The History Place - Movie Review

Saving Private Ryan

By Fred Harvey
The History Place

This is absolutely the best American war movie ever made. And the timing for the making and release of this film is perfect, coming at the end of a century which has witnessed two World Wars, and at a time when many of those who fought in World War II are rapidly fading away.

Saving Private Ryan serves as a reminder of the sacrifices of that truly great generation of Americans who, along with our Allies, fought and defeated Hitler in Europe, thus preserving freedom for the generations that followed.

This is also, I must admit, the most shockingly violent film I have ever seen - and that is good. This is war. The film's super realistic portrayal of men in battle left myself and other members of the theater audience stunned. This is what the men saw. This is what happened. This is why some of these guys would wake up screaming ten or twenty years after the war. I know, my father was one of them.

And in this movie, it is the sounds of war, more than anything else, that is so extraordinary - the whizzing and pinging of bullets from a machine gun nest - the indescribable sound of bullets impacting upon a human body - the screaming of wounded, confused, dying men amid the overwhelming noise of war.

Blood spatters everywhere as flesh is torn and parts of bodies are blown off. On the beach at Normandy a young man loses an arm. In a state of shock, he looks around for his arm, locates it, picks it up and simply walks away -- absolutely stunning.

I found myself wondering - is this actually a Steven Spielberg film I am watching? He has given us other interesting historical films such as Schindler's List and Amistad - but those were 'Spielbergian' films which had a tendency to hit you over the head (dramatically) to make a point, becoming at times a bit obvious - Schindler's more so than Amistad.

He avoids that in Saving Private Ryan by being unobtrusive, letting the action speak for itself, and often surprises us, hallmarks of a great director. This film, in my opinion, actually elevates Spielberg up a notch into the company of American directors such as John Huston.

Interestingly, Huston and other directors from the World War II era, who witnessed actual combat, tended to make bloodless dramas about the war that were sanitized according to the cultural standards of the late 1940s and '50s. Today, the standard is money. Only a director with Spielberg's clout could make an extreme film like this. And we are lucky he chose to do it.

Saving Private Ryan stars Tom Hanks as a U.S. Army captain who storms the beach at Normandy and is then assigned a special mission, to find a mother's sole surviving son, played by Matt Damon.

But where is he? Much has gone wrong in the invasion of Normandy including pre-invasion airborne drops that were miles off course and Private Ryan was among those who parachuted into occupied France before the invasion. No one knows where he is or even if he is alive. Thus begins the adventure as Hanks sets out into enemy territory with a small group of soldiers to find him.

As the search began I couldn't help but be reminded of the '60s American TV series Combat, which also featured a small group of American soldiers seemingly wandering all over occupied France. Another comparison that came to mind was Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket about a dysfunctional platoon in Vietnam out to search and destroy.

And I wondered, is this going to be Combat meets Full Metal Jacket?

I truly did not want to listen to Hanks and his guys wax philosophical about the rotten war etc. Thankfully, Spielberg avoided this by limiting the dialogue and by letting the war, specifically its murderous violence, be the true star of this film. Spielberg also had the nerve to portray the Germans realistically as the killing machines which they became, while at the same time showing us Americans who preferred to shoot anything that moves rather than take prisoners.

This film fittingly begins and ends in the huge American cemetery in France where row upon row of crosses (and Stars of David) of fallen Americans form intriguing geometrical patterns, one of the most remarkable sights in Europe. In this graveyard and others like it in Europe are guys from Brooklyn and Boston and Iowa and Texas and many places in America. They were average guys who put down their books and rakes and baseballs and put on the uniform of their country, then set out to defeat the German Army, the most powerful military force the world had ever known.

Like the crosses, Saving Private Ryan will stand as a memorial to these 'little' men who saved the world from the unimaginable evil of a Nazi Empire.

Rated R - For extreme violence, language.

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