As strange as it may sound coming from somebody who has a Master of Arts degree in military history, I'm not much of a fan of war movies these days. But, while my interest may have waned for now, there are some titles I remember very fondly as the best war movies I have ever seen - second from the top of that list is Saving Private Ryan (with the first being the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front).
Saving Private Ryan is one of the most powerful films ever made, and its impact is immense. It wasn't the only high-profile war movie to come out in 1998 - Terence Malik's The Thin Red Line was its direct competitor, and these two were soon joined by the likes of Enemy at the Gates. But of all these war movies, Saving Private Ryan is the only one that hasn't been reduced to a footnote over the years. It's the only title that has become traditional TV faire - the violence uncut, no less - on Remembrance Day in a manner akin to The Ten Commandments on Easter Weekend. It's also a movie that many critics and commentators don't really understand.
Ask somebody what Saving Private Ryan is about, and the most common replies are probably going to be variations of "the horror of war" - but that's not true, at least in any direct fashion. As strange as it may sound, Saving Private Ryan is not about the violence, or even the horror.
(Although it probably goes without saying, spoilers ahead.)
The most famous scene in the movie is, without doubt, the D-Day sequence, which is so visceral, realistic, and intense that it gave combat veterans flashbacks when it first appeared in the theatre. But, its purpose is to establish the setting, not the theme. The theme is established in the framing device: two scenes set in the modern day involving an aged World War II veteran in a war cemetery. These scenes were considered the movie's only misstep by a number of critics upon release, and are still treated as so disposable that many people refer to the D-Day scene as the opening of the movie...but it's not.
The basic plot of Saving Private Ryan is as follows: in the present day, we see an American Veteran in a War cemetery with his family, breaking down in front of one the headstones. The veteran's face transitions into Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) as he's about to storm Omaha Beach. Once the beach is taken, Miller is given a new assignment: to take a squad of Rangers and bring back Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), a 101st Airborne trooper whose mother has received word of the deaths of his three brothers all on the same day, so that he can save his family any further suffering by going home.
After navigating the landscape of the American sector of Normandy, the squad finds Ryan with some paratroopers protecting a bridge at Ramelle, but he refuses to leave until the job is done. So, Miller's squad joins the paratroopers as they mount a defence of the bridge, during which all but two of them are killed, including Captain Miller. Miller's last words to Ryan are "Earn this," at which point the film transitions back to the present, where we discover that the old veteran is Ryan, standing over the grave of Captain Miller, and begging to know if being a good man and raising a family was enough to earn what was done for him.
What makes this movie so powerful is its near-total rejection of what it is to be a war movie. The violence is realistic and brutal, but Saving Private Ryan casts no judgement on it - it is treated as part of the setting, a hellscape that the characters must navigate and sometimes participate in. Miller's squad is on the exact opposite of a combat mission - their job is to bring somebody out of the battlefield on behalf of a civilian. They're not even all that motivated - most of the squad thinks the idea of risking eight lives to save one person is military stupidity at its worst, wasting their time and taking them away from missions that are actually important.
But it is Miller's dying words that bring the film and its message into focus: "Earn this," or, in other words, "earn this hell we went through for you." With these two words, firm judgement is cast: risking eight lives to save one is important enough to be worth doing. In that moment Saving Private Ryan transcends to being about why we fight.
The mission becomes a metaphor for the war as a whole - the sacrifice of so many lives made worthy because it is to free innocent people from the horrors of fascism. The violence is brutal and hellish because we cannot understand the magnitude of the sacrifice if we don't first experience the hellscape.
It is the final scene, set not during the war but decades after it, that drives the message home in such an unforgettable manner. Ryan has done his best to earn what was done for him, and he's begging to know if it was enough. But his question can never be answered - after all, Miller died over half a century ago at Ramelle. Likewise, we can never know if we have been worthy of the sacrifices made on our behalf, nor what we would have to do to earn them.
Saving Private Ryan didn't become a classic because it was about the violence or the horror - it became a classic because it's about the debt. It's a pity that so many of the war movies that followed didn't realize this.
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.
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