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Spielberg, Hanks & Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is over a quarter of a century old, yet still regularly features in ‘greatest war movie’ lists and even the ‘greatest action sequences’ rankings when referencing the opening attack at Omaha Beach. 

Saving Private Ryan

Before we continue or anyone furiously hunts for my email address online, can we remember please that this is a film? I of course understand when filming historical events there is a duty to retell the story with one eye on who sees it in years to come, and the difference a generation can make to values, but it’s still a movie. It’s cinema, which, in its purest form is designed as an escape, or in this case to take you back in time and suggest what it might have been like.

It’s sad in a sense I must remind people of this tiny (not tiny) fact that its fiction but when researching this piece and finding thousands of posts dedicated to complaining why main characters weren’t atomised by a specific type of naval shell on the beaches in the opening minutes or why the KIA (killed in action) rate was so high I thought I’d make the point. What gives me the right to write about Saving Private Ryan? I’ve written on films for over twenty years and this movie was one of the defining films of my cinematic youth. As soon as I saw it, I knew I’d always remember it and I think it’s close to perfect, certainly in this genre.

Upon its release in 1998, incidentally the same barnstorming box-office year as Titanic, Armageddon and Good Will Hunting, that intense first twenty minutes when we follow Captain Miller up the beach made audiences sit up and brace themselves that this was not the expected World War Two film some had come to know and demand. It was not glorious in the traditional sense, it was chaotic, especially the opening with men picking their way forward as comrades fell around them, we had no idea who would survive.

Dropping an audience into the action is a tested tactic, opening with a bang to set the tone, see every James Bond film pre-title sequence (except Live and Let Die which doesn’t actually feature Bond himself) but then the pace eases up, the musical interlude starts with Bassey or Adele and we as an audience can breathe and reset. Not here with Saving Private Ryan, and for twenty-four minutes our senses are pummelled desperate for the inches being made up the beach to become metres, needing some kind of let up and internally cheering when the bangalore explodes. It’s not a scene about winning, it’s not really even about the Second World War at this stage as we have no context of the wider piece. It is about survival, finding the strength to move forward is in itself a victory, much like the grittier and most memorable moments in the towering 2022 remake of All Quiet on the Western Front.

It was shot that way deliberately, hand-cam style and overrode the sweeping shots of films set on D-Day from previous incarnations where it was the movements of armies and tank columns that were the focus, not the stories of individuals shot so close we can see their beads of sweat. Individual stories is the umami of SPR, each one different, but each we know intimately; Ribisi reminiscing in the church about pretending to be asleep when his mother wanted to talk to him.

In fact, such is the bombastic assault on the senses in the opening 24 minutes, the first time you really look up and see any scale is at the same time as Captain Miller does, after they have secured the beachhead. Until that moment you are with the men, sand and blood flicking onto the camera lenses and a deliberately louder use of machine guns in sound editing as a persistent buzz and ricochet ping so that Miller’s commands are that much harder to hear, as they would have been.   

Miller, well, Tom Hanks, let’s take a moment can we? We can all picture him, feet up on the chair surrounded by rubble or chastising the others for not instantly knowing what a sticky-bomb is. One never knows what role an actor wants to be remembered for, but I am sure even the always liked, ever versatile, frankly, always incredible Tom Hanks would be happy to be thought of as Miller. He unravels with the mission behind the lines, the shaking hand ticks that increase throughout a noticeable but telling signifier that war can affect even the most stoic, capable and private of people. His reveal of his profession is outstanding writing, and timing in this case, diffusing the situation with a sense of home which ultimately leads to all the men becoming even more melancholy when they think of what they themselves have left behind.

Even the greatest actors though need world-class directors and to paraphrase another stellar World War Two movie, this was to become the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Hanks and Spielberg. What a mantle they have taken on and surpassed the highest of bars on repeat. I could easily make this entire piece bleed into a quasi-homage to Mr. Spielberg, but I won’t, I’ll just pick out a few lesser-known things to show the process of this movie making titan. It’s a big old leap from ET to this, has any director ever got the nuances of character more nailed down?

The methods and months leading up to calling ‘action’ were intense, actors attending a boot camp with Spielberg refusing Matt Damon (James/Jimmy/the missing brother) Ryan to attend which formed a natural resentment between him and the rest of the cast. The actors were sprung on throughout the night with commands and orders and if they referred to others by anything other than their character name their reward was push-ups. What’s even more touching about the Damon/Spielberg connection is it was the late great Robin Williams who introduced the two in Boston, two weeks after that meeting Damon’s phone rang, and he was Ryan.

For realism purposes Spielberg trawled the images of Robert Capa, the renowned photojournalist who landed with the troops on the Normandy beaches. Capa shot forty rolls of film, but an inexperienced lab technician, when processing the films back in New York left them drying for too long and only three were salvaged. The palette though was respected by Spielberg, a grainy wash of colour, not vibrant or zingy, but flat. When asked how he was to shoot it, Spielberg called his method of filming ‘combat photography’ with realism at its centre.

In preparation for their roles, actors and the crew spent hours watching original footage and talking to veterans, understanding their views and picking up nuances and what a homage that is that some of their words, their experiences and their memories are directly translated onto screen in everlasting form. The late Tom Sizemore, one of those actors I liked but never met, who plays Sgt Mike Horvath, said when the film was released that no matter the enemy, ‘there is no such thing as a good war.’ Saving Private Ryan takes that concept to heart, the sounds, the sights and the images are hard to forget but it mixes these feelings of horror on the pallet with a very personal story about a mother losing three sons, and an effort that will ask it all of a band of brothers not to make it four.

It was a smash hit at the box office, at the Oscars too and critics loved it. So did the audience, they do still, the last scene in the partly destroyed town pulsating and to this day surely the eeriest creek of a tank in history as it takes the bait.

‘Hard to forget’ is often said about SPR and more importantly that it reminded people that ordinary people became soldiers. That’s an important message, to me certainly, and this allowed the characters to not be all good or all bad but all things, morally grey areas included. That does bring me neatly to the conclusion of what is of course a homage, and a thank you to all involved as it’s brave to take on history in art, braver still when the context is this sacred. Interest in history today can be accessed in so many ways, in so many mediums, in this case it is a very memorable film that has stood the test of time.

I was only 12 years old when I first saw it, I remember coming out of the cinema with friends impersonating the hand-gestures of Jackson from the belltower and like Upham, finally understanding what FUBAR meant then using it relentlessly. That’s what great cinema does though, its part real, part escape, altogether affecting and gives lifelong memories to the lucky viewer.