Thursday, April 11, 2013




         “Saving Private Ryan” won Academy Awards for Cinematography, Sound Effects Editing, Sound Mixing, and Film Editing. It won BAFTAs for Best Sound and Best Special Effects. The opening combat scene is a tour de force. Spielberg used amputees to realistically depict dismemberments. The most amazing shots are the underwater shots which included men being hit by bullets. The sounds of battle have seldom been better done. Listen for the bullets ricocheting off the beach obstacles. The monstrous roar of the Tiger tanks in the final battle is straight out of a horror movie. It could be argued that SPR has the best sound and visual effects of any war movie.

         “When Trumpets Fade” was a low budget film and was on the opposite end of the spectrum with regard to money available for effects. With that said, they got a lot of bang for their bucks. The film came out in 1998 (the same year as SPR), so you can not accuse the director (John Irvin of “Hamburger Hill” fame) of cribbing. Irvin gets the environment right. The men are wallowing in mud or moving through a foggy forest landscape. The most impressive effects are the explosions from mines and artillery. It is the first movie I can recall that has realistic tree bursts. (Later topped in “Band of Brothers”.) The hellish landscape of the river crossing is perhaps overdone, but still impressive.

Saving Private Ryan 10
When Trumpets Fade 8


          SPR is a small unit dynamics movie. The ensemble is an interesting one and of average clicheness. One interesting aspect of the character development is the mystery of Capt. Miller’s background which is held until a dramatic moment in the film. Before we learn Miller was a teacher, we subtly learn he suffers from combat stress and does not follow orders without being cynical about them. He also is human and makes mistakes (e.g., the assault on the radar station and allowing the German to live). None of the other squad members gets a back-story, but they all get their moments to flesh out their characters. I would not call them multi-dimensional, but they are not cardboard. Their deaths are all heart-tugging because we know enough about each to care.

          WTF (oops, I’ll call it “Trumpets” from here on) also concentrates on a small unit, but includes some second tier characters from the officer class (Capt. Pritchett is particularly intriguing). Manning is the main character and we learn little about why he has the type of personality he has. There are clear implications that his cynicism and anti-authority attitude was based on losing his previous squad and best friend. Other than Manning, the other characters are pretty one-dimensional, but do represent some interesting types. Each character develops in relation to Manning.

Saving Private Ryan 18
When Trumpets Fade 14


           SPR set the gold standard for war movie deaths. It is firmly in the tradition of the patrol unit / “who will survive?” trope. This type of thing has been done many times before and doubtless will be done again. One thing that sets SPR apart from a movie like “Cross of Iron” is the gut-wrenching quality of the deaths of the unit members. The stand-out here is the death of the medic Wade. Not only is the acting terrific by Giovanni Ribisi, but the scenario is unique. Even Vin Diesel gets a death scene not worthy of his acting skills. Mellish’s death is very powerful and tough to watch. The movie concludes with one of the great surprise deaths in war movie history.

          “Trumpets” opens with a scene that is opposite in style to the opening of SPR. In SPR we get an inspired choreography of death, “Trumpets” features the death of one man – Manning’s buddy Bobby (Jeffrey Donovan of “Burn Notice”). It is poignant and has some similarities to Wade’s. Another death has Manning shooting a squad member who is panicking. Not as powerful, but thought provoking. The movie comes full circle in the end to mirror the opening scene which is a bit heavy-handed, but effective.

Saving Private Ryan 28
When Trumpets Fade 22


          The one major weakness of SPR is the implausibilities in the plot. I am not referring to the overall construct of a mission to rescue a single soldier after the deaths of his brothers. That fantasy is firmly backed by the actual story of the Nieland brothers and besides, the movie is clearly fictional. It is plausible that the high command (in this case Gen. Marshall himself) would have ordered the mission. With that said, there are several Spielsbergian moments in the film that were obviously put in to advance the plot. Someone has to die in Neuville to establish the “who will survive?” theme. It was wise to kill off Vin Diesel early, but having him take the little girl was ridiculous. Miller’s decision to assault the radar station can only logically be explained as a way to kill Wade, start the evil German arc, and introduce some unit dysfunctionality. In reality, the reason Miller gives for going off-mission to lead an attack that would certainly get at least one of his group killed would only make sense if Miller was incompetent and clueless. After developing the idea that Miller was grudgingly following orders to accomplish a mission he disagreed with, it made absolutely no sense for him to risk the mission like he did. Worse, the scene begins the extremely implausible arc that has the freed German killing two members of the squad and himself being killed by his biggest supporter. Can you say IRONIC? Pure Spielberg! Pure bull shit.

           “Trumpets’ is also fictional and also manipulative of the audience. The opening and closing scenes are supposed to be ironic. The central construct that a reluctant and openly insubordinate warrior would be promoted by men who obviously disdain his attitude is ridiculous, but clearly necessary for plot development. The decision of the trio (all of whom dislike Manning) to go on a suicide mission with him strains credulity. Sanderson’s (the fat guy) survival is not likely, but you have to give credit for breaking the “fat guy always dies” cliché. Where SPR would still be great without its implausibilities, “Trumpets” could not exist without its Hollywoodisms. By the way, “Trumpets” also has a recurring German character, but his limited appearances do not seem forced.

Saving Private Ryan 34
When Trumpets Fade 30


           It was a nice run for the Cinderella “When Trumpets Fade”, but it just did not have the power to overcome such a heavyweight. The performance of “Trumpets” does give hope to all those low budget war movies out there. It is possible to go toe-to-toe with the megamovies. However, it is extremely important to have a great script and great acting if you want to stand out and “Trumpets” has those ingredients. It helps to be different. With that said, SPR is the superior movie and deserved to win. It has its detractors and some will feel that “Trumpets” should have pulled the upset, but SPR overcomes its implausibilities with brilliance in many other categories and money does buy great effects, great actors, and a great director.


          Both movies are based on books by Cornelius Ryan. They are both classics. I consulted Amazon and found that TLD has a rating of 4.8 compared to ABTF’s 4.7. As far as military consultants/technical advisers, TLD had 24. The standouts were Gen. Blumentritt, Lt. Gen. Gavin, Maj. Howard, Col. Priller, Maj. Kieffer, and Lucie Rommel. ABTF had 6 consultants. They included Gen. Gavin, Lt. Gen. Horrocks, and Maj. Gen. Urquhart. Of course, ABTF was made in 1977 so fewer participants were still alive.
The Longest Day 10
A Bridge Too Far 9


          “The Longest Day” came out eighteen years after D-Day. It was the perfect time to come out with the definitive take on the famous battle. The movie is sometimes described as a docudrama which is a testament to its educational value because it is inaccurate to equate it with a documentary. The brilliance of the movie is in its presentation of the background incidents before the landings. The audience is clearly apprised of allied strategy and German confusion. Amazingly, this preparatory information (the first fifty three minutes of the film) is done in an entertaining manner. Almost seventy years later, there is still no better film for telling the story of D-Day to a movie audience. On a personal note, I have shown this movie to my students and even though it is in black and white and educational, they enjoy it.

         “A Bridge Too Far” is very similar to TLD in structure and goals. It deserves credit for bringing recognition to a much less known campaign. Plus because it was a loss, it took guts to make the movie from a financial stand point. I found that it does not do as good a job of “teaching” the battle. There is much less strategy coverage. More than with TLD, you would need to know more about the subject going in to truly understand what is happening. Still, since most intelligent people had at least a vague idea about D-Day, but few knew anything about “Operation Market Garden”, ABTF certainly did a great service to history.
The Longest Day 20
A Bridge Too Far 17


           This category refers to three things: opposing sides, Allies, and brass to boots. TLD establishes a pattern early of covering both the Anglo-American perspective and the Germans. I did not use a stop watch, but it appears that in the 53 minute opening act the movie gives equal treatment to the leadership of both sides. Obviously, once the landings begin, we get less coverage of the German perspective, but they are still interweaved into the narrative. As far as the Allies, I can’t see where there could have been much complaint from the British about the movie being too “American”. Unlike other American-made war films, this film does not give the impression the Yanks won the war by themselves. The Ste. Mere Eglise scenes are balanced by the Pegasus Bridge sequences. The Omaha Beach scenes are balanced by action on Sword. The French get the attack on Ouistreham and nice coverage of the Resistance. Only the Canadians have a right to complain. Of the seven major events (Pegasus Bridge, Ste. Mere Eglise, Omaha, Sword, Utah, Pointe Du Hoc, Ouistreham) reenacted in the movie, four are American efforts. That seems fair. As far as coverage of command versus soldiers, the movie is very strong. There are numerous “grunts” depicted (Schultz, Steele, Fuller, Pluskat) along with the commanders (Howard, Lovat, Cota, Vandervort).

            ABTF was obviously modeled after TLD. The structure of jumping back and forth between the British command and the German generals who were going to be affected is similar, although the movie does not spend as much time with the Germans. The movie is fairly balanced between the Americans and British. The director was British (Richard Attenborough) and the key audience was American so that is not surprising. It appears he throws in the river crossing to let Americans have some action, to add a grand set piece, and to justify Robert Redford’s salary. The Dutch Resistance gets its due (although it is not comparable to TLD’s coverage of the French and it does not have Janine). When it comes to brass versus boots, “Bridge” is heavily command-centric. There is really only one common soldier character (Dohun) and he appears and disappears in one segment. Whereas in TLD, several grunts are introduced early and then are tracked throughout the film.
The Longest Day 30
A Bridge Too Far 25


           TLD is based on a well-researched book, but Ryan was not trying to write the definitive history of Operation Overlord. He was writing a history of the battle from the perspective of the participants. The book is a collection of vignettes surrounded by the facts of the invasion. It is macrohistory from a microhistory perspective. Certainly a documentary like the D-Day episode of the “World at War” series is more accurate. However, if you get your history from Hollywood (which unfortunately is the case for most), TLD is as good as it’s going to get and much more entertaining than a documentary. There are some inaccuracies, but most are minor. Some examples include that Rupert was actually a sand-filled dummy and the battle noises were provided by paratroopers that dropped with them. There was no casino any more in Ouistreham (it had been replaced by a bunker) and there were no nuns. The 82nd Airborne had the clickers, not the 101st. Small stuff like that. There is one major howler. In the film, Omaha beach is “won” by blowing a hole in a concrete wall and it’s on to Berlin. This is way too simplistic and short-changes the heroic small group actions that actually got the forces onto the bluff.

           “Bridge” is very similar to TLD on the accuracy front. Not surprising since it came from a book by the same author. It has the same strength of retelling history in an entertaining and informative way with mostly minor Hollywoodisms. One example of the influence of Hollywood is the Dohun scene which tweaks the real story in several ways to make it more entertaining. In comparison, the battle for the Arnhem Bridge is more accurate than TLD’s Omaha Beach reenactment. Plus, you can argue “Bridge” gets more leniency because it chooses to bring light to a fairly obscure campaign. I also think that unlike TLD, “Bridge’s” military consultants were on set to make sure Attenborough did not stray far from reality. Gen. Urquhart described the film as a “reasonably accurate spectacular”.

The Longest Day 38
A Bridge Too Far 33


            The father of epic battle reenactments defeated one of his sons. The apple did not fall far from the tree. Of all the war epics that concentrate on a battle, these are the two that are most alike. I would argue that the only movie in the subgenre that is superior to “A Bridge Too Far” is “The Longest Day”. “Bridge” was an admirable effort to duplicate its progenitor, but its subject matter is just not as compelling.

Saving Private Ryan (1) vs.
The Longest Day (2)

1 comment:

  1. One other common complaint about SPR (from the standpoint of technical accuracy) is that a captain would not be assigned to lead such a small unit or detail. Hanks said in an interview that he thought that Miller should have been a lieutenant, but that Spielberg wanted the character to be a captain. Re: the clickers in TLD, I seem to remember the 82nd Airborne having them in the movie. Wayne, as Lt. Col. Vandervort (apparently a battalion commander in the 82nd) is the one who demonstrates them.


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