Many films have been made glorifying war: from Sands of Iwo Jima to American Sniper, American films in particular like to depict soldiers who fight the country’s battles across the globe in a heroic light. And, to be fair, there have been numerous anti-war films made–All Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Paths of Glory are some of the more notable, which depict the state of war as one where anarchy, injustice, brutality, and of course extreme violence reign. But few films find the balance that is the reality of war: where battles are fought by the young and scared and led by people who find themselves with great, unwanted responsibilities thrust upon them, and more often than not are hesitant to kill and are traumatized when they do. This doesn’t make them cowards–it makes them human.
When Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, it was one of those rare war films that confesses the necessity of such an enterprise while also depicting the fear that soldiers felt on the battlefield. The opening scene of the battle of Omaha Beach on D-Day, the Normandy Invasion, remains perhaps the most realistic depiction of battlefield conditions in World War II ever committed to film.
The many American casualties suffered in that operation were not of Gung-ho heroes running screaming proud towards the enemy but 18-year-old boys who months earlier were safely back home getting ready for prom or working their first job out of high school. They were scared, all right: who wouldn’t be? When you watch as every other person around you get their face shot off or blown to bits by a grenade or simply stop moving forward forever and collapse after a bullet ripped through their chest, you’d be afraid too. You’d be terrified.
But that fear still didn’t stop them from moving forward, amassing more and more casualties as they breached the fortress strongholds from which the Germans were blowing them away from on high. A soldier would fall and another took his place. Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) sends a dozen men to their deaths attempting to penetrate German defenses–not because he wanted to but because it simply had to be done to accomplish what they needed to that day. Heroism isn’t doing something dangerous because you want to but accomplishing the task at hand–against every instinct, bit of logic, and moral fiber of your being–because it has to be done.
And Captain Miller and his team break through and breach the German defenses, eventually overtaking the mounted guns that had just indiscriminately mowed down so many American soldiers, shooting German soldiers up-close as they storm the fortress. When the fighting comes to a halt and the day is won, these soldiers don’t whoop and holler and congratulate each other: they cry. They look back at the body-strewn beach in shock. They feel overwhelmed that they somehow survived.
If Saving Private Ryan was just that opening sequence, it would already be a masterpiece. But Steven Spielberg reveals throughout the film the all-too-human faces and emotions that comprised the American fighting forces of World War II: mostly young men from typical backgrounds who weren’t professional soldiers but volunteers; middle-aged men who assumed command positions based on their age; people who didn’t want to be there and wanted nothing but for the fighting to end so they could go home.
Tom Hanks as Captain Miller elucidates this sentiment best as he reveals to his company what his occupation was back home and now he’s now fearful that his experiences in the war has fundamentally changed him: “I’m a schoolteacher. I teach English composition… in this little town called Adley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of the baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it’s a big, a big mystery. So, I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today.”
Of course, it’s difficult not to make the soldiers that fought in WWII out to be heroic, larger-than-life figures. With every passing year as the world moves further away from that hellish event where hundreds of thousands of young American men laid down their lives to secure the future we now live in, I wonder if my generation, or the generation behind mine, would be willing make such a sacrifice. Would the young men of today sign up For God and Country to be shipped thousands of miles away to fight an enemy to the death with no guarantee of ever coming back home? It’s difficult to say no, but there also seems to be little left in the hearts and minds of younger Americans that unify them and make them identify so strongly with what were once called American values that they would embark on a great cause such as those who entered combat in WWII.
But that’s the thesis statement of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan: that these human, all too human, soldiers were scared and angry and reluctant–but they did it anyway. They would sacrifice their youth, their sanity, and even their lives to fight against the scourge of fascism. Not because they wanted to but because they had to.
Spielberg being a master storyteller provides the audience with a cast of soldiers to like and identify with–mostly young men who find moments of humanity and humor in the grisly world they find themselves in. “The Statue of Liberty is kaput. That’s disconcerting,” cracks one of the privates as he translates the propaganda being blared over loudspeakers. They joke and bust each other’s balls and poke fun at their Captain like they would their boss at the grocery store back home–and probably just to feel normal for a few moments. And when they fall, one by one, they get angry and mourn their fallen comrade but never lose sight of their mission.
About their mission: itself a noble–if not particularly strategically sound–quest is to track down the surviving son of the Ryan family after his three brothers are all killed in combat and return him home. Captain Miller and Co. gripe about their mission to save Private Ryan, and the further they penetrate into enemy territory, the more men they lose along the way. At the height of mounting tensions, a private loses his composure and confronts Captain Miller if this one stranger they’ve never met is worth more than the men they had lost on their mission to track him down.
As if a rhetorical question was asked as to why they should jeopardize their own lives for the sake of the war itself, Captain Miller answers: “ I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if… You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.” The word earning means something so profound in this film that it echoes through generations from the time period of this movie that nearly shames its audience for taking our American freedoms for granted.
It’s no coincidence that when they track down Ryan, only to aid him and his company in defending a key bridge from invading forces, while Cap. Miller lays dying by Ryan’s side, his last words to Ryan are “earn this.”
And the way of life in America is what veterans of WWII earned: an open capitalist society that allows its citizens to live freely and follow their own pursuit of happiness. They fought to keep this way of life from falling, and that generation earned its right to this life.
It’s now been over 70 years since the end of major operations in World War II; it’s probably the last noble and just war we ever fought. Most of the men who fought in that war have passed by now–in another decade or two all living memory of the war will be gone and it will become just another war in the history books, only survived by grainy black-and-white footage and in the memories of the children and grandchildren of those who saw active combat.
This makes Saving Private Ryan more than just another war movie: it’s a historical document of sorts, bringing WWII to modern audiences in a format they can understand, in vivid color, and featuring a cross-section of the Average Joes that fought and sacrificed and died for the continuation of a world that we now live in today. Not only Spielberg’s best movie, it’s his most important movie. Further decades that pass from today, when even the children of the soldiers that fought in WWII have passed on and the only memories left of the actual people that fought are in the war reside in the increasingly hazy memories of their grandchildren who listened as Pop-Pop talked about his time in the war as an old man, Saving Private Ryan will be as crystal-clear and impactful as the day its first print was struck. It’s an important work that needs to be regarded and viewed as such: memories fade but this film never will.
It’s a film about heroes who never sought to be heroic and honors them as human beings willing to sacrifice potentially everything to keep America’s way of life intact, in whatever small way decency and morality manifests itself in the chaos of war and why these values are so important to retain to begin with.
Even if you don’t like how America is today, remember that you have retained the right to disagree with its politics, culture, economics, and society because someone fought for your right to hold your view. Because people died for it. This Memorial Day, there is no more perfect movie to watch to honor those who fought America’s battles than screening Saving Private Ryan. Because it’s the truth and it’s a truth worth remembering.