By John H. Foote
My daughter Aurora, and her boyfriend Andrew, recently returned from Paris, a whirlwind birthday present her from Andrew, something he had planned, and executed as a complete surprise.
When they returned, Andrew handed me a small jar of sand from Juno Beach. While in Paris they made the journey to the site of the invasion that turned the tide of the war on D Day. Andrew was stunned that the nests of solid concrete built by the Germans were still intact despite coming under heavy fire by the Americans, British, and Canadians, all part of the invasion. I opened the small jar and inhaled deeply, smelling the sea, the earth and what other scents might be stored in the sand. Blood? Death? Life?
It has been 75 years saw allied forces stormed that beach, leaving it blood-soaked, littered with bodies torn to pieces by heavy machine gun fire from the many nests above the beach. There are fewer and fewer veterans each year to be witnesses to this history, which is why films such as this are of such great importance.
The first time I saw Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was in the old Uptown Theatre at dawn with the rest of the Toronto and GTA critics. When the film was over, nobody moved, too shaken or awed by the film to move. When my legs found me, I moved slowly out of the cinema, speaking in hushed tones with some of the critics I knew. This never happened, no one ever spoke. But here was a film so visceral and raw in its force, its overwhelming power that perhaps we needed a human connection just to be reminded of life. In the next few weeks, I took my brother to see the film, then my wife who was not sure she could handle the frenetic violence of the beach landing.
No one had ever experienced combat in a film as it was in this. Quick, lethal, constant danger, immediate death or long, lingering death, the scenes on the beach were startling in their realism and sheer power. From the moment the door on the craft is opened, Death began as the Germans stitched the men with their machine gun fire. Over and over, as constant as the waves, the allied troops stormed the beach, finally overpowering the Germans with their sheer population. Spielberg recreates the storming of the beach with uncanny intensity, using hand-held cameras to follow the movements of the men, from the moment they landed, past the bodies, to relative safety further up, moving towards the deadly nests. Once taken, they stand high on a hill, overlooking the beach, watching the ships, the thousands of men dealing with the dead, realizing the tide of the war has forever hanged. There was glory in what was accomplished that day, but everyone was painfully aware of the terrible cost. The first to the beach was a suicide mission, as their bodies were torn apart by machine gun fire. Looking out to sea wondering what is coming next, Miller cannot believe his next task.
His mission is to find a young American and bring him back, get him home.
Somewhere in German-occupied France is Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) and Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is given orders to take his men, move inland, into German-occupied France, find Ryan, the last surviving son of the family, and bring him home. His mother gets the news his brothers, all three of them have been killed in action, on the same day. In a Rockwellian setting, we see the military car and minister silently deliver the news, to which she collapses to the ground. The military makes the immediate decision to find Ryan and get him home.
Miller has miraculously survived the beach landing, though surrounded by death, no question he is traumatized. Gathering his men, off they go to France, with German soldiers all around them to find Ryan. The journey to find the young man will alter their very existence. Some of them will die, those who survive will never forget what they did to bring Ryan home.
As much about war movies as it is war, the group of soldiers looking for Ryan are a cross-section of Americans, of American movie soldiers. There is Miller, the stoic though haunted Captain, who blames himself for each death, his second in command, a rough and ready Sargeant Horvath, the tough kid from the Bronx, the timid Jewish soldier not used to combat, the soulful little medic, the religious sharpshooter, who kisses his cross before each kill, and the angry young Jew who wants to fight Hitler himself. These men represent both a cross-section of America, the young men who fought the war but also are representative of the troop as portrayed in the movies.
So much was made, rightly so of the opening and closing battle scenes, each hyper-realistic, that I think the very humanistic elements of the story were unfairly forgotten. Spielberg and writer Rodat, load the film with big and intimate moments that make the And its portrayal of war, of life and death, are extraordinary.
Some include, Miller holding a man on the beach only to see the man shot through the chest, dying as he slips to the water; the red tide washing in after the attack, fish washing up alongside the thousands of bodies; the men trying to figure out what Miller does back home; the shocking death of Wade, the little medic, who when told where his wounds are, knows he is dying at that moment; Miller, going off by himself and breaking down, sobbing after losing Wade; allowing, ironically, the German who killed Wade to live; Miller telling the group he is a school teacher back home; finding Ryan and realizing he is indeed worth saving because he does not wish to go; Miller listening to Ryan’s memory of his brothers before the war; Upham (Jeremy Davies) frozen in fear on the stairs unable to move as a German soldier gently eases a dagger into the young American clenched like lovers on the floor; Miller shot, by the very German soldier he released; Upham killing that same German soldier; Miller’s last words to Ryan, “earn this, earn it”.
The scene with Ryan talking about his brothers was improvised on the spot by Matt Damon, who Spielberg gently prodded to come up with something. Being a writer, Damon did just that, and the sequence was kept in the film.
Those moments make the film the masterpiece it is, yet it is not without flaw. At the beginning of the film, the old man at the cemetery overlooking the beach looks out over the sea and the camera cuts to Miller in the boat being rushed to the beach. As the language of the cinema is absolute, we believe that the elderly man is Miller. Yet at the end of the film, after Miller has died the camera moves in on Ryan and before our eyes he ages, morphing into that old man we all believed was Miller. The problem borne of that was that Ryan was not on the beach…the memories could not possibly be his!
Now, this has been explained as the men who were on the beach likely explained the horrors they endured to Ryan. Fair enough, but it is sloppy storytelling from a master storyteller.
That said, even Citizen Kane (1941) is flawed.
Saving Private Ryan was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and would win five including Best Director for Spielberg, his second Academy Award in five years, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing and Best Film Editing. Then, of course, it shockingly lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love (1998) a well written, frothy comedy about the story behind Romeo and Juliet. How does the best directed, best shot and best-edited film lose the big prize?? And this came after the film won Best Picture Awards from the LA and New York Film Critics Associations! They debate to this day why the film lost, especially when history has been kind to it and Shakespeare in Love has faded from memory.
I doubt Saving Private Ryan will ever fade from our conscious, it is simply too realistic and its exploration of one of the greatest events of the 20th century cannot be ignored. War veterans who had been on the beaches wept openly when seeing the film, one of them telling me with tears in his eyes, as he shook, “the only things missing were the smells. The sea, gunpowder, smoke, fire, blood and death.”
An extraordinary work of art.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.