Surprised? You probably watched the movie, admired or deplored the blood and gore, probably liked the movie and then in the usual manner put it out of your mind.
Great cinema, as in the case of great literature, holds in its script, or portrayal of it, messages for mankind. What Steven Spielberg does is to include in just one film some of the conundrums about the nature of war that have troubled mankind through the ages. Before going further, in case you have not seen the movie, I recommend you read the plot.
The name ‘Saving Private Ryan’ itself gives a tantalising hint to just one of the central premise of the film, namely :
Is it worth risking, and losing, many lives to save just one man?
In the opening scene, we see an elderly Ryan visiting the graveyards of Normandy and as he kneels in front of some of them, the director cuts to the he opposed landing on Omaha beach on D-Day, publicly acknowledged as the worst bloodbath suffered by American troops in the Second World War.
The soldiers of an unarmed landing craft land unprotected into a maelstrom of fire and flying metal on a beach in broad daylight without cover. With great dificulty a company of 2nd Rangers under Capt John Miller (Tom Hanks) reaches the beach after suffering very heavy casualties and later secures a part of Omaha beach-head. This battle scene, which was ranked by TV Guide as the best of the 50 greatest movie moments of all time, is a brutal, mind-numbing and overwhelming assault on one’s senses – Spielberg impresses upon us, the audience, the Horrors of War and dismisses the concept of war as a honourable and glorious endeavour – to effect, losing lives in war is abhorrent. (Youtube links for the long scene – part 1 – part 2 – part 3)
The scene fades to show the human flotsam on the beaches and focuses on one pack – the name Ryan stencilled upon it.
The scene now moves to the office of the US Army Chief of Army Staff, General George C. Marshall, who discovers that three of the four brothers of the Ryan family have all died within days of each other and that their mother will receive all three notices on the same day. He is then told by his staff that that the fourth son, Private First Class James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) of Baker Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment is missing in action somewhere in Normandy. His staff argues that Ryan may be dead and that it is pointless to risk lives in a foolhardy mission into enemy territory to locate and bring back a soldier who may already be dead.
Till this point, the viewer will wholeheartedly agree that it is pointless to risk such lives – the sons of other mothers for just one man.
In response to their arguments, Gen Marshall takes out an old letter written a long time ago to a Mrs Bixby from Abraham Lincoln. Through the formal archaic language of the letter the viewer learns that the letter is one of condolence and that she is the mother of five sons all of whom lost their lives in the American Civil War. The reading aloud by actor Harve Pressnell, who plays the role of Gen George Marshall, evokes powerful emotions. (Youtube link for the complete scene)
I cannot stop myself from sharing the text of the letter with you, dear Reader.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln.
Gen Marshall orders that Pyt Ryan be found and sent home immediately.
By the time the reading was done, I was personally convinced that it was definitely worth anything to save that one last precious son for Mrs Ryan.
This is a very tenuous premise. It struggles like an enraged python as one mulls over it. The first thought that comes is since life is valuable, aren’t more lives more precious than one life. Or is it? Does the great sacrifice of four lives not earn Mrs Ryan the right for her son to be returned to her? If we accept that, then how about the single chld of parents or children of parents who have lost one or more but not all but one lives of their children?
This dilemma was faced by the US Military in real-life incidents in World War II which in their turn inspired this film. The first case was that of the Niland brothers, where two of four brothers was killed, but at one point of time, the third was also thought to have been killed (actually he was a POW) and the fourth brother was brought back. The other incident was that of the five Sullivan brothers who enlisted in the US Navy on the precondition that they all serve together but who all died when their ship sank during the War. There being many other cases of brethren enlisting in the conscripted United States armed forces of World War II, a ‘Sole survivor‘ policy was introduced.
This is the magic of Spielberg! He first convinces you of a premise and then just as strongly convinces you of its the validity of its antithesis! This is just the first conundrum for the reader to reflect at his leisure after having watched the movie.
In another scene, Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), a member of Miller’s squad tries to help some locals stranded in the middle of the gunfire. The locals plead that Ryan’s soldiers should take their child to safety out of the war zone. Caparzo, disobeying Miller’s strident orders, moves forward to receive the child forgetting his duty as a soldier to remain tactically under cover and is shot by a sniper. When Capt Miller (Tom Hanks) bends over to collect his dog-tags, (a symbolic moment), he says “That is why we cannot take children with us!” (Youtube link for the scene)
Deep in enemy territory, the squad detects a lone German machine gun in ambush, Miller insists the squad attack and kill the machine gun squad before it ambushes others less alert, who would later follow in their path. The squad vehemently diasgrees saying that is not their job which is to find Private Ryan. They refuse until Miller forces the moment by almost single-handedly assaulting by himself. The position is taken but the squad medical corpsman Private Wade, a man held in high esteem by the squad, dies of bullet wounds received in the assault of the gun position. Was Ryan right to take up this self-imposed mission when he already had a higher priority mission which did not require it! Should one obey orders to the letter or should a soldier interpret his orders in his larger understanding of the military situation?(Youtube link for the scene)
The squad successfully captures the gun position but Capt Miller prevents his soldier from executing the sole surviving German, “Steamboat Willie” and releases him to return unharmed. The squad is ready to mutiny with one soldier refusing to go further, while Miller’s sergeant threatens to shoot him if he does not obey the Captain. Miller defuses the situation in a very powerful scene which is the emotional highpoint of the film. (Youtube link for the scene)
Later “Steamboat Willie” aids the German counter attacking troops and personally kills Miller and some other members of the squad. The same German was once again fed into the fighting line and comes back to kill his benefactor. In a rare twist, the German soldier saves the life of the cowardly interpreter, who in his turn shoots him in the end. Is it right in war to show mercy to an unarmed helpless soldier?
These, and many other such questions are raised by Spielberg in this movie. Now I am not trying to be a spoiler nor would I like to walk you through all the other contradictions that Spielberg brings alive in this magnificient film. That is for you, dear reader, to watch and discover for yourself. I only wanted to show you the method of finding such hidden lessons in Spielberg’s work.
I could also go on waxing eloquent over the accuracy of battle scenes, the way Spielberg brings life to his characters and so on and so forth, but better film reviewers than me have written about this film - Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times has written a great critique!
I wish you all the very best of viewing of this amazing movie and hope you can enjoy it as much as I enjoyed it. I close with thanks to Avdi for inviting a guest post for The Pink Bee.