✪✪✪ Saving Private Ryan Analysis

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Saving Private Ryan Analysis



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Saving Private Ryan is NOT an Anti-War Film

It is idiocy and, as far as the soldiers are concerned, immoral idiocy. What of the grief of their mothers, they wonder. The true story behind the eloquent words and heroic sentiments with which General Marshall sends these soldiers to their deaths makes clear that Lincoln's letter is empty, as it turns out, of everything except rhetoric. But soldiers don't need a history lesson to recognize the emptiness of rhetoric when they are about to become its victims. The morality of risking eight men to save one is an equation that makes no sense to a soldier. Over and over again, the fundamental theorem of war—that one is sacrificed to save many—is examined. When the squad encounters a downed pilot whose troop transport crashed, killing 22 men, because his plane had been made unflyable by the steel plates added to its belly to protect from ground fire a brigadier general on board, everyone understands that to risk the safety of many to protect one even if he is a general is wrong and, in war, always dangerous.

Approaching the climactic battle, Spielberg billets his soldiers in an abandoned church. While his men talk about their own mothers, Captain Miller defends the loss of 94 soldiers, one by one, under his command. Reminiscent of Shakespeare's disguised Henry V debating with English yeomen anxiously awaiting dawn at Agincourt a commander's responsibility for the death of his men in battle, Miller justifies his actions to his sergeant and, obviously, to himself by insisting upon the 10 or even 20 times more men he has saved by sacrificing one man. That's what allows him to choose the mission over the man, he explains.

But this time, the sergeant responds, the mission is the man. Spielberg could not be more explicit in condemning the effort to save Private Ryan as immoral, at least in terms of the morality of the battlefield. Henry V is a useful comparison in another regard, as well. The most stirring of battle eve addresses, Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech rallies "we happy few" on to victory against overwhelming odds with images of glory, honor, and patriotic fervor. Despite the flapping flag and swelling music as the credits roll, Spielberg puts in the mouth of his commander, Captain Miller, no praise of homeland, no defense of democracy, no attack on fascism in rallying his troops. Instead, their commander simply says he just wants to go home to his wife.

As his men have made clear repeatedly, as far as they are concerned, Private Ryan can go to hell. But if going to hell to save Ryan earns Miller the right to go back to his wife, then he'll go to hell. And hell, a French village named Ramelle, is exactly where he finds the boy, guarding the last remaining bridge across the River Styx, a little stream the French call the Merderet. The absence of patriotic principles in his defense of the mission becomes quite striking when one compares Miller's speech about the war and his wife to another Civil War letter. A week before his death at the first battle of Bull Run, Major Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island addressed these words to his wife: "I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter.

I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt. No less in love with his wife than Miller seems to be, the Union officer finds the words to assert his devotion to the flag under which he fights.

However, in nearly three hours, apart from the letter by Lincoln that General Marshall reads and the one that he himself writes to Ryan's mother, Saving Private Ryan offers not a single word about love of country. Generals may still talk like their Civil War counterparts, but soldiers in the field have ceased to cloak their duty in such sentiments. The Germans depicted are just as bewildered, terrified, and anxious to return to their families as the Americans.

Of course, there is no shortage of cruelty and brutality. Nazis move through battle-scarred streets indifferently finishing off wounded Americans, but, early in the film, we have witnessed callous GIs mowing down surrendering Germans with a laugh. And the transformation of a cowardly American interpreter who coldly butchers a captured German he earlier has argued to spare is one of the most troubling moments in the film.

Spielberg never suggests that we are any better than our enemy or, to put it more generously, that they are any worse than we are. On the contrary, he seems to be at pains to show the equality of men under any flag when the shooting begins. So this is not a patriotic film; if anything, it argues that patriotism is beside the point in modern warfare. Even the mission itself has no heroic or patriotic aim; there is no hill to be taken, no redoubt to be stormed. Its goal, according to Captain Miller, is public relations. Why then does the film begin and end with Spielberg's flag-waving and a tearful old grandfather mourning at the graves of fallen comrades?

Are they merely hedges against the insidious argument of the film that even our last "good" war was as meaningless in its brutality and empty in its heroism as the conflict in Vietnam? Though Saving Private Ryan amply documents the extraordinary courage of men under fire and suggests the tide of grief their families endured, it never addresses the point of their heroism. How can it honor the horrendous sacrifices our parents and grandparents made when the film seems to demonstrate that neither glory, morality, patriotism, nor any clear meaning attended the slaughter of millions? Spielberg, aware of this contradiction, told a gathering of entertainment writers in Los Angeles that the movie is really about how two opposing things can both be true.

The mission can't be justified on moral or patriotic grounds, and yet the toughest soldier in the squad, Sergeant Horvath, says saving Private Ryan might be the one decent thing they "were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. This is not the only contradiction in the director's historical works. If one considers Spielberg's efforts in the s to turn from the hugely successful entertainments that made his reputation to cinematic examinations of the most profound moral issues of the modern age, apparently inexplicable decisions on the part of the filmmaker seem to contradict the very arguments of those films, too. How can one explain Spielberg's choice, in his film on the Holocaust, to make its hero a German profiteer and, in his film on slavery, to make its hero a white leader of a slave economy?

Of course, a Jewish clerk in Schindler's List prods his German employer to outwit the Final Solution and an enslaved African in Amistad goads a white former president of the United States to outmaneuver the very legal system dedicated, as it was, to the preservation of slavery that his oath of office had sworn him to uphold and defend. But the director leaves no doubt as to which character is the central focus of the narrative conflict: Since monstrous systems of exploitation constrain both Jew and African from independent action, only the beneficiaries of those inhumane systems are capable of change and, thus, able to serve as the protagonists of these dramas.

Though we may assume these two films are about suffering—and presented with the vivid depiction of cruelty a camera can offer, an audience may find it difficult to look beyond such graphic images of misery to another, subtler subject— Schindler's List and Amistad are, in fact, about guilt and responsibility. They are not, as many imagine, noble memorials to the millions of victims of the Holocaust and slavery; rather, they are agonized meditations on all of those somehow implicated in those vast human tragedies. A similar, though much more complex, contradiction beats at the very heart of Saving Private Ryan and accounts for the dissonance noted by virtually every critic between the body of the film and its opening and closing.

How can the sentimental tableau of a weeping old man, his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchildren possibly serve as a fit conclusion to so savage and unsentimental a film? Spielberg himself offered a clue when, continuing his conversation with those entertainment writers in Los Angeles, he described his father's own war stories: "I was supposed to wave the flag and be patriotic and say that without his efforts I wouldn't have the freedoms I had or even the freedom to have the bicycle I was riding.

Private Ryan, a dazed kid surrounded by the bodies of men who were absurdly ordered to their deaths to save him, is given the equally absurd command by the dying hero, Captain Miller, to "earn this" and must now bear the terrible, impossible order until his own death. But don't we all struggle under Ryan's moral burden? And how can Ryan, or for that matter any of us, ever pay such a debt—and to whom? Spielberg had already once suggested the answer to that profound question.

In the epilogue to Schindler's List , contemporary descendants of the Jews saved by Oskar Schindler process past his grave. Again at the end of Saving Private Ryan , as a grandfather and his son and grandchildren pay homage to those whose deaths we have just witnessed, the living are called not merely to bear witness to the achievement of fallen heroes; the living are, in fact, the achievement itself.

Like Private Ryan, we cannot help but ask what we've done to deserve such sacrifice by others and beg their forgiveness for what we have cost them. And like James Ryan, all we can do to justify that sacrifice is to live our lives as well as we are able. This is not to suggest Spielberg has made a perfect film. Outside the town, Miller orders his men to take out a German machine gun position at a derelict radar station. The Germans kill Wade in the onslaught. Upham convinces Miller not to kill the lone German survivor, and let him go. He gets into it with Sergeant Horvath over the statement.

This revelation settles a friendly bet his men have going. Reiben stays. Once they arrive in Ramelle, they find Ryan with some paratroopers preparing to defend the bridge against an incoming German attack. Miller informs Private Ryan that his brothers are dead, and he has orders to bring him back home safe. Miller and his men join the paratroopers to defend the bridge. They decide to ambush the entering Germans with improvised materials along with their remaining ammo. The 2nd SS Panzer Division soon approach the bridge with many soldiers and two tanks and two tank destroyers. Fear overcomes Upham, and he does nothing to help.

As Captain Miller attempts to blow up the bridge, the German soldier Miller freed at the radar station shows up and shoots Miller; leaving him mortally wounded. Miller uses his last energy to grab the bridge detonator, and fire his pistol at the approaching tank. The tank reaches the bridge, but an American P Mustang flies overhead, and stops it in its tracks.

More American units arrive to the scene, and help rout the Germans. Now that the Germans are in retreat, Upham seizes the German soldier who shot Miller and some other of his comrades. He kills the German in revenge, and lets the others go free. Earn it. Ryan is the old man from the beginning of the film. He asks his wife if he was a good man. She replies that he is.

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