Today marks the 20th anniversary for Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan – it was released in cinemas on this day in America. Many film critics consider it the greatest war film ever made. After two decades, looking back on the emotive, terrifying, and rather profound film, I’ve found it to be every bit as affecting as it was in 1998.
Before I continue with this retrospective, just a note I’ve shared some clips from the film that contain some graphic and disturbing scenes of violence.
Saving Private Ryan
In 1993, Steven Spielberg had taken on the difficult task of filming Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in quick succession – the experience left him psychologically drained. He took some time off, before effectively repeating the task by shooting the disappointing sequel to the dinosaur adventure in 1997, and then landed a masterpiece in 1998.
It absolutely changed the genre. With its cutting-edge special effects and gritty realism, it looked and sounded like nothing else seen before it. Spielberg went to great lengths to ensure scenes such as the Normandy beach invasion were depicted as accurately as possible.
In real life, the event was documented by several journalists, such as the famed war photojournalist Robert Capa. The Hungarian risked life and limb to get a record of the event. You can see this recalled by Time magazine in the clip below, which highlights the realism delivered by Spielberg’s efforts.
Saving Private Ryan‘s gut wrenching opening 20 minutes remains one of the most impressive in cinema history – a visceral, chaotic experience that came to define it.
From there onward, it’s curious, but unique, in its setup. After the opening mayhem, it lapses into fiction. There wasn’t a Private Ryan, although the film was loosely adapted from the real life stories of the Niland brothers. Spielberg used the fictional story to probe themes of grand scale tragedy, as well as the moral struggle in understanding what is right to do in a war zone.
The cast included Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, and Matt Damon – they’re all excellent.
Hanks took centre stage and provided an understated, refined performance that brought shell shock to the forefront of the public conscience. His dazed reaction on the beach of Normandy leading on to a nervous tic he steadfastly attempts to hide from his unit. His Captain Miller breaks down completely at one stage, grovelling away from his men in dismay – it’s a reminder of how brilliant he is as an actor.
The psychology of warfare is central to the film – it was destructive for these men. The likes of Private Mellish (Goldberg) and Jackson (Pepper) are compelling, offering natural camaraderie as bullets whiz past their heads, but even wisecracking Mellish breaks down after the brutality of Normandy. Meanwhile, sniper Jackson appears to find solace in reciting Bible verses as he works.
But we also see cowardice, borderline mutiny, disobedience, war crimes (from the Allies and Axis), confusion, heroism, and much more. Matt Damon’s Private Ryan even partially rejects his situation when he’s found – everything is unstable, there is no certainty, and the omnipresence of Hitler’s actions linger throughout. Miller’s unit is attempting to save one man, as if in defiance of another man’s indifference to human life.
Private Ryan survives. But one of the defining moments of the film, and the most infuriating for many viewers, involves Corporal Upham (Davies) – he fails to save Mellish in the brutal closing battle, despite being in a position to easily do so. His nerves fail him.
You can make of it what you may, but I can feel the gulf in time 70+ years after WWII – I can’t relate to Upham’s situation. All modern viewers see is cowardice. But for millions of men in the early 1940s, left shell-shocked, injured, or worse, it was an inescapable reality where confounding incidents happened daily. That’s where Saving Private Ryan stands out – it challenges, disgusts, and outrages us with utmost realism. If we ever need proof for why war shouldn’t be an option, Spielberg’s classic is it.
It’s a fantastic piece of cinema – filmmaking with a purpose. The level of detail is stunning and, although there are issues (such as the lack of other allied troops at the Normandy invasion), it’ll remain essential for generations to come.
There have been many war films that have taken inspiration from it since, such as Mel Gibson’s often bizarre Hacksaw Ridge, the solid Fury, the terrible Pearl Harbour, the riveting Dunkirk, the forgotten (but excellent) Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie etc.
Christoper Nolan’s tense epic is, arguably, the first war film since Saving Private Ryan to be able to claim classic status (although some critics have suggested it’s a poor film, for balance – I can’t agree with that). But this is where the legacy of Spielberg’s film stands up – after two decades, it’s still the milestone.
Along with Schindler’s List, war films have enabled us to contemplate the appalling events during WWII, reserve them for posterity, and help new generations understand the importance of pacifism. That’s quite the legacy to leave behind, but I also find the film to be a fitting tribute to the courageous men who overcame tyranny.