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 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120815/).
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.
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.