EMPIRE ESSAY: Saving Private Ryan Review

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Three brothers are killed one after another in World War 2. After the Army General Staff learns that a fourth brother is missing in the French countryside, a rescue mission is ordered to find the young soldier and return him safely home.


Saving Private Ryan was not the first time Steven Spielberg turned his camera on a small unit of American infantryman caught under heavy fire by German soldiers. Made by the filmmaker at aged 15, Escape To Nowhere recreated the US skirmishes with the Nazis in East Africa with 20 of his school friends, his mother driving a jeep and explosions created by a seesaw/flour combo. The only glitch was that the American army never fought in East Africa, only in North Africa.

Spielberg had originally envisaged Ryan as more of a Boy's Own adventure, until interviews with WWII vets gave him a sobering reality check. Inspired by the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Robert Rodat's screenplay followed Captain John Miller (Hanks) and his unit on a PR mission to retrieve Private James Ryan (Damon) from the front line after his three brothers have been killed in action. Ostensibly a men-on-a-mission movie, Spielberg sharpened the moral complications inherent in the premise — when is one life worth more than another? — and invested the film with a harsher, more realistic tone.

It was The Shawshank Redemption's Frank Darabont (undertaking script doctoring duties with Scott Frank) who suggested opening the sortie with the unit landing at Omaha Beach. The resulting battle, and the often overlooked concluding action to hold the bridge at Ramelle, are landmarks in action movie history. As a soldier searches for a severed arm or Miller drags a body along the beach to see the legs fall away, violence is stripped clean of both comic book exuberance and Peckinpah-esque lyricism. To create this unbridled ferocity initially meant upping the ante on the viscera front: to realise graphic shots of soldiers losing body parts, 20 amputee stuntmen were drafted in and fitted with detachable prosthetic limbs.

Played down on release so as to not suggest Ryan was an effects-fest, the input of Industrial Light + Magic is similarly vital: many of the bullet hits were digital, creating gut-curdling bloodshed without ever putting the actors at risk. Scenes left on the cutting room floor — the unit discovering burnt out tanks and charred corpses — suggest that Spielberg's ability to shock surpassed even his own expectations. But more importantly, it is the directorial arsenal that supplies the flash and thunder.

In previous Spielberg John Williams' music has been crucial in cranking up the excitement factor. Here it is eschewed completely from the battle set-pieces, the furious sound design delivering its own brand of shellshock: at vital points, as Miller surveys carnage, the sound is sucked down to a confused din locating us firmly inside his dazed and confused mindset. If others, particularly Oliver Stone, have previously captured combat in a documentary styled dynamism, Spielberg pushed the envelope, encouraging cinema tographer Janusz Kaminski to find new ways of seeing old horrors: the shutter was adjusted 90 degrees to create sharper, more realistic images, an Image Shaker to vibrate the camera, approximating the impact of explosions.

Gone are Spielberg's customary crane and dolly shots. Here the action is caught on the hop, completely at a grunt's eye view, locking the audience in the thick of the fighting. From Gladiator to Three Kings, The Patriot to Enemy At The Gates, Ryan's visuals have determined how cinematic conflict looks in the 21st century. If Ryan embodies the future of action movies, it also has one foot firmly in the past. In both generalities — the small band of fighting men banding together can be found in A Walk In The Sun (1945), They Were Expendable (1945), Fixed Bayonets! (1951), Castle Keep (1969) — and specifics — the battle-weary Captain Miller is modelled on Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum) in The Story Of GI Joe (1945), Godfearing rifleman Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) is a haunted version of Gary Cooper's Sergeant York (1941) — the sortie to find Ryan is, in many ways, a catalogue of war movie staples and stock characterisations.

But the skill of the writing and the canny casting often subverts the stereotypes. Bookish Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) bumbles his way through the carnage and cliche dictates he will eventually prove his worth as a soldier. When he finally acts, however, the result is far more horrific than heroic. There is time for tenderness — Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) rewriting the dead Caparzo (Vin Diesel )'s letter home so it is not stained by blood — and humanity which prevails in Miller's moving revelations about his peacetime life and his struggle to keep body and soul together. More than anything, Saving Private Ryan redefines the notion of courage away from the gung-ho deeds of movie bravery into something far simpler: staying on your feet and keeping your sanity untouched.

Never before has a filmmaker's technique been deployed to such devastating, nerve-shredding ends.