Favourite War Film - Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998)
It was a two horse race really in this particular genre for me; there are hundreds of action movies I like, quite a lot I really like, but only two which immediately occurred to me as real contenders. They’re the film efforts of two of Hollywood’s biggest directors, dealing with real historical battles and presenting gripping tales of individual soldiers in larger conflicts. The two films were Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’ and Stephen Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’.
In the end I decided on the World War Two epic for a number of reasons, which will form the body of this post.
The only place to start any essay on ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is that opening scene, the D-Day beach landing. ‘Ryan’ is on my list of films I’d love the chance to see in a cinema rather than on DVD and that scene is the main reason. Opening in a landing craft speeding towards the beach the audience is immediately put in amongst a group of U.S soldiers waiting for the door to drop with a combination of fear and anticipation. Already the sounds and sights of war are intense but it is the moment the door falls and the beach is unveiled that the film comes into its own; instantly several of the troops drop dead from bullets and then pure, visceral chaos breaks loose as the troops try to make it onto the beach and up to something resembling cover.
Only a few minutes into the film and Spielberg confronts the audience with the reality that an entire boatful of young men can be wiped out in seconds and it’s that unflinching approach that makes the opening 30 or so minutes utterly riveting but heartbreaking watching.
The audience are left to witness the senseless and random nature of who lives and dies, stripping away ideas of heroism or individual decisions to a sheer fight to stay alive and questions of luck. The genius of the scene is that by doing that, it allows the moments of bravery that follow throughout the film to seem both more real and more respectable in the face of such a brutal reality.
Also by showing such horrific levels of bloodshed and death in the opening half an hour, once it is established who the main protagonists are, we have developed an intense attachment to them; having survived the beach landing with them we fear the tragedy of those efforts being in vain.
Tom Hanks is excellent as Captain John H. Miller, the leader of a squad of men sent to rescue the eponymous Private Ryan (Matt Damon). Battling across Northern France to try and find Ryan, the last of 4 brothers, the other three having died in the past few days, the men repeatedly question the sense in risking so many lives for one soldier and it is Hanks’ performance that makes it believable they would keep fighting. Subtle, authoritative and carrying the human touch Hanks’ is known for, Miller is a true leader and an engaging protagonist.
The final third of the film details a last stand to rival ‘The Alamo’ as Miller and his men, along with Ryan and the troops he was serving with attempt to protect a crucial bridge from an advancing German mechanized unit. It continues the combination of brutality and bravery that runs throughout the entire film and makes for a suitably rousing climax to what is in my opinion the greatest war film ever made.
As a side note, a black mark against Scott’s film is the fact that the Somali angle isn’t even considered and the portrayal of them and their motives is so simplistic a cynic could argue there were racist elements. Now I don’t believe that was his intention but the overly-simplistic take on a complex political issue means I don’t enjoy it quite as unequivocally as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ where the focus is just on a small group of men in an altogether more noble cause, where there at least brief moments of characterization for the Nazi soldiers.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ is incredible entertainment from start to finish but Spielberg never let’s the audience forget just how high the price of war is and it’s that combination that makes this film stand out above its competitors.
Honourable Mentions: Obviously 'Black Hawk Down', but also 'Downfall' for a rare WW2 film focussing on the Germans, 'The Battle of Britain' and 'Dambusters' for their classic status and the music, 'Enemy at the Gates' for focussing on Stalingrad and being incredibly enjoyable if a little shallow, 'Jarhead' & 'The Hurt Locker' for their takes on more modern conflicts and finally 'Days of Glory' for focussing on the relatively untold heroics of the African legions fighting for France in WW2.
Today's song is off of an album i've had for a while, an album which sound tracked the writing of this blog today.