Dulce Et Decorum – A Review of Saving Private Ryan

A photograph lies before me as I write, taken at a British airbase sometime in l944. It shows the crew of a B-l7 Flying Fortress, their plane in the background. My uncle Bernard, its radio operator, kneels in the first row, his presence rendered uncannily real via computerized restoration. Bernie had lied about his age to enlist at l7. By the time of the photo, three years into his war, he’d become a skilled technical sergeant. The oldest man — and only career officer — was the pilot, a 26-year-old captain.

Shortly afterwards all of them were killed, saving a gunner who had been grounded with a sinus infection over his angry protests. (Bernie’s best friend and the other Jewish crew member, he continued corresponding with my family for thirty years thereafter.) The Army said they had died bravely, but details were hard to come by. After the war, my uncle Hirsch — he’d served in the Navy — travelled to England and found Bernie’s grave, a Star of David amidst a sea of crosses. Hirsch also discovered that Bernie’s squadron had been tasked to shoot down the buzz-bombs — subsonic V2 rocket precursors — which the Germans were hurling across the Atlantic into English cities.

The mission called for long hours of aerial surveillance, carrying an extra fuel load which altered the B-l7’s flight performance. On its first training run Bernie’s plane reached the end of the runway, swerved, then suddenly blew up. There was no possibility of escape. Hirsch was assured Bernie had not suffered, but he knew there could be no certainty on this score. Bad weather conditions, pilot error, even sabotage, were cited as possible reasons for the explosion. At home we blamed the war itself, and never thought otherwise than that Bernie had died in an honorable cause.

My ten-year-old imagination intuitively sanitized Bernie’s demise through the mediation of Hollywood war movies. When his coffin was eventually brought back home to Philadelphia, I considered neither the incinerated dreadfulness of its contents nor the torment my uncle might have endured in that terrible vortex of flame. In my mind’s eye he reposed whole — as in a dignified sleep. Like the dead pilot on his hospital bed in Howard Hawks’Air Force (l943).

Our rabbi proclaimed that the tragic loss of Bernie’s promise would be redeemed by the free world that was his legacy; avowed his sacrifice would never be forgotten. But within a few years Bernie’s death and his purloined future already were insidiously slipping away. Remembrance and grief had ebbed as my uncle dwindled into history

The therapeutic, yet problematic attrition wrought by time upon traumatic recollection constitutes a central motif ofSaving Private Ryan, Stephen Spielberg’s epic reconstruction of the D-Day invasion and its aftermath. The theme is struck in the film’s first shot — of a bleached-out, gently stirring American flag. This strange, estranging image summons up the bold stars-and-stripes of Patton’s (l970) opening bellicose speech, here spurring intimations of subtle melancholy.

Like the Sabbath candle drained of color at the beginning of Schindler’s List (l993), the faded flag evokes another World War II site of irremediable loss which Spielberg seeks to recuperate before the D-Day combatants, like the victims of the Holocaust, are gone forever. The “good war” has often been a priveleged subject of Spielberg’s “oeuvre” as early as the surprisingly fluid home movie which he wrote and directed as a young adolescent, starring his backyard chums. Interviews indicate that throughout his childhood Spielberg was enraptured by his father’s tales of service as a B-25 radio operator in Burma.(l)

Crucial to the memory work of Saving Private Ryan is its creator’s intention that a public whose sensibilities has so often been dulled by a surfeit of artificial violence should behold the very thing itself: the grisly toll of war upon the flesh of young American troops on that distant Sixth of June. Mutatis mutandis, the film uncompromisingly depicts analogous horrors executed by our GI’s upon their opponents under the aegis of honorable duty (and sometimes questionably executed).

The establishing sequence’s palid banner dissolves to a cemetery above the Normandy beaches where an aged veteran walks haltingly through an expanse of crosses, past a Star of David like the one that stood over Bernie’s resting place. Had he lived, my uncle would have been the same age as this now grizzled warrior — a recognition whose pathos has doubtless been registered by other surviving viewers regarding their fallen comrades, as well as by relatives whose loved ones perished more than a half century ago in the hell below this place.

The old vet falls to his knees before a grave, his family hovering anxiously behind him. In closeup his eyes brim with tears. The camera pulls back to reveal the taut face of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), who one will later learn is the leader of an elite Ranger company. One’s awareness of Hanks’ star status is played adroitly against the introduction of his character as an anonymous cog in a mighty military machine, sitting quietly in a landing boat at the spearhead of the invasion. Other troops smoke, puke, and pray around him — as in a host of earlier cinematic recreations like The Longest Day (l962).

The men shuffle forward, the ramp slams down. Instantly the camera’s viewpoint cuts to that of a German machine gunner in a bunker above the beach. With a single burst, every soldier is mowed down before setting a foot ashore. It’s deliberately unclear whether one has witnessed the annhilation of the craft in the preceding sequence — and Miller/Hanks with it. This astonishing, transgressive “coup de cinema” instantly thrusts the viewer into a state of frightening disequilibrium, reminiscent of one’s incredulous reaction to Janet Leigh’s murder midway through Psycho (l960). Mainstream cinema isn’t supposed to expose one to such trauma from the safe perspective of the tenth row.

The boat’s destruction launches a half-hour sequence in which the human body is mutilated, macerated, punctured, disembowelled with scarifying authenticity. One cringes before an intolerable cacophany — the roar of explosions, the whang of richochets, the screams of the dying, the fragmented babble of the terrified living.

A frequent borrower from other films, Spielberg has just as frequently marred his skills by overwhelming his sources with wretchedly excessive special effects, as inAlways’ (l989) hyperbolic rehash of A Guy Named Joe(l944).(2) Saving Private Ryan refuses any competitive homage. In one bravura stroke, Spielberg “takes back” the standard World War II film’s stylized gore, unmutilating mortal wounds, last-gasp foxhole rhetoric — every device which disguised the gruesome reality of combat from homefront viewers — amongst them, my child self before and after my uncle’s death.

A multitude of untested boys lie slaughtered or horrendously wounded around Miller; crying out for mother, medic, or priest (by chance or the generals’ choice, such raw troops were flung wholesale on D-Day onto the brutal beaches beside the Ranger outfits, like so much raw meat). Amidst the chaos, Miller begins hyperfocussing upon the bloody scene. His decelerated flashes of traumatized and gradually organizing perception are exemplary of veteran cameraman Janusz Kaminski’s virtuoso riffs on the combat photography of the time.(3) The captain succeeds in rallying his company, supported by his equally seasoned top sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore).

The Rangers penetrate the German defenses and establish a beachhead for their comrades. Their professionalism is rendered more remarkable through Spielberg’s repeated, if understated emphasis that most of these men are not professionals — Miller taught high school — but have learned their perilous trade on the line. However, admiration for their gritty valor is tempered by one’s increasing awareness of its darker side: protective numbing of the sensibilities; cruel animal ferocity, compelled both by vengeance and the sheer need to discharge pent-up fear. Enemies flushed out of the bunkers by flamethrowers invite the laconic observation: “Let ’em burn.” Surrendering prisoners are shot down with a diffident joke about the GI’s defective hearing.

Hardly has the assault subsided when Miller is given another impossible assignment, stoically accepted. He and the cream of his valuable cadre are dispatched to search out a single paratrooper, James Ryan, whose unit has been scattered across the French countryside during the pre-invasion drop, possibly stumbling into enemy held territory. Ryan’s three brothers have been slain — two lie on the Normandy beaches — and General George C. Marshall himself wants Private Ryan plucked out of the war, sent back to his mother and his prairie home.(4) Ryan’s rescue is no cheap PR gimmick. A moving Washington sequence, in which Marshall reads Lincoln’s famous letter to the mother who had lost five sons in the civil war, attests to the utter sincerity of the general’s purpose.

After a series of alternately picaresque and terrifying encounters in which two of their number are killed, the Rangers stumble upon Ryan (an insouciant Matt Damon). To their dismayed anger he refuses to abandon his outfit, which has been decimated in defending a crucial bridge. His buddies are now his family, Ryan declares; his mother would surely approve his decision to remain with them.

The ordinarily unreflective Horvath surprises Miller with the speculation that getting Ryan home may be the finest act any of them will take away from the war. Miller opts to join the paratroopers in a last ditch stand against the German panzers. The length and spectacular savagery of the action serves to bracket the initial invasion scene.

Ryan survives; Miller, Horvath, and most of the Rangers do not. In a return to the framing sequence, the aged Ryan — it’s he, not Miller who has made the painful second journey to Normandy — addresses the Captain’s grave; swears he has lived every day of his life according to Miller’s last words: “Earn this . . .” Ryan salutes; the film concludes upon a final shot of the faded flag.

Miller and his cadre encompass a broad sampling of American class and ethnicity: Jew and Italian, city and farm dweller, lowbrow and highbrow. (African Americans are notably excluded, for few were afforded opportunity to die for democracy by that segregated Army.) The group resembles those assembled in a hundred other Hollywood war movies, encompassing World War I to the Vietnamese debacle, including the choice handful Spielberg respectfully alludes to (e.g. A Walk In The Sun[l946], Battleground [l949], Attack! [l956], The Victors[l964], Platoon [l985]). Other genre commonplaces include the GI’s perennial griping; offcolor gibes; their angry debate about their mission’s validity, redeemed by ultimate respect for their leaders.

Saving Private Ryan’s strong casting lends an astringent depth to its characters, major and minor, which transcends the regional/ethnic cliches Spielberg consciously invokes. Hanks’ quiet integrity and Sizemore’s profane toughness inform the best work of their careers. Amongst the GIs, Barry Pepper’s devout Southern sharpshooter is especially — and eerily — striking. The single glaring disappointment is Jeremy Davies’ Corporal Upham, an egghead writer seconded to the Rangers as a translator. The liberal Upham comes wreathed in ponderously predictable tropes, his disastrous terminal cowardice included.

Robert Rodat’s workmanlike script largely manages to avoid “why we fight” bromides, no small task given Spielberg’s well known penchant for sententious sentimentality. Rodat/Spielberg’s grasp of myriad telling details of the invasion is unerring (e.g., the dead fishes littering the beaches; a GI efficiently knocking an ammo clip into his gun against his helmet). Equally impressive is the film’s feel for screwups, hilarious or tragic (e.g., in a compulsive post-traumatic babble, a haggard glider pilot recounts how the heavy armor specially installed to protect a general was responsible for the crash that killed nearly everyone aboard, the general included).

Saving Private Ryan has proven a surprising hit. However, like Schindler’s List, it has occasionally been labeled as yet another Hollywood co-optation of weighty and tragic events. The film’s accuracy (5) and ideological agenda have also been questioned. It owns the dubious distinction of being castigated from both right and left. Conservative critics have complained that neither the vileness of Nazi evil, nor the glory of its vanquishment are sufficiently addressed in Spielberg’s project.

One rebuts that, having already dealt plentifully with Nazi monstrousness in the enormously successful Schindler’s List, Spielberg has made a not unwarranted assumption that his audience is aware, however faintly, of the dire and just reasons dictating the necessity for D-Day. Although the force of the concluding graveside sequence is greatly diminished by Ryan’s saccharine plea for his wife’s validation, it still amply testifies to Spielberg’s belief that Miller’s sacrifice has shaped Ryan’s maturity by obliging him to live out the moral American future for which Miller gave his life.

Mutatis mutandis, various critics on the left have claimed the film is as jingoistic as any John Wayne flag-waver; object to the portrayal of German troops as anonymous stick figures to be competently massacred. One counters that, for once, Spielberg’s patriotism is blessedly implicit rather than banally explicit. With the exception of a single prisoner, German troops appear as they were customarily beheld: fierce, feared, innominate adversaries, glimpsed through a halestorm of destruction, to be killed before they could kill — and fuck them.

Indeed, if one sets ideology, viability of cause aside,Saving Private Ryan emerges as a harrowing pop-culture essay on the ruthless art and brutal vicissitudes of soldiering in any war.(6) One could well have done without both cemetary scenes, but these, too, are testamentary of another given of military experience — the veteran’s prevailing belief that he fought the good fight, even if the cause was objectively detestable.

I look again at the picture of the now antique B-l7 and its crew. More than a half century after the fact I can only remember Bernie’s broad smile as he gave my mother an absurdly huge bunch of bananas at the time of his last leave. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” wrote the Roman poet Horace of death in battle: “Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country…” Saving Private Ryanaffirms that, were it not for young men like John Miller and my uncle, I would probably not be alive today. But Spielberg’s enterprise leaves no doubt that such deaths, such losses, are never sweet; no, never.


  1. For a fuller discussion of World War II’s significance relative to Spielberg’s personal background and career, see Harvey R. Greenberg: “Raiders of the Lost Text: Remaking as Contested Homage in Always“, in Screen Memories: Hollywood Cinema on the Psychoanalytic Couch. New York: Columbia University Press, l993, pp. 2ll-24.
  2. Greenberg, Harvey R., ibid.
  3. Besides referencing the footage of regular Army photographers, Spielberg and Kaminsky have obviously been influenced by John Huston’s documentary, The Battle of San Pietro (l945). Arguably the most accurate depiction of combat to that date, Huston’s stunning work was largely held back from homefront audiences by the authorities, who deemed the horrors he recorded antithetical to the patriotic sentiments the film was supposed to arouse.
  4. Both are limned with powerful economy in a scene which shows the mother peering anxiously through the window of her homestead at a war department car which threads its way down a winding road into her yard. An officer and clergyman emerge. They climb the stairs of the front porch, the minister’s hand tentatively outstretched as Mrs. Ryan slumps slowly to the floor. The sequence works daringly against the attainder of kitch. It achieves the hieratic status of a pieta sans Son through homely yet uncannily hyperreal figurations evocative of Thomas Hart Benton and Norman Rockwell.
  5. The Rangers’ mission may be an unlikely fantasy, but it unfolds in a mise-en-scene infinitely — and painfully — more factual than The Longest Day (for corroboration, see Stephen Ambrose, D-Day: June 6, l944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, l995; also, Paul Fussell,Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. New York: Oxford University Press, l989).
  6. A similar discourse from the Wehrmacht soldier’s pointedly unideological perspective is Sam Peckinpah’s unjustfiably neglected Cross of Iron(l976).

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