Revisiting Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the greatest war movie ever made

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Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever have worked in Hollywood. In his long, diverse career, he has made his mark on every movie genre and his take on war is Saving Private Ryan. Starring his regular collaborator Tom Hanks as an army captain during World War II, Saving Private Ryan is widely considered to be the best movie on war ever made.

Hanks’ character Captain Miller is given a job by his superiors to bring back alive a certain Private Ryan from deep inside Normandy. Three of his four brothers were killed in the line of duty and General George Marshall wants the last surviving son, James, to be brought back safely to his family.

Right from the beginning, the film establishes its message: War is hell, yes, but humans cannot seem to dissociate itself from it. For one reason or other, humans engage in war every now and then at a great cost to every side. In World War II, the war was forced on the Allied powers by Hitler and his Nazis. Soon enough, the United States, already a world power, joined in. Due to a shortage of soldiers, civilians too were conscripted and sent to the front lines.

English teacher-turned-solider Captain Miller was among those who stormed the Omaha beach (Normandy, France) on D-Day. Although he lost most of his men, Miller himself survived. He struggles with his orders to evacuate one soldier from a place like Normandy where fighting was most intense in 1944. Not only will he be risking his own life, he will also put in danger the lives of the soldiers he would get to handpick – who themselves have families back home. To a captain who had already lost men under his command, this was difficult.

Captain Miller, Hanks’ character, is given a job by his superiors to bring back alive a certain Private Ryan from deep into Normandy. Three of his four brothers were killed in the line of duty, and the General George Marshall wants the last surviving son, James, to be brought back safely to his family.

Right from the beginning, the film establishes its message: War is hell, yes, but humankind cannot seem to dissociate itself from it. For one reason or other, humans engage in war every now and then at a great cost to every side. In World War II, the war was forced on the Allied powers by Hitler and his Nazis. Soon enough, the United States, already a world power, joined in. Due to a shortage of soldiers, civilians, too, were conscripted and sent to the front lines.

One of these was Captain Miller. An English teacher, Miller was one of the soldiers who stormed the Omaha beach (Normandy, France) on D-Day. Although he lost most of his men, Miller himself survived. He struggles with his orders to evacuate one soldier from a place like Normandy where fighting was at most intense in 1944. Not only he will be risking his own life, he will also put in danger the lives of the soldiers he would get to handpick – who themselves have families back home. To a captain who had already lost men under his command, this was difficult.

What is probably the greatest opening sequence in any Hollywood film, Saving Private Ryan’s depiction of the Invasion of Normandy is a 22-minute visceral, astonishingly authentic picture of what really happens in modern warfare. Heads explode, limbs fly, traumatic soldiers clutch their severed hands and wander aimlessly, the whole stretch of the English Channel turns red. Bodies litter the beach as far as eyes can see. The sequence is shot with shaky hands as though seen through somebody who was actually present during the invasion. The verisimilitude of carnage painted by Spielberg was confirmed by the veterans who were part of the invasion. Many had tears in their eyes.

This is all supposed to be heroic. After all, getting pummelled by Hitler and the Wehrmacht (as the German armed forces were called then) couldn’t have been fun, and the French and the English, with help from the new entrants, the US, Canada and Norway, were finally fighting back to take control of Europe. But war, no matter against whom and for what, is always a force for bad. When millions of soldiers are butchered like animals, can you really say you ‘won’? What about those who lost their husband, sons and brothers?

As Eric Bana’s Hector said to his younger brother Paris in Wolfgang Peterson’s Trojan War movie, Troy, “Oh, and that sounds heroic to you, doesn’t it? To die fighting. Tell me, little brother, have you ever killed a man? Ever seen a man die in combat? I’ve killed men, and I’ve heard them dying, and I’ve watched them dying, and there’s nothing glorious about it, nothing poetic.”

In the epilogue of Saving Private Ryan, James Ryan (Matt Damon) speaks to the graves of Miller and others, the men who gave their lives for him. “My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

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