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I am a bit of a connoisseur of war movies. I spent a large part of my youth staying up late on Saturday nights watching all the classic World War II movies on broadcast television. Being a fan of war movies, one would think that I was also a fan of Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan is considered many the gold standard by which all war movies that have come after are to be judged. I, however, disagree and more so as time goes on.
Understand upfront that Saving Private Ryan has many redeeming features. The initial scene of the storming of Normandy beach is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is one of those scenes that makes Hollywood great and makes you stand in awe of what a genius Steven Spielberg really is.
The acting in the movie is also very good. And much the dialog is well written. Saving Private Ryan in many ways should be the classic that it is considered by many to be. The movie ultimately fails because of fundamental flaws in the plot and overall message of the movie that cannot be overcome by the many virtues of the film’s directing and acting.
Ironically for a film famous for its realism, all of Saving Private Ryan’s flaws relate in some way to realism. Despite all of the realistic filming and action, the movie fails to portray war and armies in a realistic way. Some of the flaws could be forgiven in a movie that made fewer pretensions about realism. They are unforgivable in a film that claims realism to be one of its prime virtues. And Private Ryan’s overall message about the nature of war cannot be forgiven in any movie.
After the initial storming of Normandy beach, which other than involving Tom Hanks really has no connection to the rest of the plot, the movie rests on an absurdly unrealistic premise; that General Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the Army, would take the time to order a special mission to find the last surviving son of a grieving mother. The US was losing around a thousand lives a day in June of 1944. Yes, there was a soul surviving son rule. And yes, being the last surviving son was a ticket home. But no way on earth would a staff officer at the Pentagon much less the Chief of Staff, taken the time to stop everything and send a mission to find such a son. There were lots of such sons and more important things to do than find them immediately, much less use valuable assets like Rangers to do so.
After getting the mission, Hanks and crew are somehow able to saunter off into the hedgerows of Normandy for a good days hike. The US 1st and 29th and the German 352nd Infantry Divisions were in death struggle in front of Omaha Beach in June of 1945. There was a continuous line of contact between Allied and German units. If it were possible could just walk out and link up with the 101st Airborne, they would have done that and the battle would have turned into a mop up operation. Yet, somehow Hanks and company wander about Normandy with impunity.
Then there is the storming of the German bunker. This is, without doubt, one of the most annoyingly unrealistic and contrived scenes in movie history. The entire scene is nothing but a transparent excuse to have the German prisoner scene that follows, which has its own problems which I will get to in a moment. The movie never explains why there would be this lonely German machine gun nest totally isolated from the rest of the German army. The Germans, the people who more or less invented modern warfare, somehow just decided to put a machine gun nest totally isolated for no apparent reason or advantage. And didn’t bother to camouflage it at all. And the men manning it don’t notice Hanks and crew approaching even though Hanks spots them. No, they were just sitting out there with a big “we are here to create a moral dilemma scene and kill off a beloved character” sign.
And of course, Hanks decides to attack it for no apparent reason. The idea that he could report its position and actually accomplish something useful during this mission never occurs to him. No, according to Hanks, his entire team must risk their lives to take out a single, isolated machine gun nest because “someone else my come along and have to do it if we don’t’. Well, sure they will. Someone else with air support and maybe artillery and better ways of doing it than charging over open ground in broad daylight.
Once Hanks decides that the machine gun nest must be eliminated for the greater good, he attacks it in the dumbest way possible. Hanks has this incredible sniper on his team. He knows where the machine gun nest is. It is pretty out in the open. Hey, why not let the 1940s Carlos Hathcock over here take a shot at killing a few of the people manning the bunker before we charge out there? Hey how about we wait until nightfall when we might have a chance of getting close to it before they see us? Nope. Hanks, against the entire collective wisdom and doctrine of modern infantry, decides that the position must be taken in daylight, without any element of surprise, and by frontal assault over open ground. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that Captain Hanks would not have been very beloved by his men. The whole scene is absurd and infuriating, especially when occurring in the “most realistic war movie ever” as Saving Private Ryan is sometimes called.
Then there is the German prisoner scene that follows. This scene is by far the worst of the movie. It is totally contrived and unrealistic. The scene only exists at all because of the ridiculous existence and attack on the German machine gun nest. Moreover, even if those events had occurred, there would have never been any prisoners or moral dilemmas. And that is not because American soldiers made a habit of shooting German prisoners. They didn’t. It would never have occurred because while soldiers do not shoot prisoners they also don’t always go out of their way to allow the enemy the opportunity to surrender or judge other soldiers’ split second decisions in combat. Everyone in Hanks’ team would have known they had no way to take and hold a prisoner. And when they took that bunker, they would have killed everyone inside it before they ever had a chance to surrender or quickly enough they could plausibly say they didn’t realize that before they shot them and that would have been it. Oh, that guy had his hands up? I didn’t see that. What they would never have done was capture some poor guy and then sit around for 30 minutes arguing about whether to shoot him.
And the ensuing argument is some of the worst dialog ever put to film. Why can’t we just take his rifle and leave him behind? Because he might hurt someone. Yeah because one disarmed German private wondering around in the middle of the Battle of Normandy is going to do so much damage. Every time I watch that scene I want to jump through the screen and grab a rifle and shoot the poor German just so the rest of them will shut up and get on with the rest of the movie.
The most unrealistic aspect of Saving Private Ryan and what makes it so irredeemably awful despite the virtues of the direction and acting is how it portrays war in general. The premise of the movie is as I explained above absurd. But an absurd premise doesn’t necessarily mean a movie is bad. The Dirty Dozen is a classic war movie and is based on the absurd premise that the Army would use death row inmates to carry out a vital mission on D-Day. The deeper problem with Saving Private Ryan is that embraces a mawkish and unrealistic view of war in general.
The remarkable thing about the mission in Saving Private Ryan is that it does nothing to help the Allied cause or end the war. The mission and all of that sacrifice is to get some Private back home with his mother. Of course, that is supposed to be a metaphor. The men of D-Day didn’t just save Private Ryan, they saved all of us. Okay, but how? By charging around Normandy trying to send some guy home to his mom? I don’t think so.
The men who fought and died in Normandy did save us from fascism. I have no doubt about that. They didn’t do that by saving people and sending them home to their mothers. They did it by murdering Germans until the Germans had no more will to fight and surrendered. And that is what war is about; killing. It isn’t about saving people or doing good deeds. It is about the grim job of killing people until the other side gets sick of dying and gives up. And that is what I loathe most about Saving Private Ryan; that it enforces the fantasy idea that war is about noble sacrifice and not about killing.
This country suffers from the cult of the wounded warrior. At some point, we stopped understanding what war is about killing and winning and celebrating people who did heroic acts in furtherance of that and started to think war is about dying and sacrifice and started only celebrating those unfortunates who make such sacrifices. This is not to say that the people killed or wounded in war are not making the ultimate sacrifice and worthy of honor. They are. But getting wounded or killed is not what war is about and not what ends wars or more importantly wins wars. What ends wars and wins wars is killing.
And forgetting that is a very bad thing. Thinking war is really about sacrifice and positive actions like saving people cause us to lose sight of the enormous moral gravity of the decision to go to war. We don’t send men and women to war to save Private Ryan. We send them there to kill people. And if we are not comfortable with the full meaning of that, we shouldn’t do it. Ignoring that reality and pretending war is about the positive, causes us to enter into wars far too cavalierly and without a full understanding of the moral consequences of doing so.
Worse still, having a fantasy view that war is about sacrifice and saving people rather than killing, makes us less likely to stay with a war until it is won. Time and again people support going to war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan only to turn against the war once it gets hard or they see full extent of the horror our military necessarily inflicts on its adversaries. If we understood war was about killing, we would be less likely to go to war and more likely to finish and win wars when we did.
The entire point of Saving Private Ryan is as the title says, to save someone not win or even shorten the war. And what a pointless mission it is. Yeah, it’s nice that Matt Damon gets to go home. But thousands of other people were not going home ever. And if you are going to be one of them, you would like to think you died so the war would end sooner not so some guy can go home to mom. I think if the Tom Hanks character were real and you could tell him on June 5th that he was destined to die in Normandy, he would be sad but understand because that was a risk he signed up to take. If you told him he would die not trying to win the war but instead doing some errand for Headquarters trying to ensure that some private got to go home, he probably wouldn’t be too happy about that. Sure, he died after staying on to defend the bridge, but the only reason he was there was to retrieve Ryan. And that had nothing to do with winning the war.
In fact, winning the war is something none of the characters in the movie seem to consider. The entire movie can be summed up as follow. Sure, Mrs. Ryan, I will put down my duties as Chief of Staff of the Army to make sure your son returns. Sure, Mrs. Ryan, we will take a highly trained team of infantry that could be doing other valuable things and send them off on a snipe hunt looking for your son. Why? Because what matters is the individual and doing good deeds. Winning the war as quickly as possible so we can go home and not have any more mothers with dead sons in Europe, well that is just something that will take care of itself. We are all about saving your son Mrs. Ryan.
And that sums up the problems with 21st Century America in many ways. We have stopped facing reality as it is and making the tough choices and sacrifices necessary for our civilization. We pretend that life revolves around us and there are no larger issues at play and that we will always be able to make the noble and easy choice. And that conceit is at the heart of Saving Private Ryan and why I am more convinced it is a lousy movie today than I was the day I first saw it.