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Celebrating Twenty Years of Saving Private Ryan

Celebrating Twenty Years of Saving Private Ryan

Few war movies have been able to find the perfect balance between scenes of gut-wrenching combat and honest and true emotions of soldiers like Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Spielberg has long been considered one of the best directors in Hollywood and his films can often be grouped into two categories: blockbusters -- such as Jurassic Park and Jaws -- and dramas -- such as Schindler’s List and The Color Purple.

Twenty years ago, Spielberg released Saving Private Ryan, an ultra-realistic rendition of World War II that was unlike any other war movie made prior and continues to set the bar for war movies today.

What made this film so special wasn’t just its accurate representation of war, but how it found the balance between depicting gruesome battles, while paying tribute to those who served.  

Prior to its 1998 release, movies about war tended to fit into the following mold: a group of valiant soldiers follow one main objective, and, most often times succeed -- for example The Great Escape.

In the 70s and 80s, people were entranced by the Vietnam War and films showcasing the lives of soldiers who served, such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, and Full Metal Jacket.

These films shed a grim light on the Vietnam War and most – if not all – have an anti-war message. This fits with the general public opinion on the war, as it was heavily protested at the time and its importance remains a topic of debate today, 43 years after the war ended.

This makes it hard to compare Vietnam War movies to Saving Private Ryan because they depict two very different wars with two very different feelings. In stark contrast to the Vietnam War, World War II has often been looked at as a justifiable war. This allowed Spielberg, along with screenplay writer Robert Rodat, to show these soldiers as heroes, as well as humans, and in a way that had not been seen on screen before.

The film’s opening scene -- the landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 -- felt so real it actually triggered PTSD in some veterans. Spielberg and his team managed to create coherent chaos throughout not only that scene, but the entire film.  

For those who haven’t seen the film, or who want a refresher, here is that opening scene:

 

As far as filming techniques, the use of the shaky camera during a battle scene is not that revolutionary. What was different was the length that the shots were held. Most action scenes create the pace of the action by cutting frequently, but Spielberg holds the shots for longer-than-average periods of time, letting the action fill the screen.

This creates confusion for the viewer, meant to resemble what the soldiers felt on that day. It was a mass of soldiers storming a beach that was being littered with gunfire. The choice not to show the faces of the German soldiers created the feeling of two masses of men shooting at each other until only one side remains.

Then there is the human aspect of the scene, shown almost immediately with the tremoring hands of Cpt. John Miller – played by Tom Hanks -- as well as by the soldiers who puke in the ship.

Many have argued that the rest of the film failed to live up to the expectations set in the opening 30 minutes. This is a fair statement, but that does not mean the rest of the movie is bad, far from it actually, it is just a hard scene to top.

Another interesting aspect of the movie, not seen in many American war films, was the imperfection of the soldiers on the American side.

In one scene two soldiers dressed in German uniforms surrender, but the U.S soldiers shoot them anyways. It turns out they were speaking Czech, you can read more in depth about that specific scene here.

However brief as this part may seem, it has a rather large impact. Most war films especially those set in World War II show American soldiers as perfect heroic beings, which simply was not always the case.

That is not to say that Saving Private Ryan isn’t very much an American patriotic film, it is, but this scene at least does a little bit to show the darker side.

Films about World War II are still being made and most are held to the standard set by Saving Private Ryan.

When Christopher Nolan released Dunkirk in 2017 countless articles were released asking whether or not it would surpass Saving Private Ryan as the best World War II film ever made.

For most it did not. Dunkirk was a great film and its sound design certainly deserved the two Oscar’s, but it lacked that human aspect. There was never a dull moment, but this also prevents viewers from connecting with any of the characters the same way you could to those in Saving Private Ryan.

Twenty years since its release, Spielberg’s masterpiece remains the benchmark for great World War II films.

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