By Carter B. Horsley
With extreme gore,
deep sincerity, fabulous cinematography and great acting, "Saving
Private Ryan" is a stupendous movie.
No other movie has come
close to rivaling its riveting immediacy. War is really hell,
to put it mildly, and not for the squeamish.
The movie begins and ends
in one of those battlefield graveyards neatly lined with white
marble crosses. An elderly man has come with his family to visit
the grave of the leader of a platoon that had brought him home
from the battlefield after three of his brothers were killed in
other actions in World War II.
The film abruptly shifts
from the veteran's visit to the cemetery to the Omaha Beach landing
in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The landing craft with men
led by Capt. John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is about to
hit the beach. Men are nervous. Some are sick. The scene is wet
and richly, though darkly colored. The craft's front is released
to embark the soldiers and most are instantly cut down by withering
German machine gun fire. Hanks orders the few men still alive
to jump over the side into the surf. Bullets streak through the
water. We see a soldier drown underwater.
Some troops manage to reach
the shore but are pinned down and gunned down. Shells erupt and
tear apart bodies. One man loses his arm and, stunned, looks about
and picks it up and advances. Another drags a comrade forward
seeking some shelter. An explosion behind him throws him to the
ground and he gets up and starts to drag his comrade again, only
to soon realize that the lower half of his comrade has been blown
The surf turns deep red
with all the blood. Capt. Miller goes into momentary shock but
regains his senses to realize that he and his men are in terrible
trouble. He calls on his best sniper to try to take out a machine
gun nest. The sniper, Private Daniel Jackson, played with enormous
intensity and religiosity by Barry Pepper, who somewhat resembles
a young Christopher Walken, eventually gets his targets and after
more casualties, including the shooting of some Germans who had
surrendered, the position is secured.
The battle lasts about 20
minutes and is excruciating, frightening and extremely realistic,
an indelible nightmare that closely follows real photographs of
the invasion and is one of the very greatest sequences in film
history, albeit one that is likely the devastate the squeamish.
The next sequence is back
at Allied Headquarters where General George C. Marshall is informed
that one family has just lost three sons and has one more son
who is a paratrooper who jumped behind enemy lines with his platoon
the night before the invasion and whose whereabouts are unknown.
General Marshall, recalling a letter written by President Abraham
Lincoln in the Civil War, decides that the fourth son must be
saved and it falls to Capt. Miller to find him.
What follows is a more traditional
"detail," in which we get to know something about the
men in the platoon but while this part of the story - the personalization
of the characters - is perfunctory, it is done with fine touches
and great camera work.
Hanks and his small band
of soldiers encounter the enemy on the search for Private James
Francis Ryan, the fourth son, in very vicious and thrilling scenes.
Private Ryan, nicely played
by Matt Damon, while stunned to learn of the loss of his three
brothers, is loyal to his platoon - "These are my brothers
now" - and does not want to abandon them, especially since
they are in a dangerous position and about to be overrun by the
Capt. Miller organizes the
men against the imminent attack and this battle is as scary as
the landing at Omaha as his men are greatly out-numbered and out-gunned.
One of the movie's few flaws is that it is not clear why the Americans
don't retreat and escape and wait so long to blow up a bridge.
It is also a little too "Hollywood" that fighter planes
and a relief column arrive in the nick of time to save Private
Ryan, although Capt. Miller and most of his platoon die in this
The film then abruptly switches
back to the elderly man, an aged Private Ryan, who collapses in
front of Capt. Miller's tombstone and turns and ask his family
if he has been "a good man." It is a nice, cathartic
end. One of the questions raised by one of Capt. Miller's platoon
early in the movie was whether it was worth possibly endangering
the lives of eight men to rescue one and whether such action was
Orders, of course, are orders
and are not to be questioned. What is extraordinary about "Saving
Private Ryan" is that its heroes question their task but
persist against overwhelming odds. The mission was preposterous.
Why send only a platoon if saving Private Ryan was so important
for morale and public relations, especially since his whereabouts
were unknown and very deep behind enemy lines that were still
very hotly being contested. In fairness, one should probably admit
that even John Wayne would not have succeeded nor killed as many
Germans in the process. It is to Spielberg's great credit that
such analysis and analogies have not been levied against this
film and that is because its direction, cinematography and acting
are so sensational and riveting and spellbinding that such criticism
simply falls away before the wrenching emotional impact of this
The most excruciating sequence
in the film is not the incredible landing but a section early
in the final battle when Corporal Timothy E. Upham, played by
Jeremy Davies, loses his nerve. A translator who had never seen
action before this mission, the Corporal is assigned to supply
ammunition to Capt. Miller's men spread out in the ruins of a
French town they are defending against the Germans. His fear freezes
him on a stairway as one of his comrades is brutally killed by
a German soldier just a few steps away and he takes his hand off
his rifle's trigger as the German emerges and passes by him. Why
the German soldier doesn't kill him is another flaw, though perhaps
he is grateful that he survived his tremendous battle with the
other soldier and is happy that the Corporal is a complete coward
and no apparent threat, but that is a bit of a stretch.
Jeremy Davies's performance
is excruciating, in the good sense that his acting is so good
that you want to shoot him, or at least slap him hard, for his
cravenly conduct that is responsible for the death of some of
his comrades. In his
review of the film, Roger Ebert writes that he "identified
with Upham, and I suspect many honest viewers will agree with
me." "The war was fought by civilians just like him,
whose lives had not prepared them for the reality of battlem"
Ebert continued, adding that "for me the key performance
in the movie is by Jeremy Davies, as the frightened little interpreter.
He is our entry into the reality because he sees it clearly as
a bast system designed to humiliate and destroy him. And so it
is. His survival depends on his doing the very best he can, yes,
but even more on chance. Eventually he arrives at his personal
turning point, and his action writes the closing words of Spielberg's
unspoken philosophical argument."
That "turning point,"
apparently, is when he finally points his rifle at a group of
surrendering Germans and recognizing one who had killed one of
his comrades pulls the trigger and shoots him. If Ebert is suggesting
that Spielberg's "unspoken philosophical argument" is
that war turns people into monsters, perhaps he is right, but
two wrongs do not make a right. Upham was a dastardly coward whose
"epiphany" is shooting a surrendering soldier in cold
blood. While it is true that the German soldier he shot had grisly
driven his bayonet slowly into the heart of one of his comrades
in one of the movie's most "difficult" scenes, that
same soldier elected not to kill Upham when he passed him on the
One could observe that Capt.
Miller's platoon has endured a hell beyond measure and that its
heroics would have deserve many medals of honor and that the character
of Upham was needed to establish that they were not superhuman,
but that does not make his character a worthy one and no matter
how "pure" or "innocent" one might be that
does not permit an adult to be irresponsible or excuse cowardice
and bad judgment. Surely Spielberg cannot mean to condone his
shooting of the German soldier, although he certainly was not
a likable sort. Indeed, this is not one of those "balanced"
war movies that show some sympathy or understanding of the enemy
as human beings. In this regard, one could argue that this one-sided
view, the American's viewpoint, is a flaw, but it is really not
very important for this is a film about the terror of war.
In his review
in Salon, the Internet magazine, Gary Kamiya notes that the
film "is like a Francis Bacon painting executed by Norman
Rockwell," adding that "there's something jarring about
the film's movement from nightmare realism to character-centered
realism and back."
"No one who sees this
movie would ever want to go to war - but no one with a conscience
could feel anything other than immense gratitude for those who
did," Kamiya wrote, brilliantly.
Hanks is sensitive, stalwart
and stoic, heroic, humble and human as Capt. Miller and his is
the central and key performance. He wonders if he will survive
and has a hand that occasionally trembles, but he is resourceful,
alert and responsible for his men. He is very ably aided by Sergeant
Michael Horvath, played by Tom Sizemore, in a role that recalls
James Whitmore in "Battleground." Sizemore is marvelous
and just about unstoppable.
The most interesting character
in the film is the sniper played by Barry Pepper, who calls on
God for "strength" in shooting the enemy. He is the
opposite of Corporal Upham. He does his duty not with rancor or
misgivings but with focus and intensity and his comrades depend
upon him. In other war movies, someone, such as Frederic March
in "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," would sigh, "Where
do we get such men?" in go into unthinkable danger.
This film won Oscars for
best direction, best editing (by Michael Kahn), best cinematography
(by Janusz Kaminski), sound and sound effects.
"Saving Private Ryan,"
which was written by Robert Rodat, is agonizingly powerful, riveting
and unforgettable and Spielberg pulls it together with his ending,
which is a coda like in his other fine film, "Schindler's
This film is ranked 14th
in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films
and was ranked 27th in the Top 250 Films at the Internet
Movie Data Base December 10, 2001.