Private Ryan's Celluloid War
by Frank J. Wetta
Dean, Arts & Sciences, Daytona Beach Community College.
Author with Stephen J. Curley, Celluloid Wars: A Guide to Film and the American Experience of War (Greenwood, 1992)

Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's summer 1998 "blockbuster," is noteworthy for at least three reasons: its recreation of the experience of combat, its imitation of combat photography, and its reception by critics.

There is one thing that all audiences will surely remember about Spielberg's film - his attention to the realities of battle. "Battle scenes in films often make people who have been in battles restless," General Sir John Hackett stated in The Times (London) in 1983. "On the screen there are particular conventions to be observed. Men blown up by high explosives in real war, for example, are often torn apart quite hideously; in films, there is a big bang and bodies, intact, fly through the air with the greatest of ease. If they are shot...they fall down like children in a game to lie motionless." (quoted in Jay M. Shafritz's Words on War, 1990) Not any more. Private Ryan is the culmination of a trend in movie making since the end of the Vietnam conflict to portray the experience of battle in the most graphic terms.

The director and his technical crew went to considerable effort to ensure that the actors acted like real soldiers. The filmmakers also studiously avoided the "particular conventions" of Hollywood movie-making. Retired Marine Captain Dale Dye (Warriors, Inc.) provided expert advice (as he did for other movies about real or imagined wars, including Platoon, 84 Charlie Mopic, The Last of the Mohicans, and Starship Troopers) by putting the players through "boot camp" and keeping Spielberg focused on the elements of realism. "Every time I wanted a large fireball or explosion," the director stated in American Cinematographer (August, 1998), "Dale would ask me what round was fired to create the effect and he would invariably say, 'go half that size, they were never that big.' He was a really good person to have around, because he was able to scale the reality down to what he was accustomed to in Vietnam just as the World War II veterans we talked to or had on the set could tell us what they were accustomed to." In addition to the authentic sounds and feel of war, what most movie goers will not be accustomed to (except, perhaps, younger audiences who have grown up watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other fare) is the detailed look of death and dying (a radioman with his face blown in, a soldier looking about in dumb shock for his severed left arm, a young Ranger with his intestines exposed, another with the bottom half of his torso blown away) as created by Spielberg's special effects team.

The remarkable photography by Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, The Lost World, Amistad) enhances the horror. To create the illusion of real battle, Spielberg's cameraman went to extraordinary lengths to replicate World War II combat footage (as well as the images from Frank Capra's still photographs of the Normandy landings). "We wanted to create the illusion that there were several combat cameramen landing with the troops at Normandy." He studied, for example, the lenses used by wartime photographers and employed devices to force the camera to react to explosions. Additionally, they employed handheld cameras to record the action. (Some editing techniques in Saving Private Ryan will be familiar to fans of MTV.) Thus, the battle scenes have a raw, uneven look.

But something besides graphic violence and innovative camera work explains the extraordinary reception that the film has generated in the media (National Public Radio, The New Yorker; The New York Times, The Village Voice, and a Newsweek cover story) beyond the standard reviews that any film by Spielberg generates. No one today expects Hollywood to be enslaved to the conventions regarding violence (or sex for that matter) of the 1940s. But the first 25 or 26 minutes of Spielberg's movie are truly unique, although anticipated by other films (Platoon in particular). Previous movies used graphic violence (Full Metal Jacket, for example) to carry an anti-war message. Private Ryan is not anti-war; rather, it is a bloody memorial to the veterans of the crusade against Hitler. The director's message is this: War is a horrible, wasteful thing. See what horrors these men endured to destroy the Nazis. Point and counterpoint pull the viewer back and forth between the sentimental and the hard-edged. The old vet in the cemetery at the beginning and ending of the film, General Marshall's reading (twice) of the Bixby Letter, and Tom Hank's last words to Private Ryan convey half the message; the other half is found in the three major action scenes of the film - the landing at Omaha Beach, the attack on the German machine gun position, and the defense of the bridgehead.

We may leave the film with the conviction that war is hell, but not the belief that this war was unworthy of sacrifice. George Will emphasized this in his column in Newsweek (August 17, 1998), using the occasion to lament the decline of military history as an academic subject and to take a gratuitous swipe at Bill Clinton: "Viewers leave the theaters shaken, sometimes in tears, with their patriotism enriched by a quickened sense of the pain that brought contemporary pleasures." He sees the film, despite Spielberg's well-known support for the President, as an unintended admonition to the man in the White House. "The men who fought in World War II were drawn from the vast reservoir of American decency.... When next we need their like, we will find some of them among those who have recoiled from the indecent example of today's commander-in-chief,'' he asserts. Hendrik Hertzberg (New Yorker, July 27, 1998) declared Private Ryan to be a landmark film that takes moral and commercial risks to tell the true story of World War II. Unlike other violent movies, he observes, this one does not seek to excite the viewer or to convey any conventional patriotic message: "It is closer to in spirit to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans memorial on the Mall in Washington than the flag-planting Iwo Jima statue across the Potomac."

Poor John Wayne. Some commentators have taken the opportunity to denigrate the images he created on film (The Sands of Iwo Jima) as a way of praising the honesty of Private Ryan and distinguishing it from earlier war pictures ("No John Wayne Soldiers in Movie," Richard Cohen, Washington Post). They miss the point. Wayne's characters were mythical figures representing the values of American culture not real soldiers or real Marines in real combat. But a myth is not a lie. Just because John Wayne made movies with a different agenda does not mean his films are without value or less honest in their intent than recent, more realistic motion pictures about war. There is more than one way to tell the story about men in war.

For his part, Steven Ambrose has been effusive and uncritical in his praise for Private Ryan. As an historical consultant during production and a media promoter afterwards, he has appeared on public radio and in the press extolling the virtues of Spielberg's movie and the generation that won the last great war. This is not surprising; the picture seems to be the film adaptation of Ambrose's two histories of the Normandy campaign (D-Day, June 6, 1944 and Citizen Soldiers). The story of the Ryans is based, apparently, on a brief passage in D-Day about the four Niland brothers.

Not all, however, have been as impressed with Spielberg's opus as Ambrose. After what has become the now obligatory compliments about the first battle scene, Amy Taubin, writing for The Village Voice web-site (July 21, 1998), took a few irreverent shots at Ryan. It is, in her estimation, a "high-minded horror" flick that lacks the courage of its convictions. The sniper in the unit reminds her of the kind of oddball who massacres people from atop the University of Texas bell tower. The family that accompanies the elderly Private Ryan to the Normandy cemetery looks like "a cross between a Saturday Evening Post cover and Dawn of the Dead". Writing for the National Review (August 17, 1998), John Simon was critical of the shallow characters: "Authenticity ... must not be an end in itself. It has to be transcended, in this case by making (Captain) Miller and his men absorbing and memorable human beings." Although technically masterful, "Private Ryan is a great exercise in gratuitousness. Paul Fussell observed, in an interview on NPR, that after the initial engagement the film becomes a boy's adventure story. Others hold that the horrors distract the audience and thereby entirely overwhelm any other messages in the film.

The scene in which Private Ryan's mother sees the priest emerge from the car and she realizes that someone has been killed (she does not yet know that three of her sons are dead) is as powerful as any of the action scenes: She steps out onto the porch and in silent agony slowly sits down to await the news - carefully she reaches down and adjusts her skirt over her knees. It says as much, perhaps more, about the tragedy of war as all the fake blood thrown at the camera.

Whether a masterpiece of American cinema or something less, Saving Private Ryan takes the history of combat seriously. It may not be the greatest war film ever made, but military historians, at least, owe Spielberg a debt. And for those who never saw a battle, Spielberg has enriched the imagination. With a new production of James Jones's The Thin Red Line due in movie theaters this December, we will have another opportunity to compare a celluloid war with the real thing.