Saving Private Ryan

Paramount, 1998

What could have otherwise been Steven Spielberg’s masterwork is a jumbled hodgepodge of elements – thematic and atmospheric – both trite and amazing. As one might expect, the director succumbs to his usual audience gratifying sentimentality in a pair of utterly inappropriate and entirely worthless modern bookend sequences before getting down to business with a ruthless abandon.

The acclaimed D-Day invasion sequence is an absolutely unparalleled achievement, as a master director focuses every lesson learned throughout his career in a horrifying depiction of the futility and violence faced by the first men off the boats on an enemy occupied beachhead. Few, if any, filmmakers could have mounted such a savage and visceral depiction of the horrors of war. The documentary style, with its handheld jumpiness and unflinching brutality, paints a portrait of smoke, explosions, chaos, fire, and death.

The silence is deafening as the men go over the sides of the landing craft to be dragged to the bottom by their heavy gear, or riddled by machinegun fire from the pillboxes on the hills. Echoing a scene that frequent Spielberg collaborator George Lucas saw fit to excise from the international version of Kagemusha which he “produced” with Francis Coppola, a dismembered soldier roams the beach looking for his missing arm. It is his only objective, this restoration of self. But once he discovers the missing limb, he is summarily perforated by a stream of lead. This clearly, is not your father’s war movie. There is no John Wayne striding heroically up the beach, mindless of the danger. It is an unflinching indictment of War. There is nothing to admire. Nothing to mimic in backyard games and treehouses. No snappy patter. No orchestral swell as the heroes charge forth. This is as close to war as anything ever exposed on film.

It is a chilling reflection of the horrors faced by the men who fought and died in this most supported of American Wars. And yet, despite this triumphant opening, Spielberg almost immediately descends into his usual familiar vacuous and pandering territory. What begins as the most powerful anti-war statement ever inflicted on moviegoers, quickly becomes a failed remake of the old Combat TV series (which it works hard to ape stylistically), in which the Americans can be depended upon to save the day.

Yet again, the GI’s swing into action, though this time no one will be whistling peppy martial numbers from the soundtrack. John Williams turns in a score which, while skillfully competent and appropriately somber, clearly indicates that his glory days best evidenced in such work as The Reivers, Jaws, The Cowboys, and Raiders of the Lost Ark are long since behind him.

The performances are decent, but uninspired, owing largely to a script that does no one any favors. Every cliche from the past fifty years of war films is trotted out, and given an ever so slight nudge in the vain hope that more gore and the appearance of seriousness will make unsuspecting audiences think it’s original.

Perhaps the only thing of value to be found in the abysmal bookends is the almost unnoticeable presence of Kathleen Byron, who film fans will remember most prominently as Sister Ruth, the nun who grows increasingly tormented and psychopathic in Michael Powell’s brilliant adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus.

The fact that the titular Ryan not only survives, but goes strolling through the Normandy cemeteries trying to ascertain whether or not he was a “good person” is enough to convince even the most naive audience member that the film would have been far more effective and satisfying had he suffered a hideous onscreen fate. At least then, the whining would have been mercifully brief. Alas, Private Ryan was saved. But only to serve as an existential annoyance. The accolades to be heaped upon Private Ryan are due only to Spielberg’s successes, and if anyone bothers to criticize what the film becomes... these too should be laid at his door.