Thursday, February 27, 2014

#8 - Saving Private Ryan (1998)

BACK-STORY:   “Saving Private Ryan” originated from writer Robert Rodat seeing a monument to eight siblings killed in the Civil War.  He brought the idea to producer Mark Gordon.  The movie was a huge critical and box office success.  Made for around $70 million, it made over $480 million and was the highest grossing film of the year.  The Omaha Beach set and reenactment cost $12 million and used 1,500 extras (including amputees) and 40 gallons of fake blood.  The Ramelle set was built from scratch, including the bridge and the river.  It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 5 (Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Film Editing, and Director).  Incredibly it lost Best Picture to “Shakespeare in Love” in the most egregious miscarriage in Oscar history.  Almost as perplexing was Hanks’ loss to Roberto Bergnini.  The movie is currently #71 on AFI’s list of greatest movies of all time.

OPENING:  An old man visits a cemetery with his family in tow.  There are American and French flags on display and rows and rows of crosses and Stars of David.  The camera zooms in on the old veteran’s face.  Flashback time.

SUMMARY:  Members of Charlie Company, 2nd Rangers head for Omaha Beach on D-Day.  They are on board a Higgins Boat.  When the ramp goes down, all hell breaks loose.  Thus begins the most amazing combat scene in war movie history.  The variety of viscerality is overwhelming.  Men getting hit by bullets below the water.  Others drowning due to the weight of their equipment.  A flamethrower crew is incinerated.  A soldier picks up his severed arm.  Someone pulls a torso.  Deaths are random.  Blood turns the water red.  Bullets ping off beach obstacles.  Tracers whiz by.  A medic blocks a wounded soldier with corpses. 

this ain't your granddads war movie
                The sea wall is an only slightly safer refuge.  A doctor performs triage on the wounded.  A chaplain gives last rites.  A soldier prays.  Bangalore torpedoes open up a lane through the barbed wire.  Capt. Miller (Hanks) leads his men against a machine gun nest and then up to the bluff where they take out a bunker and battle Germans in a trench system.  Potential prisoners are killed.  With a lull in the violence, the camera pans over the beach debris.  One of the bodies is a “Ryan, S.”

I see the place where Sgt. Fuller blew a hole in
the concrete barrier
 Back in the Pentagon, a typist notices three death letters to a Ryan family.  When Gen. Marshall is informed that the last surviving Ryan boy is alive in Normandy, he reads a letter written by Lincoln to a Mrs. Bixby who had lost five sons in the Civil War.  Marshall: “If the boy is alive we are going to send somebody to find him and we’re gonna get him the Hell out of there.”

It’s D-Day plus 3 when Miller and his men are given the “public relations mission” of finding PFC James Ryan.  The paratrooper is somewhere behind enemy lines.  Miller takes six of his veterans and adds a nerdy cartographer who speaks German named Upham (Jeremy Davies).  The eight leave on their wild paratrooper chase in a foul mood.  Why are they risking their lives for one guy?  They pass through the town of Neuville so the countdown of who will survive can begin.  There is a myth-busting moment involving an enemy sniper and a Mexican stand-off with a German squad.  And a Ryan who is not James F. Ryan.

A night in a church allows for some exposition.  This being an American movie there is a shot at Montgomery for tardiness at Caen.  We learn a little about the men. Miller is the mystery man of the unit with the men debating what he was before the war. The others are your standard heterogeneous small unit.  Horvath (Tom Sizemore) is the gruff sergeant, Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is the Jew,  Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is the humane medic, Jackson (Barry Pepper) is the religious-hick sniper, and Rieben (Ed Burns) is the carping Brooklynite. 

The next day answers the question of why Miller has seen the deaths of 94 of his men as he makes an extremely poor decision to assault a well-defended radar site.  This in spite of being on a special mission from  Eisenhower’s boss.  To compound the irrationality of the decision, Miller brings along the noncombatant medic and his brilliant tactic is to rush the site, thus ensuring at least one death.  On a positive note, the survivors find out what Miller was before the war.  This revelation suspends a moment of unit dysfunctionality brought on by Miller’s Geneva Conventionish freeing of a German prisoner.  “Steamboat Willie” is on the honors system to report to the nearest Allied unit.

Finally the real Ryan (Matt Damon) is located in a concurrent assault on a German half-track.  Ryan’s unit is in the town of Ramelle where it is defending a bridge.  When informed of his good news/bad news situation, Ryan refuses to leave his nonfamilial band of brothers.  At least not before the final set piece.  If this was a hockey match, we are now between the second and third periods.  More exposition and in an homage to earlier WWII films, a song.  They, and the audience, are resting up and preparing for the storm to come.  The eerie tank-like sounds herald the arrival of a Panzer unit.  It’s go time!

CLOSING:  Sticky bombs, Molotov cocktails, and thrown mortar rounds versus Tiger tanks.  It’s the Alamo with WWII weapons.  Or Fort Zinderneuf.  Or Rorke’s Drift.  Or Pork Chop Hill.  There is a reappearance of “Steamboat Willie”, but not as a prisoner of war.  There are some gut-wrenching deaths (and I’m not talking about Nazis) and one Hell of a twist ending that puts us back in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Apparently, from the box office receipts.  Excellence and Tom Hanks trumps graphic violence and no significant female character. 

where's a P-51 tank buster when you need one?

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  SPR does not claim to be based on a true story, it does not even claim to be inspired by a true story.  This is a bit surprising because it could legitimately claim that inspiration by way of two sources.  The 5 Sullivan Brothers all perished when the U.S.S. Juneau went down off Guadalcanal. This led to the adoption of the Sole Survivor Rule in which the Pentagon attempted to avoid the loss of entire sibling sets.  A stronger connection to the film is to the Niland family.  Frederick Niland was a paratrooper in Normandy who was pulled out of combat and returned home after two brothers were lost in D-Day and a third was shot down over Burma (and survived Japanese imprisonment).  In spite of the similarity to the Niland story, it is obvious that Spielberg’s film is meant to be fictional.  For that reason, it is more appropriate to discuss how realistic it is rather than how accurate it is.

                The Omaha Beach scene has been justifiably lauded for its realism (including by veterans of the assault) and still remains the most realistic reenactment of any combat in war movie history.  However, it is not perfect.  The Americans landing on Dog Green sector were actually transported on British landing craft, not Higgins Boats.  The carnage rings true, but the time compression makes the conquest of the bluff seem much too quick and easy.  And by the way, bullets lose too much momentum when they enter water to be able to kill men, as depicted in the film.

                As to the mission, it seems unlikely that a crack squad of Rangers would have been sent on this type of mission to find one man.  In reality, a chaplain located Fritz Niland.  The sniper duel is reminiscent of a confrontation involving Marine sniper Carlos Hatchcock in the Vietnam War.  He put a bullet through the enemy’s scope at about 100 yards.  In the film, Jackson estimates his shot at 450 yards which puts it out of the range of possibility given gravity’s effect on a bullet’s trajectory.  I’ve already dealt with the unrealistic tactics in the radar site assault.  As far as allowing the prisoner to go, Miller certainly would not have faced charges for the common sense alternative.

                As far as the last battle is concerned, there are several problems.  Although there were such things as “Sticky Bombs”, they were a British experiment and were not make-shift.  I found no evidence that they were described in the U.S. Army Field Manual.  It is also highly unlikely that mortar shells could be armed by hitting them on the base plate and then thrown to explode on a target.  As far as the tanks are concerned, there were no Tiger tanks in that part of Normandy at that stage of the war.  Also, tactically the Germans would probably have sent the infantry in first.  By the way, the tanks used in the film were Soviet T-34s mocked up to look like Tigers.  I have no problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is why the tanks did not use their machine guns.  I suppose that game changer would have messed with the plot.  Speaking of tanks, Miller would not have been able to fire a machine gun into the tank’s viewer.  One last thing:  the P-51 that arrives to save the day had no ability to fire a rocket or drop a bomb.  (Joining all the other fighter planes in war movie history that dropped ordinance they did not have.)

Thank God that tank forgot it's machine gun ammo
The acting in “Saving Private Ryan” is very good. Tom Hanks is his usual outstanding self, but the supporting cast is strong and there are no weak performances. Even Vin Diesel (thankfully not in the film long enough to do damage) ups his game and dies well. Speaking of which, SPR has the highest quality of death scenes that I have seen in a war movie.  SPR is famous for the ten day boot camp the actors were put through by Dale Dye in preparation for their roles. Matt Damon (Ryan) was purposely left out so he would be treated subconsciously as an outsider. For a movie that attempts to be as close to reality as possible, the actors do not come off as like they are playing army men. They gripe a lot and question the mission. They do not want to accept the new guy (Upham) and never really bond with him. They respect Capt. Miller, but only grudgingly follow him when he issues questionable orders.  This is realistic considering some of the stupid decisions he makes.  

Dale Dye taught me how to do this
“Saving Private Ryan” is not remembered for its dialogue. In fact, in one of the most powerful scenes (when Mrs. Ryan is notified about her sons’ deaths), there is not a spoken word. The movie does have some nice dialogue.  Much of it is aimed at non-war movie buffs so some of it (the running FUBAR routine, for instance) can be aggravating.  Robert Rodat’s script was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Much of the dialogue is terse and the most famous line is simply: “Earn this.” The monologues are well done, especially when Wade describes pretending to be asleep when his mother would come home and when Miller finally reveals his previous life. Best line: “This Ryan better be worth it. He'd better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting lightbulb or something. 'Cause the truth is, I wouldn't trade 10 Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.” (Miller)

SPR was lauded for creating a new style war movie when it came out and many of the masses swallowed this analysis. In reality, it merely puts a different spin on the classic war movie template. It is after all a hero leading a small unit on a mission. The hero is forced to assume command. The unit is heterogeneous.  There is a conflict within the group between Reiben and Horvath that is resolved by external pressure. There is a ritual recalling the peaceful past (listening to the song on the gramophone). The movie clearly alternates from combat to rest/exposition. The movie does lack a redemption character.  See my post on WWII war movie cliches 

SPR combines two standard war movie plot tropes. The first half is the patrol on a mission and the second half is the last stand. Both segments incorporate the “who will survive?” angle. Although not groundbreaking as far as those tried and true elements, the way the screenwriter handles them is quite good. The objective is certainly outside the box- a mission to rescue one soldier. The plot is very manipulative of the audience and takes advantage the non-war movie lovers who would find much of it fresh. It pulls all the emotional strings reaching a crescendo at the end. It throws in a German character to link key scenes and contrive the ending. As ridiculously implausible as this arc is, it is not embarrassing like in “The Big Red One”.

Although incorrectly credited with modernizing the war movie plot, SPR can be credited with taking war movie combat to a new level of realism. It is popular these days to downplay the greatness of the movie, but the opening scene is still the most amazing combat scene ever filmed and has not been topped after fifteen years and many challengers. That one scene will be remembered as a seminal moment in war movie history. I also would like to remind everyone that Dale Dye was the technical advisor so it was well vetted.

The cinematography of Janusz Kaminski richly deserved the Oscar.  He managed to get a newsreel feel by desaturating the colors.  Equally impressive are the sound effects.  The sounds of battle have seldom been better.  The highlight is when Miller loses his hearing due to explosions and combat stress. 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.  The score by  John Williams is fine and not bombastic.

CONCLUSION:  It is popular lately to take shots at “Saving Private Ryan” and I have to admit that upon watching it for the tenth time and reading about some of the mistakes, it is not perfect.  However, it is clearly a masterpiece as entertainment for the masses.  People like me have to remind ourselves that not everyone has seen a lot of war movies.  Tropes are not as obvious to average viewers.  More specifically, most people are not concerned with the use of a Higgins Boat in place of British LCAs.  You can accuse Spielberg of manipulating the emotions of the audience, but he is a master at this and he is at the top of his game here.  When you watch some of his more recent efforts like “War Horse”, you can appreciate the relative sublety of this film and be thankful it’s earlier Spielberg.  In my opinion, its position in the top ten is appropriate. 

Acting – A
Action – 9/10
Accuracy -  C
Realism -  B
Plot – B




  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. the war movie buffMarch 2, 2014 at 10:31 PM

    You are correct about the manipulation, but I would argue that once the character was put in the movie basically to act as a stand-in for the audience, what else would you have him do in the final battle?

  3. Great opening and ending, but the rest is meh. And the unfair dig at Monty just rankles, sorry.

  4. The rookie translator could be considered the redemption character. He succumbs to cowardice during the last battle but returns at the end to force the surrender of some German soldiers.

    1. I don't like the fact that Upham gets redemption by murdering a prisoner.

    2. I also don't like it and the movie doesn't either, portraying it as a war crime without any attempt to soften or excuse it. On the contrary: while earlier cases of prisoner shootings generally seem to happen as a result of battle rage this one looks like Upham is punishing the victim for his own failure. And I bet if he were a real person he would live with these things for the rest of his life.

      That all being said, I think he comes out of the movie as a combat-ready soldier and no longer the question mark he was for most of the film.

    3. I like your analysis that Upham killed the German for his own failure. I do not see Upham coming out of this a good soldier. I can imagine him crucifying himself for what he didn't and did do.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.