I’ll never forget the first time I watched Saving Private Ryan. At school I had a keen interest in history, especially the World Wars, and I always wondered what it would’ve been like to be a soldier in the midst of the conflict. There was a part of me that held a bit of boy-ish glee at the prospect of firing a rifle, assaulting a fortified position, or flanking the enemy with superior tactics. It was a rose-tinted view to say the least, one far from reality. I had wanted to watch Spielberg’s war epic for some time too but was wisely not allowed to by my parents. Eventually, in my teens, I got my hands on a copy and sat down to watch. From the very start my eyes never left the screen and by the final credits I was shaken, almost to the point of tears.
The film takes place during World War II, and follows closely a small group of soldiers led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) as they are tasked with finding Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) in order to bring him home following the death of his brothers. Spielberg’s vision for this film was to present a realistic look at the men who fought in World War II, and to show the war for what it was. In his own words, the movie is “for the veterans”.
The visceral depiction of combat in Saving Private Ryan is what set the film apart at the time, and it really struck me. The narrative starts in the present with an elderly man visiting the graves of soldiers in Normandy, and from then the focus shifts back to the D-Day landings. Using handheld cameras, we are thrown into the midst of the fighting and carnage, seeing events from a soldiers perspective. The entire battle involved around 1500 extras essentially re-enacting the attack and camera men dispersed among them to capture the unrehearsed reactions that Spielberg was looking for. It’s utterly frantic as the camera pans from one side of the beach to the other, ducking behind cover, keeping close to the ground. The effect this achieves is scarily powerful – war is chaos and according to some veterans, this is close to the truth.
Alongside the uncompromising representation of warfare, there is the tangibly human portrayal of the average Americans called to fight in this war. The characters are not stereotypes or caricatures, they are real people. They bicker, crack jokes, share stories, and show very real fear, especially when facing their own mortality. The effort put in by the cast and screenwriter to bring the soldiers to life makes the ensuing violence seem all the more horrible – excruciating in its mercilessness. On my first viewing I found the final battle so hard to sit through, the whole sequence was a complete gut-punch and I know why. There are moments of creative licence, and this is an undeniably American perspective on the war, but I was left thinking about the actual historical events. I thought about the men of a few generations ago that served their countries and fought for them.
I don’t believe that anyone could maintain a glamourised idea of the 2nd World War after engaging with this film. In brings into sharp relief the enormity of the suffering and sacrifice of countless men and women who sought to protect our freedom. Simply as a movie, it is brilliant, from directing to costuming, but that is not why it means a lot to me. It is important to me that the events shown in Saving Private Ryan bring me back to the harsh truth of warfare and remind me to be thankful that in my youth I have not experienced the horror of war. Whatever means are used, be it cinema or word-of-mouth or education, the act of remembering those who have died in wars must be continued and passed down. I hope that every time you watch this film and the credits roll to “Hymn To The Fallen”, you remember them.