Film legend Steven Spielberg released the iconic Saving Private Ryan 20 years ago. Although hailed by some as the “greatest war movie ever made,” I would put it in the Top 10 but maybe not the “greatest” – Tora Tora Tora, Enemy at the Gate, Van Johnson’s Battleground, Van Johnson’s and Humphrey Bogart’s The Caine Mutiny, and Sink the Bismarck were really good too. There’s certainly no argument that Saving Private Ryan revolutionized war movies.
After Private Ryan, war movies HAVE to be real-looking using all the special effects magic of modern Hollywood and overlaid with a poignant, good story. Look at Black Hawk Down (2001), Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006), Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and Dunkirk (2017) to see what I mean. And I’m not even mentioning “Band of Brothers,” (2001) the mini-series and Private Ryan cousin that might actually be the “greatest war movie” ever made.
Like all good films, Private Ryan stimulated considerable debate about its pros and cons. Here is what I loved. I’ll list what I didn’t like in my next blog.
1) The Realism Sure, the gag-inducing blood and gore were shocking, but Spielberg spared no expense to recreate Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The D-Day landings alone reportedly cost $12 million to stage in a $70 million film. Some 3,500 custom-fitted WWII replica uniforms were made for the actors along with 2,000 replica weapons. Attention to detail always pays off in a movie. Viewers can spot phony props and scenes in a second. I even noticed the shell holes in the German bunkers displayed dangling rebar. Good stuff!
2) Historical Accuracy While the movie is a work of fiction, real events and settings underpin everything in it. Let’s start with Omaha Beach. Old-school war movies felt it necessary to glorify generals and senior officers. “The Longest Day” (1962) for instance spotlighted Robert Mitchum’s Gen. Cota bravely leading his men through the seawall, which in fact did happen. However, it was the sergeants, lieutenants and captains like Capt. John Miller who rallied their men to get out of the sand and assault the German positions. Other histories: There is no French village called Ramelle, but the Merderet River is real enough, and there really were dozens of similar villages contested by Allied and German troops. Real battles at la Fiere Bridge and Pegasus Bridge obviously inspired the Ramelle Bridge scenes. The small unit American infantry tactics in Private Ryan will please any warhistorybuff. The standard American maneuver of “fire and movement” was on display, and I was struck (upon the third or fourth viewing) by how many times I heard the terms “defilade” (protected position) and “enfilade” (flank attack on enemy soldiers). Another bit of realism – American soldiers shooting surrendering Germans. “Blood lust,” the uncontrolled urge to kill your enemy during or after a vicious fight, was common to every army throughout history. War movies depict the enemy as bloodthirsty savages, not Americans, but combat turns everyone into a beast.
3) The Cast Tom Hanks took over from Jimmy Stewart in American filmography in the role of Average Everyman who rises to meet uncommon challenges. In Saving Private Ryan Hanks even carries the Joe Sixpack name of “John Miller,” an English teacher of all people, who completes the mission despite insurmountable odds. I thoroughly enjoyed watching film tough guy Tom Sizemore in his Sgt. Horvath role as Hanks’ righthand man. I didn’t realize Vin Diesel played the soft-hearted brute Private Adrian Caparzo until I began researching this blog. Even though Diesel lasted less than an hour, the movie supposedly led to his breakout roles. Matt Damon in the film’s title role was listed down in the credits because his character wound up as fairly minor. But he kept in his lane and played the part perfectly. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but supposedly Spielberg made everyone EXCEPT Damon go through a week of Army boot camp. When the soldiers portrayed their resentments against Private Ryan, they didn’t have to do much acting. Acting pros Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina and Bryan Cranston spiced up the film with minor speaking parts.
4) The Story Sheeesh, I didn’t know this until I began researching this blog. I’m going to have to turn in my warhistorybuff membership badge! Saving Private Ryan is based on the true story of the four Niland brothers from Tonawanda, N.Y. It was believed that three of the brothers were killed in the war, so the military sent Frederick Niland back to the States. After the war, it was discovered another brother, Edward, had survived in a Japanese POW camp.
5) The Philosophical Musings and One-Liners I need to ask combat veterans if they really sat around in their idle time and mused deeply about life and death and cracked hilarious and extremely witty jokes and one-liners. Old-school war movies would have us believe soldiers talked about sex, gambling, sex, cigarettes and sex. OR kept to themselves and wrote letters home. But whenever there was a pause in Private Ryan, a deep philosophical discussion seemed to break out or some witty one-liners. I enjoyed these interludes. Captain Miller discusses Emerson (Ralph Waldo) and ponders “every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” He also rationalizes that for every one of the soldiers under his command he had sent to his death, he saved 10 or 20 others. Miller also sets the requirement that for this ridiculous mission to be worth it, Private Ryan must go home and “cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.” It’s doubtful Private Ryan accomplished that, but he obviously went home, entered a loving, long-lasting marriage and produced at least one son who gave him four grandchildren, which was obviously meant to depict a worthwhile life.
Next – What I Didn’t Like (hated)