By John H. Foote


It has been more than 75 years since Allied forces stormed that beach, dubbed Omaha, 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 witness to this bloody history, which is why films such as this are of such great importance. Who will tell these stories of war when these heroes are no longer with us?

Artists, authors, playwrights, poets, documentarians and filmmakers all have written or documented the Second World War. Hailed The Greatest Generation, those at home, raising the children, making the weapons and tanks, waiting for word of their husbands, fathers and sons, they endured so much. Thousands of miles away, in strangely named places, Americans, British, Canadian and Soviet allies fought a terrible war, edging ever closer into the heart of Germany. The impact, during and mostly after the war, would be felt around the globe, seventy plus years, in fact it continues.

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. The cinema was freezing on that hot June morning, the heat outside already sweltering. With sweaters and hoodies packed in our backpacks, they were not long coming out in that cavernous, wonderful cathedral of cinema.

When the film was over, nobody moved, too shaken or awed by the film to move. There were tears, glistening faces where tears had been swept away, the silence a hushed tribute to the film. 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 at press screenings. 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. I remember thinking, talking to others, just having the freedom to do what we do, might have been the greatest thing these men fought for. Everyone in that cinema that day had been altered in some way, none of us were the same coming out as we were going in. 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, but did, though it took her breath away. The reaction was always the same, primal, visceral, human.

No one had ever experienced combat in a film as it was in this. Quick, lethal, intense chaotic, constant danger, immediate death or long, lingering death, bodies torn to pieces, the scenes on the beach were startling in the 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. For so many brave, young souls the assault on the beach was over before it started, killed before they could fire their weapon. Over and over, as constant as the waves rolling in from the ceaseless sea, the allied troops stormed the beach, wave after wave, finally overpowering the Germans with their sheer population.

Spielberg recreated the storming of the beach with uncanny intensity, using handheld 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, at a terrible cost, 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 changed. There was terrible glory in what was accomplished that day, but everyone was painfully aware of the overwhelming losses and cost of life. Veterans wept openly seeing the film, one saying through his tears, “the only thing missing is the smell”. He would whisper the air was filled by smoke, gunpowder, sea air, the ocean smell, blood, and fish, washing up on the shore torn apart by bullets and grenades. They must have known that the first to the beach was a suicide mission, as their bodies were torn apart by machine gun fire, other crafts, seemingly endless following them.

Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who we have followed from the beach to safety, awaits orders while staring out over the conquered beach. His mission is to find a young American and bring him back, and 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, soldiers 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. Before he and his men are given any time to recover, they are sent off, joined by a new member of the squad, Upham (Jeremy Davies), a silently terrified translator. The journey to find Ryan will alter their very existence, forever change their lives. 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 Sergeant 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 war but also are representative of the diverse troops 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 Robert Rodat load the film with big and intimate moments that make the film and its portrayal of war, of life and death rather 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. One of the most haunting moments remains the fight between Melissa and a muscular Nazi in a room on the second floor. As they slam each other about, the German finally gently easing a knife into his opponent’s heart as he whispers to him “shhhhh”. All the while the terrified Upham (Jeremy Davies) has cowered on the steps, having hears it all.

Tom Hanks was brilliant as Miller, the stoic yet frightened squad leader burdened with the weight of the men killed under his command. His quiet breakdown after the horrifying death of Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is, I believe, the very heart and soul of the film. Mortally wounded he tells Ryan (Matt Damon), “Earn this” asking the young man to lead a good, honest life, to make the men who died saving him proud wherever they might be. Hanks gives a fine a performance as he ever gave on his journey to becoming the finest actor of his generation.

Equally good, though perhaps less beloved, was Jeremy Davies terrified Upham, who in the heat of battle allows his fear to get the better of him. Stranded on the stairs, overcome, paralyzed with terror, he cannot move to save Melissa, as a German almost lovingly eases a dagger into his heart. Cowardice is difficult to portray onscreen without being hated, but Davies brought such truth, such searing humanity to the character we could do nothing but feel his fear, his terror.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks during filming

Fine work from the rest of the cast allows the film to be enormously watchable, often very funny, yet filled with dark moments of great humanity.

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 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 11 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 L.A. 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, which in 2021 I dare say has already happened!

I doubt Saving Private Ryan will ever fade from our collective 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 thing missing were the smells. The sea, gunpowder, smoke, fire, blood (he choked back a sob) and the death.”

An extraordinary work of art.

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