There are two main things that I am reminded of whenever I see Saving Private Ryan. First off, like the rest of my family, I remember that my grandfather was part of the invasion of Normandy. To imagine my own grandfather among the bullets, blood, death and gore shown in this gritty take on the reality of war here is a bit disturbing. Then I am reminded of the men who did not make it off the beach, the family trees that had an entire branch severed off on the battlefield. Papa may not have realized it that day, but it was not only his life he fought for, but that of his entire future family. Saving Private Ryan is a rare kind of war movie that not only thanks our greatest generation for the sacrifices they made for us, but remembers their hardships and those who fell.
The film begins with an old war veteran and his family visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. With his children and grandchildren relaxed and taking pictures, he walks ahead, trying to hide a mix of determination and anxiety on his face, but in front of cross bearing a familiar name, he falls to his knees. Then we’re taken back to the war.
It is the second scene in the film, the landing on Omaha beach scene, that everyone remembers best about Saving Private Ryan. Unlike the old war films that inspired men to go off to war, Spielberg does not spare us any of the horrors of war. The first time I saw this, I was honestly shocked and sickened. I was only a teenager, and there were young men, just like my grandfather once was, not much older than myself, preparing for battle one moment and blown to pieces the next. Everything is so intensely gory and realistic the ideas of war being glorious were completely shattered for me.
The camera’s point of view, at times, puts the audience in the soldier’s perspective. We are brought along as they move out of the boats, under the water, muffling the sound, and towards the beach. Now and then a quick splatter of gore hits the camera lens. When finally on the beach, there are a few shots where Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes a moment and just looks around at everything happening. The sound is replaced with a white noise so that we focus on the terrible things we see. A man’s pack explodes, setting the men around him on fire. A man picks up his own arm, another cowers trying to shield himself. Men run out of a boat in flames. As bombs explode in the water, Miller is showered in bloody water. The invasion scene alone could have been an Oscar worthy short, it’s an amazing film experience, where the volume must be cranked up for the best effect.
The meat of the film takes place after the invasion, where Miller is given the mission to find a young Private, James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), and send him home. Miller and a seven other men risk their own lives trekking through France, pretty much looking for a needle in a haystack.
But why would eight men risk their lives for one private? When a woman in The War Department offices realizes that a mother is about to receive three separate letters informing her that three of her sons have been killed in action, she takes notice. She realizes that there is a fourth son who parachuted in somewhere in northern France. It’s a wonderful thing to think about people caring enough to take notice and act quickly to save the young Ryan before his family tree is completely chopped down by this war. But we soon see that saving Ryan’s life comes with the price of others.
Saving Private Ryan is not for any squeamish viewers, nor would I say it’s a perfect fit for your ultra patriotic ‘ooh-rah’ crowd. This is not a war film where we celebrate victory or enjoy watching Germans get kicked down a peg. By watching Saving Private Ryan, we are supposed to find new understanding of the hardships that our greatest generation faced, especially the fallen we never knew.
“He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.”