Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Saving Private Ryan - Guest Post by Ashwin Baindur

This here is a guest post by a fellow blogger, a fine writer. He is a soldier and a nature lover as you can see on his blog The Butterfly diaries

Contrary to the common perception, it is quite difficult to make or even to properly appreciate a war movie. Many things stand in the way. Firstly, except for soldiers, very few of us understand the nature of War. Then, the production of a modern epic is costly, involves large sets, large casts, many explosions, and lately, plenty of special-effects all of which reduce the ease of making a 'good' film. In addition to all this, there are many pitfalls to entrap the director could get entangled with in its making - overfondness for explosions and special effects being the least of them. In such a scenario, it is a rare treat to come across such a balanced and masterfully-crafted gem as Saving Private Ryan - in my humble opinion, the best film Steven Spielberg ever made.

Surprised? I wonder what your opinion will be after reading the review as well as seeing this movie from a different point of view.

Great cinema, as in the case of great literature, holds in its script, or portrayal of it, messages for mankind. What Steven Spielberg does is to include in just one film so many of the conundrums about the nature of war that have troubled mankind through the ages. The name 'Saving Private Ryan' itself gives a tantalising hint to the central premise of the film (

Namely, is it worth risking, and losing, lives to save just one man?

In the opening scene, we see an elderly Ryan visiting the graveyards of Normandy and as he kneels in front of some of them, the director cuts to the brutality of Omaha beach publicly acknowledged as the worst bloodbath suffered by American troops in the Second World War.

This battle scene, which was ranked by TV Guide as the best of the 50 greatest movie moments of all time, is an overwhelming assault on one's senses. The soldiers of an unarmed landing craft land unprotected into a maelstrom of fire and flying metal on a beach in broad daylight without cover. With great dificulty a company of 2nd Rangers under Capt John Miller (Tom Hanks) reaches the beach and after suffering very heavy casualties secures a part of Omaha beach-head. What Spielberg achieves with this 24-minute sequence is to impress upon the viewer the Horror of War. He breaks in the viewer's mind once and for all the concept of war as a honourable and glorious endeavour and that losing lives in war is abhorrable.

The scene fades to show the human flotsam on the beaches and focuses on one pack - the name Ryan stencilled upon it.

The scene now moves to the office of the US Army Chief of Army Staff, General George C. Marshall, who discovers that three of the four brothers of the Ryan family have all died within days of each other and that their mother will receive all three notices on the same day. He is then told by his staff that that the fourth son, Private First Class James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) of Baker Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment is missing in action somewhere in Normandy.

After reading to his staff Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby, Marshall orders that Ryan be found and sent home immediately. His staff argues that Ryan may be dead and that it is pointless to risk lives in a foolhardy mission into enemy territory to locate and bring back a soldier who may already be dead. Till this point, the viewer will wholeheartedly agree that it is pointless to risk such lives - the sons of other mothers for just one man.

In response to their arguments, Gen Marshall takes out an old letter written a long time ago to a Mrs Bixby from Abraham Lincoln. Through the formal archaic language of the letter the viewer learns that the letter is one of condolence and that she is the mother of five sons all of whom lost their lives in the American Civil War. The reading aloud by Harve Pressnell evokes powerful emotion.

I cannot stop myself from sharing the text of the letter with you, dear Reader.

"Dear Madam:

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln."


Gen Marshall orders that Pyt Ryan be found and sent home immediately.

By the time the reading is done, I personally was convinced that it was definitely worth anything to save that one last precious son for Mrs Ryan.

This is a very tenuous premise. It struggles like an enraged python as one mulls over it. The first thought that comes is since life is valuable, more lives are more precious than one life. Or is it? Does the great sacrifice of four lives not earn Mrs Ryan the right for her son to be returned to her? If we accept that, then how about the single chld of parents or children of parents who have lost one or more but not all but one lives of their children?

One of the real-life incidents in World War II which inspired this film was that of the Niland brothers, where two of four brothers was killed, but at one point of time, the third was also thought to have been killed (actually he was a POW) and the fourth brother brought back. The other incident was that of the five Sullivan brothers who enlisted in the US Navy on the precondition that they all serve together but who all died when their ship sank during the War. There being many cases of brethren enlisting in the conscripted United States armed forces of World War II, a 'Sole survivor' policy was introduced.

This is the magic of Spielberg! He first convinces you of a premise and then just as strongly convinces you of its the validity of its antithesis! He sets up the first conundrum for the reader to reflect at his leisure after having watched the movie. Now I am not a spoiler nor would I like to walk you through all the other contradictions that Spielberg brings alive in this magnificient film. That is for you, dear reader of Avdi's blog, to watch and discover for yourself. I only wanted to show you the method of finding such hidden lessons in Spielberg's work.

I could go on and on waxing eloquent over the accuracy of battle scenes, the way Spielberg brings life to his characters and so on and so forth, but I am only a simple soldier and should not say more. Better film reviewers than me have written about this film - Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times has written a great critique!

I wish you all the very best of viewing of this amazing movie and hope you can enjoy it as much as I enjoyed it. I enclose with thanks to Avdi for inviting a guest post for The Pink Bee.


  1. OK me first. Posters privilege. That was a great review Ashwin. Sole survivor policy. Is that a sop for mothers to send their sons into war? why induct the entire family in the first place? Does this policy still hold?

    Great review, see it made me reflect on things too. :D

  2. Great review Ashwin! I agree, I changed my mind a dozen times through the story about whether the mission was foolhardy or empathetic. There's a scene where one of the soldiers in Hanks's group questions why Ryan is so special and the group's frustration really comes through. It is an amazing movie, though not one I can watch repeatedly!

    @Avdi - possibly it was created during the compulsory military service period. I'm very curious to know if it still is in effect.

  3. It is traditional in American homes to display a flag with stars on it. One star for each of the family members sent to war. The first closeup of Ryan family home in Iowa during the film shows a four-star flag. This is a very powerful emotional symbol and cleverly used by Spielberg.

    The patriotism of the US citizen in the past and in the present is a very real thing! It was not at all uncommon for brothers and cousins to enlist en masse! Also at those times there was conscription!

    The collective loss of the Sullivan brothers brought about the change in policy and there were policy changes brought about by each service. In all good conscience, the leaders of America could not let a woman lose all her children in the conflict.

    At present, the US Army is a volunteer army.

  4. Since some of us may not be so aware of the military significance of events, perhaps I should mention some more issues, Spielberg has brought up!

    Caparzo (Vin Diesel) tries to help the locals by tking their child to safety but dies while trying to do it. When Capt Miller (Tom Hanks) bends over to collect his dog-tags, (a symbolic moment), he says "That is why we cannot take children with us!

    Deep in enemy teritory, when the squad detects a lone German machine gun in ambush, Miller insists they attack and kill the machine gun squad before it ambushes others less alert coming up behind them. The squad vehemently diasgrees saying that is not their job which is to find Private Ryan. They refuse until Miller forces the moment by almost single-handedly assaulting by himself. The squad medic Wade, a man held in high esteem by the squad, dies of bullet wounds received in the assault of the gun position. Was Ryan right to take up this self-imposed mission when he already had a highest priority mission which did not require it!

    The squad successfully captures the gun position but Capt Miller prevents the execution of the sole surviving German "Steamboat Willie" but manages to defuse the situation in a very powerful scene which is the emotional highpoint of the film. Later "Steamboat Willie" aids the German counter attacking troops and personally kills Miller and some other members of the squad. Was it right for Miller to show mercy on the unarmed helpless German soldier?

    There are many more such questions that Spielberg raises...

  5. oops, silly mistake.. was Ryan read Miller in the line..
    was Ryan right to take...

    A natural confusion, the protagonist of the film is Capt John Miller (Tom Hanks) and not Private Ryan (Matt Damon).

  6. Boy, my grammar sucks...'enclose'...LOL

  7. Col Baindur,

    Your review was well written and thought provoking. Here is my response to your review.
    As you are a soldier, such a film has deeper relevance for you than the layman. We only see the horror of war briefly in war films . But as you are involved, in remaining ever prepared for the eventuality of war, especially as we have very hostile neighbours like China and Pakistan , stepping into Pvt. Ryan’s boots and facing a similar situation could haunt you much more than the protected civilian. Every life is precious . But in order to save one life if several lives are exposed to risk, is that choice ethically right…. Evaluating such a situation is very difficult.

    Another scene flashes in my mind. Recently Obama on the recommendation of the Pentagon was sending a contingent of troops, to beef up US army presence in Afghanistan .

    He gave a great pep talk, suave, confident pausing at the right places for effect… but one look at all the young recruits faces, made me wonder what must be racing through their minds.

    They were forced to listen to their commander- in- chief, exhorting them to march on with their best foot forward….while their hearts must have pounded as they must have thought , how many of us will return home and ever see our loved ones?

    Or if at all we do, will we be the same? How many of us will be whole physically and mentally, how many of us will be maimed or mental wrecks? How many will return to broken homes? And they also must be thinking how easy it is for our President to speak so forcefully,so convincingly from a prepared text.He has nothing to lose. But everything to gain safeguarding American interests. He is not the one who is going to face the grim horror of war.

    His words hardly touch them as they think ahead of the morbidity of facing death in all its ugly reality . Panic builds up in them despite the best military training.

    What difference will it make, they must have thought, to Bush, Obama or the Presidents who follow in their quest for global supremacy , if one or many of us are dead. Being decorated at the end of it all if we return alive, or being given a burial with full military honours if we come back dead, is war worth it all? Every life is precious.

  8. Dear Ms Nair,

    A soldier joins an elite organisation. No other legitimate organisation asks that its members willingly risk their lives.

    Secondly, the Army is dangerous, and far more lethal than the terrorists who succeed due to surprise and deception but can never face a soldier on one-to-one basis.

    All soldiers of any army believe in the rightness of their cause. They train exceptionally hard and well especially when facing such fierce adversaries.

    If an army is worth its salt, each unit and its participants will go forth with grim determination and deadly purpose. A soldier will always be afraid of death and injury but he understands it is natural to fear , gets his act together and goes on!

    I am afraid you have not correctly judged the moods of those who listened to Obama's speech. The tragedy of soldiering then, is not that the hearts and will of soldiers waver but that they go forth bravely, willingly and unquestioningly.

    But that's what soldiers do!

    They execute their national policy despite their personal opinions.

    Please do see the film. The film was not made for soldiers but for any thinking person. I'm sure you will enjoy it!

  9. Excellent post and very good comments too.

    Of all the Hollywood war movies I have seen, this one is the best. (Ok, joint-best with "All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)). Certainly the best after WW2.

    There were so many things to like about this movie but what I liked most is that it de-glamourised war. There have been many war movies made - and many of them actually make it look like it is a party out there, chest-thumping and all.

    This movie presents a very different take on war. It makes you THINK. I don't think anybody who sees that opening scene on the beach can remain unaffected by it. It is THAT powerful.

    Throughout the movie this sort of realism is maintained. War is NOT fun, war is NOT glamour. It may be a necessity at times but nobody, NOBODY, should be under a misconception about its role in society. It is NOT a nice thing. That is the message throughout the movie.

    Much like the message in the 1930 film.

    Which is why I just LOVE both these movies. If you check out my blog, you will find these two movies listed among a very short list of Hollywood movies that I really like. If you haven't seen the 1930 film, do see it !!!