Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan was named the best war film of all time in a 2009 poll of movie fans. Steven Spielberg’s film is not perfect: it plays its strongest card first, the middle section is slightly uneven, and there are sallies into sentimentality. But it is a modern war classic.
The opening 27-minute sequence is unforgettable, depicting the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944 in a way that is as graphic as any war footage. You are forced to confront the chaos that faced the poor troops on the beach, as when a soldier has his arm blown off. He staggers, dazed, open to further fire, and then he bends and picks up his arm, as if he will need it later. Few film-makers have ever plunged the audience into the nowhere-to-hide horror of battle as Spielberg does in that opening. It’s a genuinely terrifying spectacle, and a moving tribute to the men who did it for real.
When the initial fighting is over, John Williams’s moving score accompanies a view of the carnage and we see the name ‘Ryan S’ on a corpse’s equipment. He is the third son of Mrs Ryan of Iowa to have been killed in the Second World War. There is a haunting scene when the news is broken to her at an idyllic hilltop farm.
General George C Marshall decides that the fourth brother, Private James Francis Ryan, lost in Normandy with the scattered 101st Airborne, must be brought home alive and Captain John H Miller (Tom Hanks) is assigned to lead a small band of men through enemy lines to find and save Private Ryan, who is well played by Matt Damon.
Saving Private Ryan becomes a mission movie and although the bookish, decent intellectual facing up to the horrors of war for the first time is nothing new, it is a role played to perfection by Hanks.
Spielberg opens the film with three generations of an American family visiting a military graveyard in Nineties France, the grandfather clearly on an emotional pilgrimage. Spielberg is an admirer of British wartime filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the elderly veteran’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who appeared in several of their films.
The climactic stand in the town of Ramelle still packs a fearsome punch and although it is a tough film to watch, there is a message of hope. “Earn it,” Miller says to Ryan in one key scene. It is the audience Spielberg is addressing.