Film legend Steven Spielberg released Saving Private Ryan 20 years ago, and it has since been hailed by some as the “greatest war movie ever made.” It was certainly a commercial success by grossing more than $216 million in 1998, that year’s top-earning domestic film. Critics and moviegoers adored it. The IMdB viewer rating was 8.6 out of 10. At the 71st Academy Awards, Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor and won five including Spielberg for Best Director. The movie lost out for Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love, which in retrospect was one of those Academy Award brain cramps. Veterans loved Private Ryan with many reports of aging, hardened WWII vets crying their eyes out in the theaters.
There were nitpickers of course (I guess I’m one since I’m doing this blog, but I’m fair-minded 😊). Filmmaker Oliver Stone, a veteran himself, said Private Ryan promoted “good wars” like WW II (did he sleep through the first half hour?), and he argued it paved the way for the American public to accept the 2003 invasion of Iraq (that’s kind of a stretch, but Stone is always edgy). Irish actor Richard Todd, who glided into Normandy on June 6, 1944, and then acted in the 1962 D-Day epic Longest Day, called Private Ryan “rubbish” and “overdone.” A very British critique, don’t you think.
In an earlier blog I discussed the five things I loved about the movie. Now I get to vent about the five things I hated. See if you and other warhistorybuffs agree.
1) The Realism Haha… you’ll note this was among the five things I loved. I understand one of the purposes of Private Ryan was to apply the latest special effects magic to a war story to illustrate the sacrifices but come on. Did we really have to see a soldier carrying his severed arm, or another soldier with a hole where his face should be to get the point? The blood and gore were realistic though. The first two waves of American soldiers on Omaha Beach were such a disaster the U.S. Army cleaned up the official unit histories. The original narratives, which are now available, are harrowing and sickening to read.
2) All the Good Guys Die while the Jerks Survive Six of the eight soldiers in Tom Hanks’ unit were killed in the movie, a KIA rate of 75 percent. In the 1944-45 war-ending offensive that started with D-Day, 4.5 million Allied troops suffered 195,000 killed or 4 percent, so if you thought Captain Miller’s guys were especially unlucky, you were correct. The first two waves of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach did suffer 90 percent killed, wounded or missing, so it was a near-slaughter as the movie depicts. The casualty rate dropped dramatically on Omaha after the first two waves. Utah Beach, the other American landing spot, by contrast recorded only 80 soldiers killed. What made the movie deaths especially galling was all the interesting characters were knocked off one by one in Tom Hanks’ little army. The two survivors were the bumbling “coward” Corporal Upham played by Jeremy Davies and the annoying chronic griper Private Reiben played by Edward Burns. I especially mourned the loss of Barry Pepper’s Bible-quoting sniper, Private Jackson, but at least we got a good dose of his talents before he succumbed. If you will notice when you watch again, it appears EVERYONE among the 101st Airborne defenders in the fictional village of Ramelle were killed except for Reiben and Upham, and Matt Damon in the title role.
3) Unrealistic Details I was a sailor not a ground pounder and a beached sailor at that so some of you warhistorybuff grunts can set me straight, but I was irritated by some obvious unrealistic details. I have read where artillery shells do great damage. Tom Hanks was dragging one of his wounded soldiers up from the water when we see an explosion blow up near the two men. Hanks continues to drag the unfortunate soul when we notice half the man is now missing. Great touch if you want to add as much gore as possible, but wouldn’t the same explosion that ripped the soldier apart also kill Tom? Then there was the attack on the radar installation. Very nice depiction of the American small unit tactic of “fire and movement” (intense fire from the center using the BAR, while the flanks move in for the kill). BUT BUT, would a unit commander use the medic of all people as part of the attack and keep the technical corporal (albeit a bumbling one) in the rear? The medic is the only one to get perforated by German machine gun fire in the scene. In the Saving Private Ryan “cousin,” the mini-series Band of Brothers, the soldiers in the Bastogne scenes go out of their way to protect their medic.
4) Focus on Omaha Beach The D-Day landing scenes took up 27 minutes of the two-hour, 49-minute movie, or 16 percent, which isn’t excessive, but the segment seemed out of place in the movie. After all, the story wasn’t about D-Day, but about the compelling adventure to find one soldier in a large war. In other words, the beach landings were a gratuitous part of a mildly overly long movie. Spielberg wanted to show off his special effects, I guess.
5) Cinematography Saving Private Ryan won the cinematography Oscar so who am I to carp, but I will. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a genius to be sure, wanted to duplicate the color newsreels shown in the theaters back home during WW II. He performed all sorts of tricks on the film to achieve the effect including bleaching and removing a protective coating. He also fiddled with the shutter timing, giving the battle scenes a herky jerky, slow motion effect. I guess the cinematography added drama, but I found the effects annoying and distracting.
I must not have hated Saving Private Ryan too badly since I watched it three times to research this blog, but oh well, critics gotta criticize.