Login

EMPIRE ESSAY: Saving Private Ryan Review

Image for EMPIRE ESSAY: Saving Private Ryan

Based on a World War II drama. US soldiers try to save their comrade, paratrooper Private Ryan, who's stationed behind enemy lines.

★★★★★

THERE IS A MOMENT OF TRUE cinematic greatness towards the end of Saving Private Ryan. As the Panzers roll in to crush the embattled enclave of war-weary American troops, Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) is locked in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with a bear-like German soldier on the upper floor of a bombed-out ruin. Below on the stairs, the petrified interpreter Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) whimpers, unable to summon the strength to save his comrade. At last, the German gains the upper hand, and with terrible slowness eases his knife into the American. What is unforgettable about the scene is the tenderness of the moment of killing: the German gazes lovingly into his adversary's eyes, and quietly shushes him like a baby. Upham never even makes it to the top of the stairs. As the German gathers himself up, something unspoken passes between them; he leaves the snivelling Corporal unharmed.

For sheer dramatic intensity, this is perhaps the most important scene in Spielberg's peerless war drama, because in this moment, everything that the film has been trying to say suddenly makes sense. It is reminiscent of the equally poignant trench scene in that first great war movie, All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), as well as Wilfred Owen's poem Strange Meeting. What Owen, who died in the trenches of the 1914-18 conflict, described as "the pity of war" is when men kill each other even though they don't want to.
When Saving Private Ryan opened in the summer of 1998 its impact was uniquely powerful. Cinema patrons might have gone through the emotional wringer for James Cameron's Titanic, but Ryan was a different kind of blockbuster; one which left viewers feeling shellshocked, blown apart.

The 25-minute opening segment depicting the wholesale slaughter of the US army's D-Day assault on Omaha beach on June 6,1944 is, unquestionably, the greatest battle sequence ever filmed. Seeing it in the cinema was like being trapped on some terrifying fairground ride and not being allowed to get off. Tales abounded of WWII veterans breaking down as the sheer realism and authenticity brought awful memories flooding back. Private Ryan may be unique among war films for making a generation truly thankful that they didn't have to endure what their parents and grandparents went through. A reviewer for CNN.com caught the mood perfectly: "The defiantly brutal battle sequences that frame the story are almost too visceral to bear, but you owe it to the people who were actually there to watch as they unfold."

Prior to Ryan, Spielberg had been playing mogul as one third of the DreamWorks SKG superteam, producing glossy commercial smashes like Men In Black and The Mask Of Zorro. In 1997, he directed both Amistad and The Lost World — fine examples of Spielberg the thinker and entertainer, but for his next directorial outing, the maestro was determined to construct something truly monumental. As an education in the horror of 1939-45, Ryan is a worthy expansion of what Spielberg achieved a few years earlier with Schindler's List.

Arguably, however, the great man's D-Day opus is not the perfectly self-contained work that Schindler is. Between the carnage that opens the film and the desperate battle that ends it, Ryan is a traditional "men on a mission" movie — albeit with deft Spielbergian subversions of the genre's cliches — that sometimes struggles to provide a meaningful discourse on war. The Observer's Philip French wrinkled his nose at what he deemed "flaccid discussion", while Empire noted "cheesy sinkholes in the script".

Whatever the shortcomings of Robert Rodat's script, the cast are superb. As Captain Miller, Tom Hanks exudes decency and humane intelligence, while Tom Sizemore excels as the robust Sergeant Horvath. The remainder of Miller's platoon are played by the cream of young Hollywood talent, including Edward Burns, Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi. The mission leads Captain Miller's squad across war-ravaged Normandy to the titular Private Ryan (an impossibly wholesome, utterly likeable Matt Damon). Ryan's three brothers have been killed in action and the military authorities have ordered that he be returned to his grieving mother. The mission is successful, but Miller and his squad perish.

Spielberg requested that no one could gain admittance to the movie after the beginning, where an elderly Ryan returns to the French war cemetery where his fallen saviours are interred. The film's ending also takes place here with Ryan, his children and his children's children standing together among the countless gravestones of the dead.

On its release, Empire granted Ryan a five-star rating. A year later, its video release was again awarded the coveted five stars. Clearly, this was a landmark both for Spielberg and for cinema. Controversially, the 1999 Oscar for Best Picture went to Shakespeare In Love, although Spielberg took Best Director (Ryan's Janusz Kaminski and Michael Kahn won the awards for Cinematography and Editing). A kind of vindication came in January 2000, when Ryan was voted second best film of the 90s by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Only Schindler's List garnered more votes.

The opening 20 minutes are among the greatest in cinema. Otherwise one of the best war films ever made,

More from Empire