the best of literature, film and music, shown through my rather short-sighted eyes
A 2008 Channel 4 voters poll placed Steven Spielberg’s WW2 drama Saving Private Ryan as the best war movie ever made. I have a problem with this. The film, which follows Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad on a mission to rescue a soldier trapped behind enemy lines whose three brothers have been killed in action, is undoubtedly excellent and few films, before or since, can match it for the sheer carnage of its battle scenes, but that’s just it. War movies should not be about battle scenes but should be focused on how human beings endeavour to cope with the evil effects of war, and Saving Private Ryan’s human element is too much of an afterthought. It is therefore a film with A-grade production values and a couple of obvious flaws that can probably be regarded as a B+.
Nevertheless, nothing can match the film for the sheer visceral power of its battle scenes. Masterfully handled by Spielberg, the director and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski pioneered techniques that are now staples of combat pictures: adjustment of the shutter 90 degrees to increase realism, an image shaker used to approximate the impact of explosions and the shooting of the action from the infantryman’s view point. The results are astonishing and are best showed in two scenes. Firstly, as Miller crawls onto Omaha Beach, temporarily deafened by an explosion, he stares limply at the devastation around him : the sea literally runs red, a soldier searches for his own severed arm and burning men desperately try to escape the flames of their landing craft. No sound, no dialogue. Spielberg simply lets the sickening sights do the talking. Secondly, witness the sheer terror, as Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg)-machine-gun destroyed, rifle empty and his comrade bleeding to death on the floor-desperately engages an SS trooper in a savage fist fight to save his own life. Gone are any notions of the ennobling effect of war. It boils down to survival, pure and simple, and the fact that Mellish is stabbed to death with his own knife, gives the scene a real visceral kick. Away from the action, Hanks delivers a fine performance as Miller, a man desperately trying to complete his mission and maintain his sanity, whilst the strong supporting cast (including Edward Burns, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore) flesh out the admittedly stereotypical characters presented to them and help make Saving Private Ryan a jolting, unforgettable experience.
However, I have two main gripes against this film. Firstly, the coda in the graveyard is regrettably a mawkish, overly-sentimental mess. The second is less to do with the workings of the film and more the overall message. The concluding battle at Ramelle, while just as the brutal as the Omaha Beach sequences, is regrettably relegated to a simple good-versus-evil confrontation, as the outnumbered Americans desperately try defend a bridge against overwhelming enemy forces. The film’s supposed anti-war message is weakened by the underlying jingoism and the idea that “War is hell, but at least WW2 was a good war”. Saving Private Ryan is an excellent war film. But the best war movie ever made? I don’t think so.