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Saving Private Ryan

Directed by Steven Spielberg with Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Davies, Edward Burns and Matt Damon, color, 170 minutes, 1998

The Terror of War

DVD cover

Cover of Blue-ray edition of "Saving Private Ryan"

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 away.

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 Germans.

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 final battle.

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 worth it.

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 film.

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 stairs.

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 List."

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.

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