If Steven Spielberg were to be categorized into a genre, it is more than likely that he would be a director best known for fantasy films. But it is often forgotten that he is also a director of war films. This began with a comedy, 1941 (1979), then a war movie through the eyes of a young man in Empire of the Sun (1987) before his heavy Holocaust masterpiece, Schindler’s List in 1993. He returned to this genre in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan. But Saving Private Ryan is very different from any of these previous films. Epic in scale as a war movie it is also a drama that has more in common with the war films of Samuel Fuller than any of the aforementioned films, and more of the big cinematic scale of an epic than the brooding noirish drama of a Fuller picture. Even if seen just the once it is a highly memorable film about grief, humanity and the de-sensitization of the human condition by war. We learn halfway through the film that Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) was a school teacher, teaching English before the war and not the career soldier we are led to believe (but then again the thought of Hanks as a career soldier doesn’t ring true either). The other characters are largely made up of ‘types’ that you’d expect to see in a war film about a company – there are Italian, Irish, Jewish New York and New Jersey guys and mid-American Caucasian types throughout.
The story itself, as simple as it is, is about humanity and redemption. Following the slaughter of the D-day Omaha Beach landings, Capt. Miller is ordered to put together a unit of soldiers to look for a Private James Francis Ryan, the last of four brothers, the other three having been recently killed in action. The War Department orders the military to find this fourth brother and bring him back home. Miller pulls together a company of eight men, including a rather naïve translator (Jeremy Davies) who is jibed by the more battle experienced troops around him. They advance through the ruins of French towns and countryside in search of Ryan facing death along the way and ask themselves why their lives are worth less than finding this other soldier.
The opening twenty-five minutes are jaw dropping and some of the most impressive applied to film. This is not the only battle/action scene worthy of merit; there are many throughout the films almost 170 minutes. Asides these scenes there is one scene that sticks in the mind and that is the eye-to-eye combat scene between the German soldier and Private Mellish (played by Adam Goldberg) in which the German soldier finally overpowers Mellish and sinks his knife into his heart while stroking his hair and shushing him. This scene draws a comparison to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in which the main character of Paul (Lew Ayres), a German soldier kills a French soldier in hand to hand fighting in a bomb crater and is forced to lie next to his dead defeated opponent for many hours. There is genuine human tenderness and warmth in that scene and a wrestle with the conscience in that scene, less so in the scene in Saving Private Ryan that leaves a rather chilling mark, aided by the whimpering Corporal Upham (Davies) witnessing the scene but frozen in fear to do anything in retaliation. The German soldier gets up and walks away leaving Upham crying.
The opening aforementioned battle scene is surely the best in cinema history since All Quiet on the Western Front; so much so that on its release it received high plaudits from veteran groups. It received instant critical appraisal, maybe not as much as Schindler’s List, but enough to be listed as one of the best war movies ever made. The attention to detail in the opening battle scene alone was enough for it to win high praise and received praise for its realism that put veterans memories right back into the line of fire. It has felt that the films Spielberg made between Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (with the exception of Amistad, 1997) were really made to get bums on seats as he produced and executive produced many films along the way. However, many critics also saw that in-between the action this is just a standard war movie which is an opinion that can be respected, but it is gelled together by Hanks’s performance as he gains tragic redemption through the film to its dénouement. Beyond the clichés there is an overall sense that Spielberg has a strong knowledge of his subject – or surely enough he mastered one as he went through the film.
Beyond Hanks, there is an upcoming cast that is superb and many cut their teeth with this film: Matt Damon, Adam Goldberg, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi to name a few. Saving Private Ryan is ultimately a masterclass in big budget filmmaking and a highly rewarding one for its director. Spielberg has clearly watched films like the aforementioned ones and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and gone to town with it and it is only with maturity was he able to make one so good. Had he made it a few years before it would have been something more like, in his own words Where Eagles Dare. It is largely action throughout and the only times we withdraw from the frontline is when the War Department discover the link between the deaths of the three brothers and deliver the letters to their mother amidst the golden coloured hues of the mid-West farm. The film is deliberately made for an American audience, even if it did resonate with an audience around the world; there are many shots of the stars and stripes, the oft irritating brass of John Williams’ patriotic score and the romance of America at home. This is classic romantic Hollywood and one that Spielberg clearly is at home in. So successful and satisfying was this project that Hanks and Spielberg not only went on to collaborate on other films together, but they also went on to work together on the epic TV drama in 2001, Band of Brothers which has a clear similarity to Saving Private Ryan.