Friday, 8 June 2007

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

A slightly topical one this, for D-Day.

Most people who will have seen this film will rave about the visceral opening reel on Omaha Beach, and rightly so. That is not to say that the rest of the film isn't pretty startling too.


Significantly, the veterans of Omaha themselves have said how much they appreciate those opening 20 minutes of Spielberg's film, that bring home to cinema audiences the sheer uncompromising intensity of the horrors of battle, more so apparently than any other war film. The ironies and tragedies are so endemic: at one point a soldier gets a bullet which pierces a hole in his helmet, but not his head; as he marvels at his good fortune, in that next split second he gets shot. Another soldier is seen holding his own left arm in his hand - a common trait of Spielberg films: severed limbs often pop up (or out, as the case may be) in the likes of Jaws, Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones films.


It is perhaps, I confess, not my favourite war film. In truth, I wonder if the genre is always trying to have its cake and eat it, by depicting a male-dominated macho environment with lots of action, whilst at the same time trying to have a strong anti-war message.

There are also certain other war films that may invoke happier memories for me, such as The Cruel Sea for its very English way of coping with conflict at sea and for Jack Hawkins, or All Quiet on the Western Front for its brilliant depiction of disaffected trench life and its superb tragic ending. Even Spielberg's own Schindler's List (a war film of a kind) is I feel an artistically superior work, as also were Lawrence of Arabia and Casablanca - war films in the loosest sense. Two others I will also allude to later in this blog: The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.

But with Saving Private Ryan, over all the above mentioned, there is still the experience of those opening 20 minutes. Perhaps they are akin to experiencing something like that in real life: once gone through, it is impossible to get out of the system.

It should also be said though, that Saving Private Ryan is still a film, not the actual war itself, as Spielberg well knows, but the truthfulness in the way he depicts the action (supported by Janusz Kaminski's innovative camerawork) without over-glorifying it, is a model of fine film-making.


It is the most technically accomplished and visceral of all the war films he has made since his teenage years; back then the introverted, awkward young Steve hired some of his fellow teenage friends, dressed them in tin hats and army costume, and spent weekends shooting his shoot 'em ups as a hobby. Now the costumes and the pyrotechnics are much more elaborate, the budgets are much bigger, and his friends on the block now include Tom Hanks.


Its Americanness is perhaps a disincentive. From the very first shot - of the stars and stripes, which is repeated at the end - it never ceases to remind you that this is "America's war". One scene in the film where a fellow American commander (fleetingly played by Ted Danson) refers to Field Marshal Montgomery is about as far as the non-American contribution to the Allied cause is mentioned. Even the planes that fly in the sky are American.

The film's influence may also have a lot to answer for: the awful Pearl Harbor relied for much of its action on a lot of incoherent noise and shaky and unrealistic camera movements. Clint Eastwood's two recent fine films about the battle of Iwo Jima (both produced by Spielberg) nonetheless had jarring CGI action scenes that were, again, totally incoherent, and shot in horribly poor colour, even though the action takes place in the sunny Pacific! Most war films (and also the spin-off TV series Band of Brothers) seem now to take the lead of Saving Private Ryan in filming gritty, hand-held cameras and unintelligible battle scenes.

I suppose the argument could be made is that this is how it feels to be in the middle of a war; perhaps, but I feel that SPR's action is something of a one-trick pony. Once done the first time, the novelty quickly fades. Think of Hitchcock, whose shower scene in Psycho was truly shocking and innovative - but was there really need for any more violent stabbing scenes in films from then on? Of course not. (There were however, many largely inferior imitations of Psycho.)


This does not alter the fact however that Spielberg was ground-breaking in the use of such a revelatory technique. Two films that he also owes a debt of homage to are The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far: the former a meticulous recreation of D-Day from with an Omaha beach assault that worked within the confines of 1962 taste and restraint; and the latter for its full-blooded depiction of Operation Market Garden. Both were benchmarks to Steven of the example he had to follow, and exceed.

My own memories are of seeing the film at the Odeon Colchester in the autumn of 1998, and as with most Spielberg films, he gave his audience something to remember. There was some thoughtful closing theme music at the end, as always, by John Williams.

The film's eventual release seemed a long time in coming, as it was in production for the best part of two years - I remember seeing Spielberg and Tom Hanks on TV at the funeral of Princess Diana in the autumn of 1997, when filming had reached Hertfordshire, which served as a makeshift bombed French town for the later climax of the film. The then Prime Minister John Major had refused the film crew access to the British Army as extras, and most of the beach scenes were subsequently shot in Ireland.

At the time, during all the build-up to its release, SPR was perceived to be "just another war film". But in the hands of the more mature Spielberg that made Schindler's List, it is definitely much more than just that. Saving Private Ryan is perhaps not the masterpiece that some people have made out, but certainly a defining moment in the war film genre.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Thanks to Dave Smith for this message:

Hi Joe. Just got back from visiting your website. I must congratulate you on a first class analysis and review of 'Pte Ryan'.

I must say it still remains my own favourite war film to date, closely followed by 'Gettysburg' and Peckinpah's 'Cross of Iron'.

I would beg to differ on only two points. You, along with other commentators, seem to take exception to the film's overt Americanism. You mention the film opening and closing with the American flag blowing in the wind. As you know, it is blowing over the American cemetery above Omaha Beach, where many of the US dead of Normandy lie. Highly appropriate I would have thought, given the film's content.

Another widespread criticism amongst British critics - including yourself - is the almost total lack of recognition of the British contribution in Normandy, other than a very negative comment about Montgomery 'dragging his heels'. I can't really accept this. The film is not supposed to be an overview of D Day and the Normandy campaign. Rather, it is about a specific incident in the American zone of operation. The British are not involved. For a detailed film about D Day, you go to 'The Longest Day'. The comment about Montgomery refers to his failure to take Caen as his first objective and, given the context of the time, is quite accurate. The Americans DID think he was dragging his heels.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know the reasons for his failure. He was up against the bulk of the German armour and it was to take weeks before Caen fell.

BUT, at the time, none of this was known to the foot soldier in situ, so the spoken comment by Ted Davison is justified in the context of the film. When you think about it, one could make the same criticism of 'The Cruel Sea' (another of MY favourite films).

Seeing that, one could be excused for thinking the British Navy alone fought the Battle of the Atlantic. No mention of the huge contribution of the US and Canadian navies. Not necessary actually, the story was about 2 ships and the Atlantic battle served as a backdrop.

So you see where I'm coming from. Any thoughts in rebuttal will be well received.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films