A movie directed by Spielberg, based upon the true story of the Niland brothers. The movie was released in 1998.
Steven Spielberg, born 1946, in Cincinnati, is arguably the most powerful, distinguished and influential figure in the motion picture industry. He is the most financially successful motion picture director of all time, and has produced an astounding number of major box office hits, giving him great influence in Hollywood. Last year, Empire magazine compiled a list of the 50 greatest directors of all time, and Spielberg was #1 on the list. He has been nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Director, winning two of them (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). Spielberg has directed and produced altogether twenty-six movies; a vast majority of the nation and film critics speculate that Schindler’s List (1993) (Academy Award, Best Director, Best Picture), Saving Private Ryan (1998) (Academy Award, Best Director), and Jaws (1975) were his greatest achievements overall in his eminent career. Schindler’s List was well known for portraying the horrifying truths of the holocaust in such graphic detail; and is remarked to be the only black-and-white motion picture to receive an Oscar since The Apartment in 1960. Jaws was notable for both its thrilling suspense and its soundtrack.
The words that come to mind are “shockingly intense”, but that is undeniably an understating insult. Spielberg’s opening to Saving Private Ryan is 50% what you would expect from a reincarnation of D-Day; sadness, Germans, Americans, blood, sweat and tears. The other half, however, is an inexplicable show of pure genius in depicting this horrendous day in such detail and with such perspective. Saving Private Ryan breaks a lot of the traditional conventions of the war film genre; with such authenticity. It’s a fact that many veterans of D-Day have congratulated director Steven Spielberg for the film’s realism, including actor James Doohan, best known as Scotty from Star Trek. Doohan lost the middle finger of his right hand and was wounded in the leg during the war.
He commended Spielberg for not leaving out any gory details. As the scene begins, soldiers vomit from sheer and utter fear as they near the landing point on the beaches of Normandy. Captain John Miller (Hanks) shouts last-minute instructions and orders; finishing with an ironic line “I’ll see you on the beach!” The instant shock of the unexpected machine gun fire from the German bunkers leads to a wide-eyed audience, not to mention a wide-eyed Miller; what we witness is the absolutely relentless slaughter of the US soldiers even as the ramps of the U-boats go down. Throughout the battle scenes – as I will discuss in more detail later – Spielberg put a handheld camera to use; the effect was phenomenal.
Not only did the juddering and tilted lens add to the realistic nature of the scene; it enhanced the first-person-perspective and reinforced the chaotic disposition that Spielberg intended. Another factor to the realistic nature was the 60% reduction of colour saturation to the movie for artistic reasons – Spielberg didn’t want a rich-colour scene, he wanted to fortify the grey, dull clouds and the monotone of the bland uniforms of the troops; making the movie all the more gloomy and historic. In actual fact, in America, when the movie was aired on TV, numerous cable TV providers were forced to turn up the chroma gain to re-enhance the colour to normal-looking levels; the reason was that their customer services were swamped with calls from viewers complaining that something was wrong with the colour. Well, Miller did indeed see his soldiers on the beach – the vast majority of them a horrific massacre of body parts strewn across the crimson sand, lapped against by the bloody ocean which was the deathbed for countless soldiers.
A brief plot summary then, of Saving Private Ryan; after the Normandy invasion (the unparalleled, horrifyingly accurate depiction of D-Day for the first 30 minutes of the film), Captain Miller and his squad, consisting of Sergeant Mike Horvath (Sizemore), Pvt. Richard Reiben (Burns), Pvt. Daniel Jackson (Pepper), Pvt. Stanley Mellish (Goldberg), Pvt. Adrien Caparzo (Diesel), T-4 Medic Irwin Wade (Ribisi) and Cpl. Timothy P. Upham (Davies), are ordered directly from General George C. Marshall to find and return Pvt. James Francis Ryan home – the reason for this being that his mother has already had to cope with the immeasurable grief of the loss of her other three sons in combat. The General firmly believed that the last Private Ryan – whose whereabouts were unknown due to a miscarried parachute landing – was alive, and he was determined to return him home as the only consolation he could give to Mother Ryan after the other three Ryans “had died so valiantly to save the Republic”.
After the title sequence, we are given a close shot of the US flag. It gently sways in the wind, with the sun shining through it from behind, rendering the flag somewhat translucent. The film moves into a powerful shot of an old man – who we learn at the end, is an elderly Private Ryan – leading his family through a beautiful footpath, on an equally beautiful day. I use the term “powerful” in two aspects; one of which is the sound/music employed in the scene, and the other being the use of camera shots/what is visible in the scene. Spielberg has turned to composer John Williams for practically every movie he’s directed (aside from one or two), and this is one of them. Williams moves us with the bold, grand, almost majestic music played (non-diegetic music, of course, where the source of the sound is not visible i.e. soundtrack) in the background. It creates a sense of prominence and even a lordly aspect of Ryan; the camera shots also help achieve this feat; the fact that he is leading his family through, and that there is a significant gap between them is another factor.
Williams manages to make the music seem quiet yet bold, using to his advantage several moderate crescendos of the brass and string sections of the orchestra. The brass section of the orchestra mainly dominates this opening piece of music; filling in the first twenty seconds with a harmonic introduction. As Ryan turns the corner around the tree, the camera stops and we get a good view of his face (through a close up), and the sorrow that is displayed as he glimpses the crosses. Even at this stage of the film, we feel moved and respectful by the perfect embodiment of the music and the mid-shots of Ryan walking through the ocean of crosses (epitaphs for the US soldiers that fought in France). At this point, the camera gives us a long shot as Ryan starts to walk towards the crosses, there is a low pulse of perhaps a timpani in the orchestra, and this mingles well with the sudden low-key melody on the string instruments, signifying audacity and valiance. The gradual increase in volume of the music here is directly proportional to the camera as it pans across in a long shot to transpire the ocean of crosses; possibly to show respect.
When Ryan breaks down crying, overwhelmed with emotion, Williams succeeds in making an effective ending to the calm music, to the transition to the instant chaos. There is an extreme-close-up on Ryan’s eyes…
We hear the relentless pour of the rain on the agitated sea waves; the soldiers bracing themselves for the fire fight…it is here immediately that we see our protagonist, Miller. The camera first shows a close up of his right hand shaking and holding his canteen. He takes a long draught, and issues last minute instructions to his men.
The countdown begins…”30 seconds! God be with you!” says the U-boat pilot…the ramps go down…and suddenly the clatter of gunfire, as bullets ricochet and pierce through armour. Not once through that horrifying sequence do we hear the gunfire stop. Soldiers are mowed down, literally, by the German opposition up in the machinegun bunkers. At a desperate attempt to even land on the beach, they go over the side of the boat, struggling frantically to take off their heavy loads. Sudden swooshing sounds erupt from nowhere as bullets gored through the defenceless troops underwater. Blood clouds gush from the wounds and discolour the sea. Effective use of a 1st person perspective meant that as the camera bobbed above and below the water surface, the sounds became deadened and ; the contrast is striking – from the muffled gurgling of water to the dramatically loud rattle of machinegun fire, confusion and pandemonium. Spielberg managed to achieve a greater level of realism; as well as the real weaponry from the war (bought from auctions and collectors), the sounds of the bullets were not effects but real bullets fired at a firing range from the actual guns.
As I have mentioned before, the handheld camera proves to have such an impact on the degree of chaos in the scene – the blood spattering on the lens makes it all the more believable that the cameraman is part of the action; there is no narrowing in to one particular feature, just the random shots of the absolute mayhem everywhere. One of the shots during the battle is from the viewpoint of the Germans high up in the bunkers. We see them constantly aiming and firing mercilessly at the Americans, really giving us the idea that it was too easy for the Germans. The handheld camera followed the 30.mm calibre machine gun and gave us a perfect view of the whole beach.
Clearly, the effect intended for this shot was to portray the Americans as utterly powerless, and the Germans having pretty much all the advantages. I think Spielberg has managed this perfectly; for in my mind it seemed that the Americans had no chance at all – no one was getting anywhere up the beach. Mines were stepped on and Spielberg was not discreet in showing most of the gore through these bombs; legs were blown off, blood, muscle and tissue were shown (fact: real amputees were used for the parts where limbs were blown off), intestines and stomachs were laid bare as critically injured soldiers lay helplessly and screamed for their mothers.
Miller manages to make it onto the beach; it is at this point as he clings to one of the iron hedgehogs that all sound is dampened and Miller gawps at the mass destruction that lay before him. As he glances, the camera looks through his viewpoint; we see soldiers burning as gas tanks explode, we see some soldiers cowering behind the iron hedgehogs – even though there is nowhere to go. Miller’s initial reactions are that of disbelief and horror; as he gets showered with blood from a nearby explosion, he puts on his blood-filled helmet, trembling. The sound comes back to us as Miller is brought to his senses by a soldier yelling, “What the hell do we do now, sir!!” He seems still horror-struck and disorganised – he has to keep himself aware of the fact that he’s still the captain of this operation – when a soldier asks him what the rallying point is, he replies flustered, “Anywhere but here!!” The camera then takes the position of Miller’s viewpoint, and we can hear his grunts of “Move, move!” and the sudden halts as he dodges bombs and gunfire. There is no music during this battle scene; nor is there any need for any.
At the end of the battle, when Miller and his troops have control of “Dog One”, there is a scene where a Horvath looks over Omaha Beach and comments, “That’s quite a view,”. Miller takes a long draught from his canteen (we here notice his shaking hands for a second time) and replies, “Yes it is. It’s quite a view.” The camera then conducts a series of close ups, mid-shots and long shots of the massacre of Omaha Beach, the lifeless bodies tossed around by the now calm but bloody sea – after a few shots, the camera swoops down on one particular soldier; the name printed on his backpack read “S. Ryan”. This shot is the first association with the title of the film, and this would dawn upon us as significant.
From my point of view, I believe that nothing could have prepared me for the shocking and realistic battle scene which followed the tranquil scene at the very beginning. The contents of the actual battle scene itself assured me that Spielberg was not prepared to hide much of the sanguinary scenes; and so it made me ready for any further gory details he had decided to include. The realism of the battle scene was shocking; I believe that he has gone through a huge ordeal to produce something with that much authenticity – although I obviously have no account of the real events on Omaha Beach; I do not find it easy to imagine a worse scenario under those circumstances. The extent of Spielberg’s creative power has not failed to astound me, and quite plainly, with 5 Oscars and another 51 wins and 52 nominations for awards, it has been recognised with distinction. To think that someone has the ability to put such events on the “big screen” is awe-striking, and as I have mentioned, Spielberg has received many commendations and praise from veterans of the Normandy invasion for the genuineness of his portrayal.
In my opinion, Saving Private Ryan is one of the best films I have ever watched; one of the main reasons is because it wasn’t just about shooting and death, there was a real exploration of the emotions in the movie that must have been in abundance on that day in history. Hence, this movie would have quite a moving effect on most people, not to mention surprise them with the revelation of the harsh and unforgiving veracity of war.