"Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die"
“You want to explain the math of this to me? I mean, where’s the sense in risking the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?” -Private Reiben
When Saving Private Ryan hit theaters, it made an understandably big impression. Just about every actor with a line was someone famous or soon to be so, Steven Spielberg directed it just a couple of years removed from knocking Schindler’s List out of the park, and the film itself dealt with World War II, that holy national crusade just going through all of the fiftieth anniversary fanfares. It won a stack of awards, made a cool half billion bucks, and finished cementing Tom Hanks as the official everyman of Hollywood productions.
My grandpa’s take on it? It wasn’t anything John Wayne didn’t do better.
If Forrest Gump was a surreal self portrait of the Boomers, and let’s not re-fight that particular war, Saving Private Ryan was the Boomers’ ode to their fathers. The Greatest Generation suffered through the Great Depression, fought the Great War, and then came home to the new and gleaming suburbs to raise a new generation with Great Daddy Issues.
It’s a curious thing, making films about the past. If they’re made too soon, they’re made by the previous generation, already sitting in the director’s chairs ready to churn out the first draft of history in real time. If they’re made too late, they’re made by the next generation, by the children trying to judge their own parents. There’s only a short period when a generation makes films about its own youth. An interesting project would be to map how the attitudes of World War II films changed over time, from the first swarm of heroic tales in the 1940s told by a generation trying to explain why it sent its own children into the meat grinder, up until the 1990s when Boomer directors really started trying to reinterpret the memory of that event through the lens of their own experiences.
Saving Private Ryan is simply a beautiful film, in a stark and horrible way. A desolate landscape of grays and blues stretches always to an indeterminate horizon that melds with the constant gray of the sky. There’s not a building that stands but in rubble, not a meadow that sits in silence but for the watchful eyes waiting in the tall grass. It resembles the ruin of post-apocalyptic visions, because that’s what modern war is for the lands upon which it falls, the end of the world, the breaking of all that has been built. It puts you from the first moments into a front row seat of the hell of war, playing ingeniously with sound like a horror film. Stretches of silence lull you so that the sudden staccato of bullets and death are all the more violent.
The suddenness of violence underscores the phenomenal job done by the actors, always teetering on the edge of outright madness, even their calmness betrayed by twitches and sudden outbursts. There is no gung-ho here, no patriots or heroes. Just normal men, played as terribly vulnerable, painfully aware that spam on a stick doesn’t have any chance but chance itself when set against the buzz saw of industrial war. There are no heroes, no villains. Sure, there’s the one German soldier who stabs our boys in the back, but we’ve also got the American boy at the beginning yelling “let them burn.” Everybody’s just trying to shoot the guys who are shooting at them. To the characters on the ground, there is no great crusade, no great idea for which they’re willing to lay down their lives. Soldiers on every side of every battle fight for the same reason: for the guys standing next to them.
The central story of risking the lives of a squad of soldiers to save one man whose brothers have all died revolves around this point of why we fight in the first place. A motif repeats throughout the film, hammering home situations of the many sacrificing for the one, challenging us of our notions that one man’s life is any more important than another’s. A general rides with a glider crew but is so important that they strap armor to the plane around him, leading to the glider’s crashing and killing of everyone on board. The squad stops to eliminate an enemy machine gun, though they could go around, losing one of their own so that the next group through will be safe. The sniper points out that they should be sneaking to Berlin, because he could end the war with a shot, killing the one man more important than everyone dying. And of course the ending, Miller dying so that Ryan may live.
Wrapped up in this sacrifice is a simple faith, the faith that the people above you giving the orders understand the moral calculus. You might just be able to stand giving your own life for something, not for a great cause, but simply because you believe that you would not be told to do it if it didn’t save others. When that faith dies, when the trust between leaders and peoples is broken, no war can be won. It’s a well worn trope to compare anything involving war to Vietnam, but this film means more if you can see the way that Vietnam alters the story. The great Boomer ode to their parents cannot be seen in a vacuum, pretending Vietnam doesn’t exist in the conversation. Saving Private Ryan is a message from one generation to its parents, at once an apology, a condemnation and an explanation.
“James, earn this… earn it. .” -Captain Miller
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.