Analyse the methods used to make the opening battle sequence of “Saving Private Ryan” both shocking and realistic and say how effective you find it as an introduction to the film
Five times Academy Award winner, “Saving Private Ryan” shows the adventures of eight men risking their lives against impossible odds. Director, Steven Spielberg captures the true essence of war behind enemy lines through the eyes of Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks. Not only depicting the harsh brutality of war, but also showing deaths personified. This unconventional account of the Second World War shows the cruel reality of fighting for your country that has turned this Oscar winning film into a timeless classic.
A conventional war film would show the heroic saviours single-handedly winning the war; the good guys win and the bad guys always lose. Except in this film, it shows that both sides are neither good nor evil. They do not fall into those categories. Each side have a deserter or a coward and a merciless killer. It shows us what we tend to forget about war – the enemy, if that is what they truly are, are people too.
The film opens onto a close-up of the American flag fluttering in the wind with a bright blue sky behind. Then you watch as an elderly man walks along a path in what seems to be a park. He is followed closely behind by a mixture of children and adults, each with a concerned expression. The man continues to walk, and then abruptly turns left to gaze forward. As the camera zooms in on his face, we notice the calm sea in the background. It then shows equal mid shots of a French flag and an American flag fluttering in the breeze. Then you see a mid shot of hundreds upon hundreds of graves. The camera follows him as he walks towards something only he can see from a low angle. As it follows him, the camera is obscured by graves shown out of focus; blocking the view repeatedly, but still showing the rows upon rows of graves. Then it zooms in, as the man runs to kneel at a grave. Tears fill his eyes as the camera does an extreme close-up of his face, with the camera just glimpsing his family running in close behind. For this entire scene, bright colours are used and it is quite modern.
Throughout most of the scene inspirational military music is used, with a marching drumbeat, played forte. You can hear birds singing in the background, which gives an impression of calm or even new life, which makes the entire scene contradictory and sad. The fact that you could have something as beautiful as birdsong in a place that is filled with something as dark as death shows a dramatic confliction of themes. The waves in the background join the rhythm of the man as he walks along, giving a military style of marching, tying in with the drums. The only other sounds are as the man sobs quietly by the grave. The graves in the picture seem to go on forever, in straight rows; as though they are infinite. The uniform rows give the essence of formality and embellish the military theme.
This scene then quickly moves to a rough view of boats fighting against the spray of the sea. Soldiers cower in the corners. The camera gives a mid-shot of the rough sea crashing against the boats. This is the complete opposite of the calm blue ocean shown in the previous scene. The camera then shows a tracker shot as it shows each soldier in turn. The camera is sprayed with the water as it is jolted about on the boat. Then the camera faces the door as it opens and is suddenly propelled forward out of the boat and into the sea and under the water. The person represented by the camera struggles to get out of the water. It shows others falling in the water, struggling, drowning and dying. Then we see a midshot of the battlefield with people rushing past, obscuring the view and the beach barricades block the picture. The camera then continues to show an overall view of the battle, occasionally switching to tracking and getting covered in blood or spattered with flying debris. Horrific sights meet the audience as we see soldier upon soldier fall.
The camera then zooms into Captain Miller, the sea washing in crimson behind him, as though death itself is washing over him. The sky throughout this scene is dark grey and very cloudy; using pathetic fallacy as the mood is very miserable and the sky reflects this. In this scene, many sound effects are used, such as the loud crashing of the waves and bullets whizzing past. Most of the scene is understandably in forte to fit in with the mood and the sounds fluctuate throughout the scene. Most of the vocals heard are officers shouting orders or men screaming as they die. The screaming is mainly individual as the camera does a close up of the dying man’s face. This reminds the audience that the soldiers shown are only young boys caught up in a war, which has nothing to do with them. The close up effect shows the last moments of his life as it slips away, and how no matter how brave they are all of the men end up the same in death. Captain Miller’s voice is always the loudest and seems to take control over the other sounds in the scene.
When the camera is used underwater, it takes on some human characteristics. It takes possession of human hearing, as when the camera struggles to stay above the water all the sounds are forte and when the camera ducks under the surface the sounds, if there are any, are piano or muffled. You can almost hear the blood pounding in his ears. This familiarisation brings the audience right into the film.
As we move away from the beach, the camera gives provides a close up of Captain Miller. It then switches to track as he watches a man dying. The edge of the screen is slightly blurred which gives the impression of confusion and a sense of being lost. It shows that he’s feeling that what he’s witnessing isn’t quite real or he isn’t really there, in a dream like state. The scene continues in a similar fashion with various horrifying mid shots of soldiers dying or being torn to pieces. The sound throughout the scene is dull and muted and even though Captain Miller can see people yelling it at him, as though the roles are reversed and he is the private, he cannot hear or comprehend what they are saying. All of these factors contribute to give the scene a distinct feeling of loneliness and displacement that only ends when Captain Miller replaces his helmet. This signifies his return to his military duty.
The following scene is mainly composed of mid shots of the battlefield. Showing soldiers grouping together and shouting orders. The camera flicks past men lying in the mud, dying and you watch as you see people running on by, ignoring the dying men. The camera varies occasionally using high shots, close ups and tracking. Throughout the scene the camera focuses mainly on the horrific images in the battle field but it also shows small things that remind the audience that the men aren’t just soldiers. A flash of a wedding ring, the begging as the men die, shows that these men are human too.
In the scene, the camera does another close up of Captain Miller, which looks as though the camera is showing his minds eye. This is similar to the begging of the film when the man was kneeling in front of the graves, which therefore makes the audience incorrectly suspect that the man in the begging was Captain Miller. When the camera does this action, the beach as a result of the battle.
The camera shows an overall sweeps of the scene, showing countless dead bodies covering the beach which reminds the audience of the begging of the film and the endless grave stones. As the camera shows the red sea washing in over the bodies, as though trying to was away the death, the viewer is suddenly struck by the fact that all of the battle has occurred on a beach. The hundreds of dead fish reinforce this and reminds us that everything is affected by war. The chaos and destruction makes the audience forget that the place is actually a beach, which creates a conflict as a beach usually symbolises a happy place. The camera shows close ups of the barricades on the beach which reflect the graves from the begging and also seemingly infinite. Finally the camera shows a close up of a man lying face down dead in the sand with the name ‘Ryan’ clearly printed on his back pack. This makes the audience question the title. Is it too late to save Private Ryan?
In conclusion, in my opinion the opening scenes are a perfect introduction to this modern war thriller. Keeping the audience wondering throughout the film, until all is revealed at the end. The introduction shows the main principles that Steven Spielberg has worked to his advantage and giving a small glimpse of the many battles and deaths that lie ahead of the courageous team in search of Private Ryan.