, and drinks down the job faster than a White Russian.
I was even more surprised at how impressed I was with Matt Damon’s portrayal of LaBeouf, a character so boring in Portis’ novel (and so god-awfully played by a terribly miscast Glen Campbell in the Hathaway film) that I was convinced there was no way the character could ever be successfully portrayed onscreen. Here is where the Coens make a very interesting deviation from the book: they have cut LaBeouf out of most of the scenes, ensuring it so that he doesn’t travel with Mattie and Cogburn every step of the way on the journey, making him far less obnoxious than he was in the book. Damon portrays LaBeouf, instead, as a man anxious to get away and catch Chaney on his own—as too proud of a Texas Ranger to admit that he was helped by a one-eyed marshal and a 14-year old girl. By cutting LaBeouf’s screentime in half, the Coens have effectively made him more strange, more mysterious.
Taking on the enormous responsibility of stepping into Robert Duvall’s shoes (and Duvall is perhaps the only actor who was actually well-cast in Hathaway’s film), Barry Pepper breathes new life into the memorable character of the evil Ned Pepper. Unquestionably the most interesting and charismatic villain in the story, it is a challenging role for sure, but Pepper makes every inch of his screen presence count; when we first see him, his cowboy hat casts a menacing shadow over his face, his teeth are ugly and yellow, and, with his boot planted down on poor Mattie’ head, he roars out, “You answer me, Rooster! I WILL KILL THIS GIRL! You know I will do it!” like he means business. Pepper also manages to make Ned Pepper a flat-out likable bad guy: when Mattie, sensing he poses no threat, asks him, “Do you need a good lawyer?” he deadpans, “I need a good judge.” Plus, the final standoff between Cogburn and Pepper’s gang of horsemen is kind of magnificent. And Pepper’s last words (“Well, Rooster, I am shot to pieces!”) still make me smile.
By far the most wonderful performance in the movie is delivered by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose performance as Mattie is the heart of the picture. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie was played by Kim Darby, who, bless her soul, was too old for the part—and whose performance was, to put it lightly, over-the-top. Not only does Steinfeld look the part, but she makes us believe we are watching a 14-year old who would have behaved exactly this way, at that time. Steinfeld also takes on some of the harder stunts in the film with bravery and with a “grit” of her own. She plunges a horse headfirst into the middle of a deep river. She climbs onto the roof of a “dugout” cabin to cover up a smoking chimney. She falls backwards into a deadly snake pit. She does it all. Here is a promising young actress who will be going places for sure.
But Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Tom Chaney presents certain problems. It’s a disappointing performance because Brolin has been forced to portray Chaney as he has always been portrayed, both in Portis’ novel and in the original Hathaway film: as a one-dimensional monster. We never see Chaney as anything more than a murderous coward who has his punishment coming. I did enjoy the scene in which Mattie discovers Chaney at the bottom of the creekbed; Brolin is allowed to be humorous, and his line delivery in the face of Mattie’s orders that he march up the hill (“Well, I will not go! How do you like that?”) is wickedly funny. But the Coens don’t go farther than that; for the rest of the film, they reduce Chaney to a one-dimensional coward. I intensely disliked a scene in which they even try to have Chaney come across as some kind of deranged serial killer: the scene consists of Josh Brolin pouncing down on Hailee Steinfeld, holding a knife to her throat and proudly stating that he doesn’t regret murdering her father (as opposed to the book, in which he indicates that he does regret his crime). It is easily the worst scene in the whole film.
Would it have hurt if the Coens had tried to make the Tom Chaney character a little more human and more empathetic than he has been in the previous versions? There’s a reason why Chaney mutters to himself, “Everything is against me!” in every other scene: because he’s a wounded man, a tragic figure who is driven to kill innocent people because life has beaten him senselessly towards that point. Maybe if the Coens had recognized this, they might have realized that there are, in fact, several antiheroes of this kind in their other films. Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo. Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing. Charlie Meadows/Karl Mundt in Barton Fink. Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men. The Coens made noble efforts to look into the dark souls of all of those characters. They didn’t ask us to sympathize with them, but they did ask us to at least empathize with them—to understand how they got that way. The Coens could have easily done this with Tom Chaney as well. Perhaps then, True Grit would have been a much more complex film. Instead, they have taken the easy way out.
Most of the deviations that the Coens do make from Portis’ novel are successful. They have cut out a lot of superfluous scenes from the book to help pick up the pace; for example, the scene in which Mattie has to chase after Cogburn and LaBeouf on horseback after crossing the river. But there is one change the Coens make from the book that I wish they hadn’t made. It occurs during the gruesome scene inside the “dugout” cabin, when Cogburn is forced to shoot Emmett Quincy (Paul Rae) after he fatally stabs a younger kid, Moon (Domhnall Gleeson), for squealing about Ned Pepper’s whereabouts. Dying on the floor, Moon utters a line about how he will meet a brother of his “walking the streets of Glory,” to which Cogburn replies to him, “Don’t be looking for Quincy.” In the book, Moon responds to this by defending Quincy to Cogburn: “Quincy was always square with me… he never played me false until he killed me.” It was a mistake for the Coens to cut this line out; why they cut it out, I have no idea. The line is important because it allows Moon to defend Quincy as a seemingly good man who, unfortunately, let his emotions get the better of him and murdered his best friend before dying. Apparently the Coens don’t care about that.
And when the movie ended, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have gained from it. What has Mattie learned from her adventure? That there’s power in killing? That there’s power in cold-blooded vengeance? How does she feel about killing Tom Chaney? Did it ease any of the pain she had over her father’s death? What emotional consequences did she reap from the journey? That she lost an arm? That she never got married? Is that it? Are we only supposed to be concentrated on what she lost? What about the others? Wasn’t their loss far worse than any tragic “losses” she may have suffered, if any? Is this all about her?
True Grit is, as I’ve said, an admirable film. I wish it had been more. I think it could have been more than just one of the more well-made films of the year. It could have been one of the best American movies ever made. But, at the end of the day, I suppose one shouldn’t get too worried over such things. The film doesn’t earn itself a place near the top of the Coens’ accomplishments, but no matter: it’s what the public wants. It’s what fans of the book want. It’s not a great movie—but, then again, it doesn’t need to be. It’s close enough. And certainly the Coen Bros., of all great filmmakers, have earned the right to deliver a movie that is just that: close enough.
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.
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.
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.
Oskar Schindler first meets Amon Goeth in the dining room of a villa overlooking a concentration camp. He has come to Goeth with a problem: “I go to work the other day... nobody’s there. Nobody tells me about this... I have to find out. I have to go in. Everybody’s gone.” He awaits for Goeth’s reply.
Goeth listens to Schindler, takes a walnut from a bowl on the coffee table, and smiles. He thinks this will be easy. “No, no, they’re not gone,” he explains. “They’re here.”
“They’re MINE!” Schindler roars.
It is an unexpected outburst. And Schindler doesn’t stop there. He goes on a tirade about the problems of no longer having his workers. He’s losing money every day. He has to go through the arduous process of finding new workers and then training them. He doesn’t care when Goeth promises him that he’ll be made a rich man anyway—it’s bad business. Goeth wants to persuade him that he is wrong. Neither Goeth nor Schindler is aware that the man sitting across from him has secret intentions. Goeth would like to see all of Schindler’s workers executed. Schindler wants to take them back to his factory and keep them there. He is determined to save their lives.
This single scene demonstrates how Steven Spielberg will turn Schindler's List into a masterpiece. He will show us two very different members of the Nazi Party, and then make their similarities and differences the flaming furnace of the film. It is a parallel narrative between two Nazis: Oskar Schindler, a good man who is also capable of corruption, and Amon Goeth, a corrupt man who is also capable of goodness. The conflict between these two men will inspire a list of Jews who will narrowly escape the fires of the Holocaust, and we agree with one of the prinicipal characters when he concludes, "The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf." Yes, and within its margins lies the voices of the extraordinary Jewish survivors who lived to tell the stories of both men.
Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) enters the film without his face entering the frame. If Peter Coyote’s nameless scientist in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) was initially identifiable only by a set of keys jingling from his belt, then Schindler is initially identifiable only by the Nazi lapel pin attached to the breast of his business suit. In the very first complex tracking shot of the film, Spielberg’s camera follows Schindler as he approaches a private restaurant, tips a Maitre ‘D (producer Branko Lustig) and is led to a table before the camera then veers around to rest on his face. He orders drinks for some tenured Nazis sitting at another table, gets them and their mistresses to come over to his table and, pretty soon, is recognized as the celebrity of the evening. And that suits him just fine—he enjoys having access to so much privilege. When his wife, Emile (Caroline Goodall), asks him if this is all just a charade, he lays his chin on the palm of his hand and grins, “Take a guess how many people are on my payroll… my father, at the height of his success, had 50. I’ve got 350. 350 workers on the factory floor, with one purpose: to make money. For me.” He knows world war is coming, and that’s even better. Being the oily businessman that he is, he’ll do what any capitalist in his right mind would do, and capitalize on the war.
Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) enters Schindler’s List much as Schindler does. We don’t immediately see his face; we just see his fellow Nazi officers speaking to the camera. If Schindler entered the film proud, then Goeth enters the films weak and pathetic, with a tissue pressed to his nose while he complains about the living conditions of a new labor camp at Plaszow (“That’s not a villa... that’s a house!”). But after he executes a female Jewish architect (Elina Lowensohn) for no apparent crime other than doing her job, we realize that Goeth has the ability to harness his pathetic weaknesses and turn them into a deranged, untamable power. Upon opening the camp, he gives a speech in which he declares, “Today is history.” It's a speech which seeks to turn back all of the progress Jews have made in Krakow for hundreds of years. That’s when we realize that Goeth’s atrocious powers are worse than we have feared.
Both men are senseless opportunists. Goeth is free to shoot prisoners from his balcony while his buxom mistress throws pillows at him ("Amon, you're such a DAMNED FUCKING CHILD!") and begs for him to make her a cup of coffee. Schindler, like Waldo Lydecker in Laura, would rather "eat my lunch while it's still hot" than have to wait and listen to the sincere thanks of an elderly one-armed man (Henryk Bista) for giving him a job; after Nazi guards put a bullet in this man’s brain, Schindler recoils from the annoyance by going to bed with his own mistress (Malgoscha Gebel) immediately afterwards.
Schindler and Goeth are also womanizers, and not just because of the several girls they have wrapped around their shoulders in every other scene. Spielberg exhibits their sexism halfway through the film by intercutting a sequence in which Goeth is abusing his victimized Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), with a scene on Schindler’s birthday in which Schindler forcefully kisses a helpless Jewish mother who brings him a cake. When Schindler is arrested for this, he is thrown in jail—not for molestation, but for kissing a Jewish woman. “Did your prick fall off?” his Nazi cellmate asks. Schindler gets a laugh out of that. Spielberg further compares Schindler and Goeth by intercutting the two of them shaving in an earlier sequence. So, in retrospect, Schindler and Goeth are men not unalike in that they smear the same shaving cream, revel in the same bourgeoisie luxuries and share the same “real taste for Jewish skirt," although their superior, Julian (Andrezej Seweryn), warns against this (“That’s not just old fashioned, Jew-hating talk,” he reminds them. “It’s policy now.”).
It is only when he witnesses, firsthand, the slaughter of the people working under his command that we begin to sense a change in Oskar Schindler. The day when the Nazis liquidate the ghetto, Schindler and his mistress are gazing, from horseback on a grassy hill, down at the massacre in the streets. The appalled look on Schindler’s face is a typical Spielbergian shot that can indefinitely be traced all the way back to Chief Brody in Jaws, or maybe even Dennis Weaver’s David Mann in Duel (1971): a protagonist frozen in the headlights of a horrendous sight before him. This is as far as the filmmakers go in hinting at a transformation in Schindler from a selfish capitalist to a benevolent humanist—they go no further.
The most famous part of this sequence, however, is the appearance of a little girl in a red coat (named "Genia" in the novel), summed up chillingly by Thomas Keneally in some of the novel's most unforgettable passages:
At the rear, dawdling, was a toddler, boy or girl, dressed in a small scarlet coat and cap. The reason it compelled Schindler's interest was that it made a statement, the way the argumentative shift worker in Wegierska had. The statement had to do, of course, with a passion for red.
Schindler consulted Ingrid. It was definitely a little girl, said Ingrid. Girls got obsessed by a color, especially a color like that.
As they watched, the Waffen SS man at the rear of the column would occasionally put out his hand and correct the drift of this scarlet node. He did not do it harshly - he could have been an elder brother...But it was brief comfort. For behind the departing column of women and children, to which the scarlet toddler placed a meandering period, SS teams with dogs worked north along either side of the street.
..His eyes slewed up Krakusa to the scarlet child. They were doing it within half a block of her; they hadn't waited for her column to turn out of sight into Jozefinska. Schindler could not have explained at first how that compounded the murders on the sidewalk. Yet it somehow proved, in a way no one could ignore, their serious intent. While the scarlet child stopped in her column and turned to watch, they shot the woman in the neck, and one of them, when the boy slid down the wall whimpering, jammed a boot down on his head as if to hold it still and put the barrel against the back of his neck - the recommended SS stance - and fired.
Oskar looked again for the small red girl. She had stopped and turned and seen the boot descend. A gap had already widened between her and the next to last in the column. Again the SS guard corrected her drift fraternally, nudged her back into line. Herr Schindler could not see why he did not bludgeon her with his rifle butt, since at the other end of Krakusa Street, mercy had been cancelled.
...Their lack of shame, as men who had been born of women and had to write letters home (What did they put in them?), wasn't the worst aspect of what he'd seen. He knew they had no shame, since the guard at the base of the column had not felt any need to stop the red child from seeing things. But worst of all, if there was no shame, it meant there was official sanction. No one could find refuse anymore behind the idea of German culture, nor behind those pronouncements uttered by leaders to exempt anonymous men from stepping beyond their gardens, from looking out their office windows at the realities on the sidewalk. Oskar had seen in Kakusa Street a statement of his government's policy which could not be written off as a temporary aberration. The SS men were, Oskar believed, fulfilling there the orders of the leader, for otherwise their colleague at the rear of the column would not have let a child watch.
Later in the day, after he had absorbed a ration of brandy, Oskar understood the proposition in kits clearest terms. They permitted witnesses, such as the red toddler, because they believed the witnesses all would perish too.
Spielberg himself explained his visual choices for this sequence in a video interview with Richard Schickel:
"He [Schindler] wondered... why the most obvious person wearing the loudest coat - the coat that was crying out to be captured and put into a truck - why the Nazis were gathering everybody else but this little, bright red spot moving down the street.
"I did it in color... for another reason, which was that the Holocaust was known about... and Churchill knew that the Holocaust was taking place. It was as obvious as a little girl, wearing a red coat, walking down the street. But I thought that if there was any turning point at all, it was his [Schindler's] observation of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto from horseback."
Yes, and if I may add to Spielberg's comments, consider the moment when "Genia" appears again in the movie, during the second half - in a pile of burned corpses in a wheelbarrow. Why? It’s because every time Genia makes an appearance, be it alive or dead, she’s a wake-up call to Schindler. Her first appearance is sort of like an omen that Schindler’s Jews are going to be torn away from him and taken to a concentration camp. Her second appearance is less an omen and more a direct warning: if Schindler doesn’t do something, quick, he’ll lose them for good. They’ll be sent from the concentration camp to the death camps and then that will be it.
The reactive Goeth, as good of a friend as he is to Schindler, remains a threatening obstacle. Spielberg could have easily reduced Goeth into a one-dimensional caricature, like one of the Indiana Jones Nazis, but instead he does something braver, and tries to make Goeth a little more human than conventional history of the real man would have us believe. In the scene where Goeth makes an advance towards Helen Hirsch down in a wine cellar, Spielberg allows Gentile males in his audience to empathize with Goeth's erotic desires for Helen—before Spielberg screeches this fantasy to a halt as Goeth strikes her and throws a bottle rack on top of her, very nearly ending her life.
In another scene, Schindler and his Jewish business partner, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), are privately trying to psychoanalyze Goeth, debating over whether or not the war is turning him into a serial killer. Schindler defends Goeth: “He’s got this whole place to run. He’s responsible for everything here, all these people. He’s got a lot of things to worry about. And, he’s got the war, which brings out the worst in people… never the good, always the bad. Always the bad. But in normal circumstances he wouldn’t be like this. He’d be alright.” Stern, who has seen far more of Goeth’s killings in person than Schindler has, doesn’t buy this excuse in the least. Justifiably, he can only judge Goeth as a murderous tyrant who kills not only because he’s ordered to, but because he enjoys it.
“What do you want me to do about it?” Schindler complains to his accountant. Stern mutters, “Nothing... we’re just talking.” Later, Schindler borrows this catchphrase from Stern and applies it during a drunken conversation between him and Goeth in which they are discussing the secret to power. Goeth is envious of Schindler always being in control of his wealth, his women and his sobriety: to Goeth, “control is power.” Schindler offers another opinion: “Power... is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.” It is obvious to the audience that Schindler is trying to influence Goeth into becoming less of a killer, and sure enough, Goeth tries hard to apply this to his daily routine—a dogma of tolerance. But Goeth is torn between Schindler’s words of wisdom and the dogma of the Third Reich, and ultimately cannot quite fathom exactly what abandoning the latter approach would mean. As he practices saying, “I pardon you” to himself in the mirror, we can tell, right away, that the words don’t make a lick of sense to him.
Spielberg tries, whenever possible, to present Goeth during times when he isn’t so cowardly and despicable. He does, after all, bargain hard to get Schindler out of jail, and succeeds. When he and Schindler decide to determine Helen Hirsch’s fate over a game of cards, it is clear that Goeth doesn’t want her to die a horrible death; he would sooner deliver her a mercy killing before letting her be whisked off to the gas chambers, and he would even sooner wish for her to go back to Vienna with him when the war ends. Goeth’s heart is, yes, filled with hate and ugliness, but Spielberg refuses to stereotype him as a wholly evil, wholly stupid monster. This man became the product of an establishment that has conditioned him to murder.
Schindler’s List is often criticized as a film that gives supposedly too much voice to its two principal Nazi characters. But the more I have seen the film, the more I have come to appreciate, even love, the Jewish characters who accompany Schindler and Goeth through their weaknesses and survive their monstrosities. Kingsley, tremendously good as Itzhak Stern, conveys him in two shades: one, as a timid accountant working in the Judenrat who is cautious of high-powered Nazi Party members (“By law, I have to tell you, sir, I’m a Jew,” Stern reminds Schindler, to which he is answered, “Well, I’m a German. So there we are”); two, as a business accountant who eventually becomes just as obsessed with the operation as Schindler is. “Herr Direktor, don’t let things fall apart," he begs Schindler, after he's thrown into Plaszow with the rest of Schindler's employees. "I’ve worked too hard."
The other Jewish characters have considerably less screentime, but they each have a presence that steadily grow prominent with repeated viewings. Embeth Davidtz, remarkable as Helen Hirsch, encompasses the fear, the tormented sexuality and the harrowing survival of her character, finally emerging as strong as anyone else who has survived by the time of the film’s end. Another one of the survivors, Poldek Pfefferberg, was the survivor who told Schindler’s story to novelist Thomas Keneally and, later, relentlessly pressured Spielberg into making the film. As portrayed onscreen by Israeli actor Jonathan Sagall, Pfefferberg first encounters Schindler while black marketing in a Catholic church (admittedly, one of the movie’s fictions), before being reduced to fighting for his life in the ghettos. At one point he’s amorously kissing his wife Mila (Adi Nitzan) as if fearing he may never see her again, and at another point he’s evading certain death at Goeth’s hands by clicking his feet, saluting the officers and clearing bundles from the road “so there will be no obstructions to the thoroughfare.”
And there are others, too. Chaja Dresner (Anna Mucha) and her daughter Danka (Anna Mucha) are also followed throughout the course of the film, often separated from each other but eventually finding each other again. They are shielded during the ghetto liquidation by a little boy working for the Jewish Police named Adam (Adam Siemion); when Adam himself ends up in the Plaszow camp, he courageously finds a way to prevent Goeth from killing a whole line of suspected chicken thieves.
There is also the Rabbi Levartov (Ezra Dagan), who is almost executed by Goeth, but miraculously survives when both of Goeth’s guns fail to fire; in Spielberg's own words, Levartov is "meant to survive, because he went through the most indignant, indecent humiliation of all." And as Keneally writes of this incident in his book:
Levartov blinked and watched the other prisoners hurry by, wheeling and toting the raw materials of the Plaszow camp, eager to be out of range, the Cracovians among them thinking, My God, it's Levartov's turn. Privately, he murmured the Shema Yisroel and heard the mechanics of the pistol. But the small internal stirrings of metal ended not in a roar but in a click like that of a cigarette lighter which won't give a flame. And like a dissatisfied smoker, with just such a trivial level of annoyance, Amon Goeth extracted and replaced the magazine of bullets from the butt of the pistol, again took his aim, and fired. As the rabbi's head swayed to the normal human suspicion that the impact of the bullet could be absorbed as could a punch, all that emerged from Goeth's pistol was another click.
Goeth began cursing prosaically. "Donnerwetter! Zum Teufel!" It seemed to Levartov that at any second Amon would begin to run down faulty modern workmanship, as if they were two tradesmen trying to bring off some simple effect - the threading of a pipe, a drill hole in the wall. Amon put the faulty pistol away in its black holster and withdrew from a jacket pocket a pearl-handed revolver, of a type Rabbi Levartov had only read of in the Westerns of his boyhood. Clearly, he thought, there are going to be no remissions due to technical failure. He'll keep on. I'll die by cowboy revolver, and even if all the firing pins are filed down, Hauptsturmfuhrer Goeth will fall back on more primitive weapons.
...he could already hear the small murderous hammers and springs of the barroom pistol acting on each other. And again the click of a defective cigarette lighter. Amon, raging, seemed to be attempting to tear the barrel of the thing from its socket.
...It seemed to Levartov that he had violated the rules of the game they had been playing together, the game that was to be closed by Levartov's reasonable death just as surely as Snakes and Ladders ends with the throwing of a six. It was as if the rabbi had hidden the dice and now there could be no conclusion. Amon hit him on the face with a free hand, and Levartov tasted blood in his mouth, lying on the tongue like a guarantee.
Hauptsturmfuhrer Goeth then simply abandoned Levartov against the wall. The contest, however, as both Levartov and Stern could tell, had merely been suspended.
It goes without saying that Schindler’s List is, like every Spielberg film, an impeccable demonstration of cinematic technical detail. There’s little about the John Williams score, the Michael Kahn editing, the art direction by Ewa Sckoczkowska, the production design by Allan Starski (list-making tables are a prominent image throughout the film) and, especially, the gorgeous black-and-white Janusz Kaminski cinematography, that hasn’t already been raved about in other reviews.
And then there's Steven Zaillian's screenplay. It is faithful to Thomas Keneally's novel, and it won a richly-deserved Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is angry, wrenching, powerful and emotional. It's even funny at times. Consider Schindler’s search for a female typist and his inability to “choose” among them. Or Jewish Policeman Marcel Goldberg (Mark Ivanir) being mocked by the Pfefferbergs as looking “funny in that hat… you look like a clown, you know?” Or Schinder being dumbfounded by two cranky Jewish investors in the back of his car demanding a percentage of his company’s profits. Or when “Mr. Jareth” is thanked by each of his beaming peers for allowing his gold tooth to be yanked out and melted down into a ring to be presented to Schindler on the day of his departure. Not only do these scenes help to make Schindler’s List a great entertainment (which, make no mistake, it is—as all great films must be), they also help lessen the enormous unease the audience may feel during the film's harsher sequences. If the film didn't have any instances of comedy in it, we'd be tempted to laugh at the scenes that aren't meant to be funny. In a film so full of tragedy, there are times when we need to catch our breath.
Critics of the film have objected to two scenes that occur in the final half hour, accusing Spielberg of being overly manipulative. In one of these scenes, after Schindler buys his Jews back from Goeth, puts them on trains and sends them to his shell factory in Zwittau-Brinnlitz, the women are accidentally sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. In the sequence that follows, they are sent, undressed, into the showers, expecting to be gassed. Instead, the showers spout water. A slew of outraged critics have thrown a lot of very odd criticisms at this scene, from accusing Spielberg of perversely emulating Hitchcock to, even more strangely, accusing Spielberg of looking at the scene from the point of view of an SS officer peeping at naked Jewish women showering.
I have three things to say, in defense of the sequence. For one thing, Spielberg’s camera goes into the shower with the women, thereby putting us in their position and not, therefore, in the position of the Nazis outside. In addition to that, I find the sequence absolutely terrifying; it makes the fear of gas chambers extraordinarily palatable. Finally, in the real incident, the conditions were even worse. Spielberg’s film presents the women’s isolation as Auschwitz as happening in a day, when, in reality, the women were stuck at Auschwitz for three whole weeks. This, of course, means they took several showers during that time—meaning that every time they went in, they could only fear the worst.
The other scene that the film’s detractors object to is Schindler’s farewell to his Jews. Popularly known as the “I could have done more” speech, it is often dismissed because the real Schindler never gave such a speech. It’s not even in Keneally’s novel; it’s one of maybe a handful of fictional scenes in Zaillian’s screenplay. But what I love about the scene is not only that it allows the audience to leave the film without feeling cold, but, even more hauntingly, it acknowledges the Jews who died in the Holocaust—the ones Schindler didn’t save. For what is more disturbing than the realization that if he had only sold off more of his belongings, Schindler could have rescued more people?
Joseph McBride writes, “Schindler’s mournful litany reminds the audience that, however many persons he and others managed to save, there were millions more who perished. Any celebration of survival in the context of the Holocaust, Spielberg acknowledges, must be seen in the shadow of overwhelming loss.” And Spielberg’s acknowledgment of this tragedy doesn’t stop with the “I could have done more” scene, either. Earlier in the film, when Schindler rescues Stern from a train heading off for the death camp, Spielberg pans over to reveal Nazis stealing the boxes of luggage of the Jews who are already on the train and then taking them to a backroom to be emptied. And after the scene in the Auschwitz showers, when Schindler’s female Jews emerge unscathed, Spielberg pans over to reveal a long line of other, separate Jews descending into the barracks—into the gas chambers. The chimney up on the roof blowing up a horrendous volume of smoke says it all.
I try to watch Schindler’s List at least once every year. I don’t think there was a better film made in the 1990’s, and I think few films have equaled it as an incomparable dramatic account of the Holocaust filmed in the English language. It follows the lives of the extraordinary Jews who survived the Holocaust while pausing, in silence and in memory, of those who did not. It never fails any of them for a minute—right down to that wonderful last scene of Schindler’s Jews revisiting his grave in Israel, ending with that immortal final shot of a rose being laid upon Oskar Schindler’s grave by a sillouhetted image of the actor who has played him in the film. It’s a film that obliterates cinematic WWII German stereotypes, too, by humanizing two members ruined by the evils of the Third Reich: Amon Goeth, who lets it corrupt his soul, overreaches himself and, as a consequence of the war, is hanged; and Schindler, who dies broke and wifeless as a consequence of his lost fortunes, but leaves behind his own acts of bravery that will be kept alive as long as history can still gasp for air.
One has to go back to the earlier scene in which Schindler tries to convince Goeth that there’s power in tolerance. Tolerance could have done more than simply prevented Goeth from turning into a war criminal: it could have prevented all of the terrible discrimination that went into the atrocity of the Holocaust. The will to pardon enemies is the kind of power that can inspire those of our generation to do their duty, take a stand and prevent another Holocaust from ever happening again. Power... is when we may have every justification to let it happen again, and we don't.
I love the way Jurassic Park begins. From the moment we see that classic 1990’s-style Universal Pictures logo displayed over faint, distant sounds of strange animals and creatures lurking far off into the night, we know we’re in for something big. And then we fade out. And then the evil twanging of a guitar string jumpstarts the opening credits. And then we are taken straight into tall, green weeds that are being crushed by something gigantic—a tractor. Spectators are watching, but the only figure making an impression on us is a game hunter with a shotgun. The scene starts out with him confidant that his men can tame a caged beast with "tasers on full charge," and ends with him wailing, “SHOOT HER! SHOOOOT HER!” The last thing we see is the blistered hand of a man slipping out of the game hunter’s grasp as he is about to be sucked away into the jaws of a velociraptor.
Jurassic Park can be interpreted, in some respects, as Steven Spielberg’s Howard Hawks movie. It is full of fast camera movements, lovely visual effects and snappy dialogue delivery, and yet it is also dominated by goofy archetypes: the horny cynic, the slimeball lawyer, the double-crossing fat guy, the eccentric black guy, the noble huntsman, the Hawksian female, and the silent, brooding protagonist who can’t stand those goddamned kids. Even a shot of a T-Rex smashing its head up against a moving car is lifted straight from a shot in Hawks’ own Hatari! (1962) of a rhinoceros smashing its head up against a moving jeep. When Spielberg’s film was released in June 1993, it was adored by audiences worldwide but nit-picked at by critics who felt like the characters had taken a backseat to their computer-generated counterparts: the dinosaurs. That Spielberg reportedly made over $250 million off of Jurassic Park (the most anybody had ever made from a single film) certainly didn’t help ward off criticisms that, this time around, he seemed to be more interested in spectacle than in story.
Well, you could have fooled me. I grew up with these characters. I grew up with Alan Grant, Ellie Satler, Ian Malcolm, Robert Muldoon, Donald Gennaro, Ray Arnold, Dennis Nedry, Lex and Tim. One of my earliest memories is getting to go to local video stores at the age of two and begging my parents to rent Jurassic Park just one more time. I don’t think I saw it in theaters, but once I discovered it on the television set in the privacy of my home, I knew it was a movie I would treasure forever. To this day I can name off each and every one of the silly characters in Michael Crichton’s absurd adventure story, and the screenplay by Crichton and David Koepp is one of those screenplays that I have memorized by heart. I can almost recite all of it, line-for-line. It’s gone on to be remembered as a Hollywood classic full of amazing dinosaurs and, yes, the goofiest characters you can imagine.
The movie has only one three-dimensional character: John Hammond, the billionaire mastermind behind the ill-fated theme park of the title. No doubt Spielberg cast Richard Attenborough in the role as a sort of favor to him for waxing poetic about Spielberg’s artistry at the 1983 Academy Awards (when Attenborough’s Gandhi beat out E.T. for Best Picture), and the performance by Attenborough in Jurassic Park is a true delight, echoing both Crichton’s conflicted beliefs about man vs. nature as well as Spielberg’s own reputation for obsessive showmanship. Hammond is a man who “hates inspections” of his business affairs and who spends large amounts of his money investing in, curiously, paleontologist sites; when he visits one for the first time, he remarks, “I can see that my $50,000 a year has been well spent!” His motto is "spare no expense," and he is about to reveal his latest expense to the world of science and, after that, the world itself. But he needs the endorsement of experts first.
It seems like Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) are the most credible voices in the field, although the Spanish laborer Juanito (Miguel Sandoval, of Seinfeld fame) warns that Hammond may never get Grant to leave his Montana site because he’s “like me… he’s a digger.” One of the dilemmas that Spielberg encountered when setting out to make Jurassic Park was how to create the dinosaurs who would be appearing later in the film. Would he be using Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, or turn to another form of technology that was only in its budding stage at the time: computer-generated imagery? The initial skepticism Spielberg had about CGI makes its way into the Alan Grant character, whose first line in the film is, literally, “I hate computers.” Grant rolls his eyes when he witnesses at first glance a new program on the site that will help them scan bones underground and help eliminate their need to dig anymore—where’s the fun in that? We realize that Grant is actually an outspoken authority on dinosaurs; his colleagues chuckle when he insists that velociraptors were the ancestors of modern-day birds (a theory inspired by the theories of Grant’s real-life counterpart, paleontologist Jack Horner). When an annoying little kid (Whit Hertford) questions this theory, Grant is pleased to scare the wits out of the kid with a pornographic fantasy about a raptor spilling his intestines out.
One thing I noticed when watching the film again is that Grant’s theory about raptors as the birds of their time doesn’t seem to apply to the dinosaurs artificially created on John Hammond’s little island. How come Hammond’s raptors don’t know how to fly? One explanation could be that since Hammond has instructed his scientists to mess with the dinosaurs’ chromosomes, it may have impaired any special abilities they once had in the prehistoric ages. The chipper Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) explains, “Population control is one of our security precautions,” meaning that all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are female, thus canceling out any chance of sex, breeding or bad behavior. Or does it? Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), the Kenyan game hunter who appeared in the first sequence, recalls chillingly the memory of a bitchy mother raptor that killed the majority of her pack and then trained the survivors to wreck the fences: “They never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weakness systematically. They remember.”
Once inside the park, after lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) warns Hammond that he’ll shut him down in 48 hours if not convinced by the park’s results, and after Hammond’s declaration that “in the next 48 hours, I’ll be accepting your apologies,” Spielberg transitions into the first great sequence of the film: the first plain sight of a dinosaur. One of Spielberg’s favorite shots in his cinema is the shot of a protagonist gazing upon something extraordinary with fascinated or horrified awe. We’ve seen it in Chief Brody’s witnessing of the Kinter boy’s death in Jaws, Roy and Jillian walking up the hill and gazing upon Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Oskar Schindler’s witnessing of the ghetto liquidation in Schindler’s List. In Jurassic Park, Spielberg closes in on Alan Grant as he sees something unbelievable in the distance, removes his sunglasses and stares wide-eyed at an unseen wonder. He gets Satler’s attention, and then she, too, has the same reaction. They are staring at a towering brachiosaurus, munching on leaves from the highest trees and creating thundering fissures when it lands its hooves on the ground. John Williams’ music swells as Hammond, pleased with Grant and Satler’s bewilderment, walks towards the camera, gawking at his spectacular creation. “Dr. Grant, my dear Ellie Satler,” he proudly orates, “Welcome… to Jurassic Park.” It is one of the most wonderful sequences in Spielberg’s entire career.
“How’d you do this?” Grant asks, amazed. “I’ll show you,” Hammond wistfully replies. Indeed, Grant, Satler and the wisecracking mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are all initially stunned and fascinated with Hammond’s revolutionary creation; even Malcolm utters out loud, “You crazy son of a bitch, you did it!” It is really only after Hammond shows them how it’s done and explains to them how he’s going to foster his creation that they begin to question the ethical problems with his plan. Grant is worried about the fact that they can’t possibly know what to expect from the combination of two centuries-separated species—dinosaurs and humans—being joined together. Satler doubts they have a permanently controllable ecosystem. Malcolm, the cynic of the experts, is the most vicious of all: “You stood up on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunch box, and now, you’re selling it… you wanna sell it!” He accuses Hammond of having all the zeal of a kid who has found his dad’s gun. He equates Hammond’s “discovery” with a rape of the natural world. “I don’t believe it,” Hammond nervously laughs. “You’re meant to come down here and defend me against these characters, and the only one on my side is the bloodsucking lawyer!” “Thank you,” the underappreciated Gennaro mutters. No wonder he’s the first character to be eaten.
In his review for Variety, Todd McCarthy complained that Alan Grant “comes off rather like a bland Indiana Jones,” and that Ellie Satler “overdoes the facial oohs and ahhs.” These are valid criticisms, but Spielberg does make an effort to humanize Grant and Satler by giving them witty character behaviors. For example, onboard the helicopter ride to the park, while Ian Malcolm is flirting with Satler, we notice that Grant—sitting next to Satler—has a raptor claw drawn. It’s the only thing separating the horny Malcolm from Satler’s luscious legs, as if Grant is protecting his babe (his territory?). Grant, as already evidenced, despises kids, and is not a happy camper when Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), come along for the ride; he is not amused by Tim’s attempt to impress him with his own dinosaur theories, and shuts the door on him during one of Tim’s dinosaur speeches. Satler walks through the movie gaping in awe at one spectacular sight after another, making one question how she ever made it into the field of paleobotany in the first place. And Malcolm explains and explains and explains the theory of chaos until, pretty soon, he’s explaining it to himself.
The supporting characters have just as much fun. Gennaro reacts with stupefied awe at the sight of Hammond’s worker-bee scientists during a tour, believing them to be robots: “Are these characters, uh, auto-erotica?” Ray “Hold onto yo butts” Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson) flips out, for some reason, when faced at a key moment with the choice of either shutting down the park system or waiting for it to fix itself. The shady Dodgson (Cameron Thor) is so awful at blending in and looking like a secret agent, he has to be reminded that “nobody cares.” Computer technician Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) rolls his eyes during an economic lecture by Hammond about how “I don’t blame people for their mistakes, but I do ask that they pay for them” (“Thanks, Dad,” Nedry deadpans). In some respects, Nedry is the epitome of the evils of computer technology that Alan Grant fears: his ability to manipulate modern technology allows him to crush the dignity of his associates. There’s a feeling of discomfort when Lex tells Tim that her aspiration in life is to be “a hacker.” Will she grow up to be just like Nedry?
Some of the sequences in the film, including the more terrifying ones, can be interpreted allegorically. When the park system is shut down and then turned back on, Ellie Satler beams through the walkie-talkies that they’re “back in business.” Then a raptor emerges from behind her. Is this a cosmic joke with anti-capitalism undertones? And in the first truly scary sequence in the film, when the T-Rex makes its first appearance, breaking through the perimeter fence and menacing Lex and Tim while they remain trapped in their car, Grant, witnessing the attack in horror, comes to his senses. The Sight and Sound critic Harry Sheehan, recalling the earlier scene in which Grant menaces the kid on the digging site with a fantasy about being ripped open by a raptor, has a theory about this: “When the tyrannosaurus rex attacks [Lex and Tim] in their stalled car, [Grant] sits still in his own vehicle for what seems endless moments, watching in horror as his (barely) suppressed murder fantasy is played out in front of him.” Following Sheehan’s pointed observations, we notice that from then on, entrusted with the care of Lex and Tim, Grant ends up treating them with more respect. Of course, his delight in scaring them by pretending to be electrocuted in a later scene confirms that he still hasn’t gotten over his kiddie-torturing fantasies.
Koepp and Crichton’s screenplay also attempts to polish up the Ellie Satler character, even if her transformations don’t stand out quite as much as Grant’s do. Laura Dern has a great scene in which she sits down with Attenborough’s Hammond in the wake of the park’s disasters. Hammond is depressed about watching his dreams come crashing down and is found pathetically eating out of buckets of melting ice cream. He shares with her his idealistic beliefs that the park, unlike his illusionary attempts at creating flea circuses in the past, can still go on as long as they regain control. Then Satler tells him like it is: “You never had control… that’s the illusion! I was overcome by the power of this place! But I made a mistake too—I didn’t have enough respect for that power, and it’s out, now.” Is she wanting to atone for all the absurd oohing and ahhing she does in the opening passages of the film? The Satler character does have some odd touches, such as, for example, her random feminism; she fantasizes about a future in which “dinosaurs eat man” and “woman inherits the earth,” and at one point even accuses Hammond of sexism. But the melting ice cream scene is the one scene where she truly shines. It’s a shame the character doesn’t have more scenes like this in the film.
It should go without saying that the visual effects of Jurassic Park are sensational. The dinosaurs designed by Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippet and Michael Lantieri looked so real to me as a young kid; watching the film today, it is easier to notice some of the more fake CGI effects hidden in the corners, but the overall illusion remains startlingly intact. The rest of Jurassic Park is nothing short of a demonstration of technical mastery: the unforgettable Williams score; the glowing cinematography by Dean Cudney; the brisk Michael Kahn editing that makes this one of the more fast-paced and entertaining Spielberg films out there. Perhaps most overlooked among the film’s technical aspects are the amazing sound effects by Rod Judkins and Gary Rydstrom. Each of the two park tours that Grant and company ride during their stay on the park have excellent sound, from the cartoonish noise of the animated “DNA” tutorial (voiced by Greg Burson), to the car tour set to a voiceover by Spielberg’s Night Gallery colleague, Richard Kiley. And there’s more: water ripples in a plastic cup. Green gelatin shakes uncontrollably in a spoon. Malcolm is “fairly alarmed” by a booming impact tremor.
No question about it: Jurassic Park will stand the test of time as one of Spielberg’s more technically dazzling films. But as a character study, will it compare well to Spielberg’s richer studies of humanism? I doubt it. These characters won’t speak to future generations the way they spoke to us. The movie came out at a time when dinosaur discoveries were at their peak, paleontology was at its most celebrated and dinosaurs were every child’s favorite toy. But we live now in a new generation where that old fascination with dinosaurs is all but gone. Not only will people probably not be as impressed with the film’s questions about dinosaurs as we were, but they will probably also marvel at how we could possible feel any affection for such loony characters. Yes, all of the characters undergo some painfully hokey transformations during the course of the movie; Grant cradling Lex and Tim in his arms in the final scene, confirming his maturation into a fatherly stage, is the hokiest of all. However, the moment when John Hammond looks upon his crumbling creation one last time, before being guided into the helicopter and flown off to safety, is not so hokey. It’s a reminder that the movie is mainly centered on the failed dreams of this character.
If I have to reiterate it, I will: I love Grant, Satler, Malcolm, Lex, Tim, Muldoon, Arnold, Gennaro, Nedry and the rest of the JP gang. I grew up with them. They are among the first movie characters I could remember by memory. Anyone familiar with the sequels knows how they all turned out. Grant went solo. Satler married another man, had a son and abandoned her career. Malcolm went home to his kids and his ex-wives. Lex and Tim returned to their ordinary lives as bourgeoisie children—the life they enjoyed before being reduced from riches to rags for two whole days. Grant, Satler, Malcolm, Lex and Tim are the ones who will benefit the most from the consequences of Jurassic Park: they’ll get on with their lives, and if any of them come back, they will be prepared for more. But then there is John Hammond, sitting in the corner of that helicopter, looking with sadness and regret upon the amber mosquito of his cane—pondering about what might have been before everything went wrong.