In the same year that Terrence Malick was making his World War II masterpiece The Thin Red Line, Steven Spielberg was fighting for the same talent pool to join him and Tom Hanks in their own World War II film, Saving Private Ryan. Like Malick’s movie, Spielberg got himself a large group of known actors to play cameos, while much of the lead went to unknowns (with the exception of Hanks).
Saving Private Ryan tells the story of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), a war-weary commander who is ordered behind enemy lines after he and his men have finished storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. It seems that at the same time Miller was fighting for his life to get on shore and survive the waiting German onslaught, three members of the Ryan family (all enlisted men) were killed in combat throughout the various war theaters. The only survivor is Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper who, along with the rest of his unit, was dropped behind enemy lines in the same area as Miller’s. It is up to Miller and his small band to find Ryan and bring him back alive, since the brass back home is unwilling to deprive Mrs. Ryan of all of her boys. And so begins the quest…
Saving Private Ryan is most known for its first 30 minutes, which is perhaps the most brutal dramatization of warfare in movie history. In those 30 minutes, Miller and countless boatloads of scared and green soldiers are shuffled onto the Normandy beach while the Germans, entrenched on top of hills, fire down volleys of machinegun at them, picking them off like the proverbial ducks in a pond. Director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski immediately goes into handheld camera mode and takes us from the boat to the beach and finally over the beach, and through it all we feel like we’re entering hell itself. It is a visceral experience that, once witnessed, cannot be forgotten.
It’s impossible to properly describe in words the brutal honesty, the chaotic nature, and the sheer bloodbath and absurd lost of human life that took place on those beaches nearly 60 years ago. The fear of the men, of even the veteran Miller, comes through in quick snippets, all centering on Miller as he struggles through his own fears to lead his men to salvation. It is at once hellish, exciting, and painful to watch. By the time it is over, you feel as if you’ve lived through it all, and not merely watched it.
The rest of the film follows a more standard narrative, as Miller gets his orders and assembles his men to go in search of Ryan. Their encounters with sporadic German resistance in the fields and bomb-blasted towns are all shot in the same stark, pale colors that are now second nature to anyone doing a war film. The Lost Battalion borrowed heavily from Saving Private Ryan’s filming techniques, from the varied film speed to the use of drab pale colors and vibrant handheld cameras to the manipulation of camera shutters, now and forever known as Ryan’s War POV.
Cameos by known stars pop up all over the place, including Ted Danson as a give-’em-hell commander, but much of the movie’s main cast is made up of unknowns or up and comers. Vin Diesel (Pitch Black) plays a private with a heart; Barry Pepper (Battlefield Earth) shows up as a sniper who quotes scripture before each kill; and Giovanni Ribisi (The Mod Squad) as a medic who cares too much. The cast is held together by the steady Tom Hanks as Captain Miller, a former schoolteacher who finds, much to his horror, that he excels in warfare; and the always-ready Tom Sizemore as Horvath, Miller’s second-in-command. Sizemore (Black Hawk Down) has the tough-as-nails army man down pat, and has probably played the same role in dozens of war movies (or so it seems).
The one thing that can be said about Saving Private Ryan is that it hurts. Whenever a character is shot, even a peripheral one, the audience feels it. This method of bullet squibs has been used over and over now, including in the HBO TV miniseries “Band of Brothers.” I think it’s safe to say Saving Private Ryan popularized a lot of the “war techniques” you’ve seen lately, and that the consequences of Saving Private Ryan’s brutal portrayal of war will be felt for a long time coming.
Saving Private Ryan may not be as beautiful, lyrical, or complex as Malick’s Thin Red Line, but it will certainly influence a lot of films that will come after it — more so than Malick’s masterpiece, for better or worst.