War movies make for great entertainment, but war in real life is horrible. Other than maybe David Ayer’s Fury, no movie proves this point better than Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), which portrayed the horror of World War II so accurately veterans walked out of the theatres because they felt it was too realistic. Prior to this movie Hollywood had made tales of that war filled heroism, humour, and a moderate level of violence. Spielberg’s film may somewhat overdo it with the American heroism, but it certainly doesn’t avoid the violence, and the laughs are very rare.
Spielberg has often been the king of summer movies, and Saving Private Ryan was another major hit for him in the summer of 1998. I went to see it in theatres with my parents during a vacation in Quebec City even though this was clearly not a family movie. I believe I was around 12 years old at the time, so there are plenty of images that became seared in my brain, particularly the early carnage of Omaha Beach. This was definitely not E.T. However it did show me why my grandfather rarely talked about his time in the war.
As with all war movies, Saving Private Ryan has an all-star cast, which in this case will probably never all work in the same movie again. Good luck finding any other movie that has Tom Hanks, Vin Diesel and Nathan Fillion sharing screen time. Hanks has the lead role as Captain John H. Miller, one of the American soldiers to survive the Normandy invasion in 1944. Given the number of soldiers who are shot and blown to bits during the attack it seems Miller has already survived the impossible, only to be given an impossible assignment.
Raising the question of how much one life is worth, General George Marshall (Harve Presnell) sends the orders to find paratrooper James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) after Marshall is made aware that all three of Ryan’s brothers have been killed in action. Wanting to spare Ryan’s mother a fourth wave of grief, Marshall believes Ryan should be found and sent home immediately. The problem is that as a paratrooper Ryan is much farther behind enemy lines and will be difficult to find. Along with a squad of seven men (Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, and Jeremy Davies), Miller accepts his orders and sets off to find one man knowing very well the mission could result in the death of everyone under his command.
As the men go into enemy territory there are several scenes in which the characters get to be developed according to each situation. One is a sniper who prays before each shot, one is good with languages but not with killing, and one is too compassionate for his own good. The biggest mystery is Hanks’ Miller, who makes tough decisions throughout the journey and seems tough as nails in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, to the point that they make a betting pool regarding his origins. When they eventually learn the truth about who he was before the war, they are completely taken by surprise.
Some people, even one of my college teachers in Quebec, have complained that the movie is too American given how many other nations were involved. It is a valid point given that the movie opens with a shot of a waving American flag and American troops are the main characters throughout. In Spielberg’s defence it is an American movie, made by an American director, and the soldier that needs saving is an American. Overall, it’s a slight complain about a great film.
What cannot be denied is that this was the first film to accurately depict how gruesome combat was in World War II. The first 20 minutes alone are total carnage, shot documentary style, with a scene in which Miller is dragging a wounded soldier through the battlefield only to suddenly realize his bottom half is gone. Now there is something you don’t get to see from reading a history book.