← Back to Reviews

Saving Private Ryan


Year of release

Directed by
Steven Spielberg

Written by
Robert Rodat

Tom Hanks
Tom Sizemore
Barry Pepper
Edward Burns
Matt Damon
Adam Goldberg
Jeremy Davies

Saving Private Ryan

Plot Opening with the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, we find Captain John Miller (Hanks) leading the members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion onto Omaha beach. During the Normandy landings two brothers are killed, joining a third brother who died in New Guinea; with their mother due to receive all three telegrams informing her of their death on the same day. When the Chief of Staff, General Marshall, is informed about this he decides to send a unit to find the remaining brother, James Ryan (Damon), so he can be sent back home to his mother. Captain Miller is given the assignment and leads a squad of 8 men in the search.

The one thing that everyone who's seen this film will undoubtedly remember is its truly epic scenes of warfare, so that seems as good a place as any to start this review. And I've got to say that even 15 years on I'm struggling to remember anything I've seen that has been able to match them in terms of their scale and incredible power. Some people may like the action because it's 'cool', and as a kid perhaps I did as well. However what really makes them so incredible is just how much they immerse you in the experience; you're just instantly gripped by what is unfolding on screen. This is heightened even further as a result of the camera just dropping you right into the thick of the action; placing you on that beach alongside these heroic men, dodging bullets and trying to keep your wits about you while blood stained water laps at your feet. It shows that while these men may be heroes, there is nothing heroic about the act of war itself. It's a nasty, vile business (see the bewildered soldier wandering around looking for his blown-off arm) which brings out the absolute worse in people. This visceral opening battle is also an effective tool in terms of immediately making us care for and identify with the characters. We may not have had any time to familiarise ourselves with these individuals yet, but by placing them in such a hellish situation we cannot help but sympathise with them right from the off; no-one deserves to be involved in anything like this.

All of that and I've not even gotten around to commenting on it as a technical achievement. Costing $12 million, featuring some 1500 extras, utilizing real amputees, taking four weeks to shoot and employing some forty barrels of fake blood the scale of it is just insane. And what a testament to the skill of Spielberg that he is able to somehow assemble all these elements into something so coherent and enthralling. While it's beautiful in terms of the level of craft that has gone into it, it's not a particularly beautiful sequence or film as a whole to look at. It is however presented in a very appropriate and successful way. The cinematography from Janusz Kamiński creates a bleached, desaturated look of greys and greens which allows for a sharper, more realistic experience; just further immersing you in the film. Not surprisingly and quite rightly Kaminski was rewarded with an Oscar for his efforts. And perhaps just as amazing as this opening battle that Spielberg delivers is the fact that he at least matches, and perhaps even surpasses himself with the battle that closes the film. Taking place on the streets of Ramelle, in amongst its war-torn buildings, it sees the characters scattered throughout the town; some on the ground, others perched high in towers, attempting to fight off vastly superior numbers of German soldiers who are armed with tanks and heavy weaponry. It's a fantastically constructed and nerve-shredding sequence.

Film trivia The film has several sources of inspiration. The original idea for Robert Rodat came in 1994 at a monument that was dedicated to the four sons of Agnes Allison of Pennsylvania. They were all killed during the American Civil War. Inspiration also came from the true story of the Niland brothers. While it was eventually revealed that two survived, it was long thought that three brothers; Robert, Preston and Edward, had all perished in combat during World War II. As a resulting the sole surviving brother, Frederick, was sent back home to the States. It was later discovered that Edward was not actually dead, but was being held captive in a Japanese POW camp.
The opening battle also has no quandaries in showing the true nature of these men. This isn't Stallone's Rambo we're dealing with, nor is it Schwarzenegger's Dutch or any other larger than life soldier we may have become accustomed to. These are real men. In the boats heading onto the beaches of Normandy these guys aren't joking around and smoking cigars, relishing the idea of war. No; what they are doing is throwing up through fear, crying at the prospect of what lies ahead and praying to God that they will somehow make it through alive. These are the genuine reactions you would likely find on such a battlefield. And that sequence where they are on the boats heading towards the beach is just so gut-wrenchingly tense. It's also rare for any of these men to get what you would call a 'heroic' death, complete with glorious and profound last words. For the large majority of the unfortunate souls they never see it coming; it's quick, it's sudden and it's gruesome.

In between the scenes of warfare we are given a good degree of character building, and evidence of the camaraderie, humour and sense of brotherhood that develops between individuals who embark on such a shared experience. I also believe it shows just how important this bond is if you're to retain any chance whatsoever of holding on to your sanity. Another such example of this would be Private Jackson, the crew's resident sniper. For him, his faith is a large part of trying to retain his strength and sanity. These scenes of brotherhood just build upon the level of caring already established from the opening battle. As they talk and share memories and stories from their lives back home, our connection and sympathies just grow and grow so that everytime we lose one of these men it feels like a real punch in the gut. While the search for a single man is partly based on a true story, it also works as a metaphor for the absurdities of war and the waste that is inherent within them. The group's discussions about their mission just highlight how futile it can all appear.

The men that make up the company who go in search of Ryan represent the broad spectrum of individuals you would find in the army. Tom Hanks' Captain Miller is a prime example of the most normal of guys placed in the most unnatural of situations. As we eventually find out he is just an unassuming English schoolteacher from Pennsylvania; it was never his ambition to be leading men in such an endeavour and making decisions that will affect their lives. And his only ambition is just to get home to his wife, that is all he wants. More than anyone else, Jeremy Davies' Corporal Upham represents the young clueless kid who has absolutely no business being involved in such a venture. Inexperienced and completely out of his depth he is just a bundle of nerves. Private Caparzo, portrayed by Vin Diesel, is representative of the tough, macho guy who will put on quite an aggressive show which is really just a front to hide the fear which he feels just like everyone else. While Edward Burns' Private Reiben represents more than most just what war can do to a good man; just how tough it is to remain human in such conditions. It could perhaps lead to a feeling of stereotypes for some people, but I think it works very well, particularly as there are moments were we see that really they are all just the same deep down; they share the same flaws and fears.

Film trivia - All of the film's principal stars underwent a brutal and gruelling week long course of army training under the tutelage of technical advisor Dale Dye. Well when I say 'all', that's not quite accurate. Matt Damon was spared having to endure it in an effort to get the other actors to resent him, with the hope being that their resentment towards him would then come through in their performances and feed into the story.
The film doesn't overly demonise the German soldiers, nor does it sanctify the American soldiers. There are numerous occasions of ambiguous morals, right down to the rather apathetic attitude of the soldiers towards their mission and towards Ryan himself. The film shows American soldiers killing Germans who are attempting to surrender, and shows them raiding their dead bodies for mementos. It shows their bloodlust and sense of vengeance after Wade is killed as they plan to gun down the German soldier responsible. And rather unexpectedly for a long while Captain Miller, their supposed leader, goes along with it. Without thinking he also partakes in rooting through the dog tags of fallen men while their comrades look on. It all just shows the toll that war can have on a man, how hard it is to retain your humanity in such a despicable spectacle. And it makes Miller's speech about just trying to hold onto who you were before the war all the more poignant.

The cast that Spielberg was able to assemble is just incredible. I had actually forgotten the huge amount of talent that was sprinkled throughout the film. Even the most minor of roles are filled by a legion of recognisable and talented performers such as Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Nathan Fillion and Bryan Cranston. While those men, and numerous others may not be on screen for a great deal of time they are pretty much all able to bring something to the table.

Leading the pack is Tom Hanks. And as for his performance, well, he's Tom Hanks! And this is just another in a long line of impressive performances that he has turned in over the years. While there are obviously weaker performances on his CV I honestly don't feel I've seen a performance of his I would call poor. He's just one of the most dependable performers out there. As great as he is here however it's perhaps not surprising that he didn't add to the collection of little gold men sitting on his mantle (I'm referring to Oscar statues by the way, I'm not accusing him of being into anything freaky or kinky!). The reason being that for the majority of the time it's not an especially big or showy performance, but it is crammed with a series of small and quiet, but highly effective moments. Moments that really get to you such as his attempts to try and understand and justify the deaths of his men, or the war at large. Or talking about how all he wants to do is get home to his wife and try to remain the same man that he was before the war.

Film trivia It's become legend now that the film's action, and in particular that opening invasion of Omaha beach, was so realistic and vivid that men who had actually experienced it found it immensely powerful, sometimes overly so. Following the film's release The Department of Veterans Afffairs set up a special 800 number to help the hundreds of former soldiers who were left traumatized after viewing the film. It has also been noted that in the week following the film's release, visits to PTSD counsellors soared.
As the eponymous Private Ryan, Matt Damon is not actually on screen for a huge amount of time, but he grabs the chance and is able to make a huge impression regardless. It's a terrifically natural performance that when teemed with his turn in Good Will Hunting the previous year, confirmed him as one of the hottest young talents at the time. His pain and confusion over the situation is beautifully played; torn between mourning the loss of his familial brothers and the duty he feels to his brothers in arms. While Hanks and Damon are the film's biggest stars, there are virtually no failures to be found amongst any of the cast. Barry Pepper, an actor I've always admired, is on fine form as are the likes of Tom Sizemore and Giovanni Ribisi.

I'm aware that many people, even large admirers of the film, have a problem with the scenes that bookend the film. Set in the present day at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, it sees the now elderly James Ryan returning to honour the soldiers who laid their lives on the line for him. Personally I don't have a huge problem with the scenes though I would happily have them excised. They certainly come across as an attempt to manipulate your emotions, but in that respect I find them completely superfluous. The two and a half hours in between these scenes has already achieved so much in those terms that there is nothing more they could possibly add. However I don't begrudge the film highlighting once more the immense sacrifice that was made through the thousands of crosses that seem to stretch endlessly off into the horizon. And I think in terms of design, the crosses and the stars of David are a beautifully simplistic representation of something truly momentous. And while they may not add much to the film itself, I think the scenes prove a touching tribute to the millions of soldiers who laid down their lives.

Conclusion I still find this to be one of the most incredible screen accomplishments I've ever seen. It's just the true definition of an epic in every way. Impeccably acted, tightly scripted and featuring bravura direction from Spielberg I consider it a modern masterpiece. I was going to say that it's one of those films I wish I had seen at the cinema, but thinking about I'm actually not sure. It's already such a powerful, intense viewing experience that seeing it on the big screen may have been just too overwhelming.