When Steven Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan he aimed to portray "the terrors and triumphs of D-Day as more than just make-believe." Lauded by audiences and critics alike for its authenticity, his goal was clearly met. Even World War II veterans have stated that "Saving Private Ryan is the most realistic presentation of combat they've seen." As the current champion of the World War II film genre, Saving Private Ryan manages to capture the experiences of the past by curiously but effectively evoking both historical truths as well as familiar fictional realities.
In an era of desensitizing movie violence, Spielberg created a film that simultaneously presented brilliant realism alongside extreme representations of war's brutalities. Saving Private Ryan employs realistic combat violence in a way yet unseen by movie audiences, breaking down their desensitized barriers and evoking an unusual emotional response to the violence onscreen. As Spielberg explained, "We all determined very early on that we wanted to affect people in a way that would maybe show them the nature of war for the first time." Within the film, it was the shores of Normandy and the events of D-Day that claimed Spielberg's most intimate focus and best explored this ambitious duality.
Only minutes into the film the violence explodes on screen, consuming an expansive 24 minute scene that lands our hero, Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, onto Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 5, 1944. This, the most heralded sequence of the film, achieves its realism by being portrayed as though captured not by professional Hollywood cameramen, but rather by combat cameraman fully submerged in the battle itself. Spielberg and his team staged their invasion of France chronologically, albeit taking almost 4 weeks to recreate the events that transpired in less than a day. Intentionally not storyboarding his invasion, Spielberg explained "I just went to war and did things the way I thought a combat cameraman would have."
The sequence, almost indistinguishable from the surviving combat footage, is uncanny. Spielberg achieved integrity in his images by focusing his filming techniques on physical rather than visual effects. Cameramen were assigned to follow the characters with handheld cameras as they jumped from the Higgins landing crafts (many of which were the same ones used back in 1944, no less) into the water and then onto the beaches. When blood or water splashed the camera lenses, the cameramen were instructed to continue filming, recalling that true combat cameramen wouldn't have time to stop and clean them. Going a step further, these same lenses were stripped of their protective covers so as to regain the gritty feeling of their ancestral 1940s counterparts.
For the same sequence and throughout the film, Spielberg manipulated the film stock in an attempt to regain a more historical texture. The images were desaturated of color through Technicolor's ENR process, giving them a slightly bluish tint and noticeably reducing the brightness of the shots. Combined with the unprotected lenses, the contrast is flatter and the images are slightly foggier, although still remaining quite sharp. Additional battleground realism was attained by attaching a Clairmont Camera Shaker to the cameras which forced the images to jostle and strobe as though the cameramen were truly dodging bullets.
Unlike other war filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah or even Oliver Stone, Spielberg consciously decided not to show any of the battle events in slow motion or from detached skyline perspectives. Instead, every shot reflects a potentially viable soldier's view. In addition, at times the images even lose their corresponding sound temporarily, simulating the effect of being shell-shocked from a nearby blast. Together these effects load the images with the feeling of being directly in battle alongside the characters and arouse a marked psychological identification with their struggle.
After storming the beach and fighting their way to land, Captain Miller and his remaining team eventually stop and reflect upon the territory they have just covered. Conveniently situated on top of a hill, their location provides a bird's eye view of the beaches and battles behind them. Visual effects supervisor for Saving Private Ryan. Roger Guyett, described "that panorama, looking back across the cliffs at all the ships in the water, with all of the troops and barrage balloons and barbed-wire barricades in the foreground, [as their] biggest shot in the movie." The investment in that shot comes not only from the narrative vantage point of the characters, but also from Spielberg who took inspiration for it from one of eight surviving AP photographs taken by Robert Capa at Normandy on D-Day in June of 1944. Comparing Spielberg's shot to Robert Capa's original demonstrates how specifically Spielberg recreated this particular image for his film.
It is this study and intentional reproduction of the real D-Day and World War II photography that perhaps best explains Saving Private Ryan 's ability to so successfully have recreated, with incredible authenticity, its battle scenes. Within history, World War II is marked as the first war that was effectively captured by photographers and filmmakers. The United States alone annually spent $50 million on documentary movies during the war. Some of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers, like Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, George Stevens, and William Wyler, served as combat cameramen during this period. Still photographers like Robert Capa and Lee Miller also covered the war for news sources like LIFE magazine and the Associated Press. This repository of images makes up our modern collective memory of the war and likewise serves as the prime source material for the making of Saving Private Ryan. Uniting these images from our collective unconscious with the purposes of the film lends a familiar recognition to the events and effectively assimilates the historical with the fictional, inducing an unquestionable feeling of authenticity.
Since the source images are not credited in the film in any way, recognizing and identifying them requires some research and rediscovery of the past. In interviews, Spielberg admits to having been "influenced by various World War II documentaries - Memphis Belle. Why We Fight. John Ford's Midway movie and John Huston's film on the liberation of the Nazi death camps." He also explains that the decision to desaturate the colors throughout the film came "while watching the color 16mm Signal Corps footage that George Stevens had done during the invasion of France." Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski, ASC, cites "Robert Capa's war photography [as] one of the guiding references for the film." Of Capa's eight surviving D-Day photos, two are streaked action shots that presented the motivation for Kaminski to "throw the camera's shutter out of sync to create a streaking effect from the top to the bottom of the frame."
While Spielberg and Kaminski's interview confessions help identify some of the core photographic sources that served as the guidelines for recreating the war in Saving Private Ryan. tracing out each of the film's familiar image sources is certainly impossible. The same images that contribute to our collective memories also contribute to Spielberg and Kaminski's, however their access to source materials far outweighs that of any average movie-goer, providing them with a greater well from which to draw. Theoretically, it may be possible to trace each establishing shot within Saving Private Ryan to a matching historically rooted image or film. Generally speaking, though, Spielberg and Kaminski's goal proves to be somewhat ironic. They wanted "to take a major Hollywood production and make it look like it was shot in 16mm by a bunch of combat cameramen."
An incredible investment in technology and time was dedicated to recreating the highly stylized and historically unique characteristics of the actual World War II films and photographs. The technology and time were all employed in an attempt to do what Kaminski called "selling the 'war' visually." The images could not only be familiar; they had to be cinematically pleasing as well. Throughout the film, "during the scenes when the characters are not in combat, the camera is more at rest and on a dolly more often." The few scenes that take place back in the States intentionally depict America with a bit more color and with "a sense of sunlight, as a relief from the muted tones of the rest of the film."
Although the filmmakers were committed to reproducing the 1940s authentically, they were not about to toss out the pleasures of Hollywood filmmaking entirely. The believability of the film resides in its ability to commingle its illusions of historical accuracy with its modernized Hollywood narrative style. The authenticity heralded by the film derives from nothing less than its ability to effectively mimic the past within the conventions of the present. Saving Private Ryan doesn't so much reproduce the war as it reproduces what we, as the modern audience, have come to expect from a representation of it. From seeing documentaries and newsreels that depict World War II, "home audiences [have] gained an idea of what combat looked like and expected war movies to look the same." Being more literal and seemingly more accurate to reproduce these types of familiar images that to create new ones, Saving Private Ryan assembles multiple levels of familiarity to achieve an ultimate recognition that registers itself as authenticity.
In light of this, the creators of Saving Private Ryan answered the call for familiar authenticity by actively reproducing recognizable signs of the war rather than by producing any sort of alternative, potential reality. By appealing less to what is real than to what is understood to be real, the footage in Saving Private Ryan stands in as a type of hyper-realistic portrayal of the events. The images appear, as Spielberg and Kaminski testify, to be the work of true combat cameramen. They disguise themselves as unmediated and seemingly unintentional, while at the same time being completely overdetermined. Since the soldiers on screen are only actors, actual gunfire cannot be used. Instead, special effects technicians installed hundreds of tiny air cannons under the simulated beaches of Normandy and the actors carefully rehearsed where to step and how to dodge the imaginary bullets. After the performances were captured on film, special effects came in to add the actual gunfire. Shamelessly, the registered authenticity of Saving Private Ryan 's D-Day is accomplished through a completely contrived and orchestrated series of staged Hollywood events.
It is this dubious nature of Spielberg's images that calls into question the effects of its implied authenticity. Instead of inserting Capa's photographs or using the real color footage captured by George Stevens during the invasion of France, Spielberg completely produces (or reproduces) all of the film's footage. By doing so, his version is able to improve upon history, changing the camera angles to catch more blood or centering the frame more evenly on the most gruesome actions. The reproductions better serve the purposes of the fictional movie narrative than the purposes of historical accuracy. The seemingly sporadic, random events within Spielberg's storming of Normandy are entirely constructed and overdetermined, as evidenced by the 4 weeks of filming required to replicate history's single day. By relocating the original images to the realm of source material for new creations, true history is collapsed into a history of Spielberg's making. Comparing Capa's slightly deteriorated original photographs with Spielberg's freshly made images would surely lead any modern audience to prefer the cleaner version to the truthful one.
Spielberg's decision to recreate the familiar images rather than directly employ the real ones mirrors his decision to tell a fictionalized story rather than a factual one. In both cases the difference is not so much that of accuracy but rather that the recreated past remains completely self-conscious of its state of recreation. It acknowledges its own state of fictionalization and can then slip in and out of the worlds of truth and fiction without offending its modern audience. At the same time, it is able to effectively rewrite the past under a veil of merely revisiting it.
The film's constant switching between shooting styles symbolizes the film's interplay between historical fact and fictional narrative. During the battle scenes, the camera is handheld and resembles a documentary film. During the narrative dialogues, it breezily follows alongside the characters in a more classic Hollywood mode. Eventually the two styles blend into one another and the line between fact and fiction becomes less and less recognizable.
The camera styles alone do not represent the only interplay between fact and fiction in the film. The character's narrative mission, that of Saving Private Ryan. is issued by a factual historical figure (General George C. Marshall) and is then passed down the chain of command to our fictionalized soldiers. Other battle scenes within the film, like the siege of the radio tower in the French countryside and the scene with the soldiers gathered around listening to Edith Piaf while awaiting their next battle, are all based upon true stories told by World War II veterans to screenwriter Roger Rodat. On the other hand, the final battle in the film which serves as its emotional finale takes place at the non-existent town of Ramelle and is completely fictitious. Saving Private Ryan intermingles real events and real figures within a rewritten version of history that focuses our key emotional attachments not on the war but rather on the film's imaginary characters. The significance of the war, as presented through the film, evolves from historical fact supporting its favored fictional reality. Saving Private Ryan imagines traditions and events from the past that did not exist, like the town of Ramelle, and then uses them as evidence to support an improved view of historical events that did exist.
This interpenetration of the personal with the historical does not, however, serve to condemn Saving Private Ryan. Almost all World War II films base their stories on the real events of the past while telling optimistically fictional stories of comradery and perseverance. "World War II has been one of cinema's favorite subjects, spawning a genre that rivals the Western in sheer breadth." In considering Saving Private Ryan. it is interesting to recognize that the film, which sold itself on its claim of completely refuting "the dishonesty of previous Hollywood movies of the genre," so thoroughly invests in many of the war genre's classic formulas. The film has a predilection for the same concepts of objectives, groups and heroes that typically befall classic combat films.
Like many war films, the message in Saving Private Ryan serves to assert and confirm the typical genre objective of embracing national pride and patriotism. Although the soldiers may question their mission objectives (saying things like "What's the sense in risking the eight of us to save the one of him?"), the men are clearly united in their belief in their nation and in its involvement in the war. Their investment in American ideals and their faith in the nation and its fight is demonstrated most clearly when all the Saving Private Ryan characters elect to stay and fight the enemy in Ramelle despite having already completed their narrative mission objectives. This final battle conforms to genre conventions as it represents the "last stand," an identification made poignantly clear when Captain Miller points to a building in the town and identifies it as "the Alamo." The soldiers are willing to fight and die to defend their country, accepting this calling as their true mission objective.
Another element of the traditional combat film employed by Saving Private Ryan is that of the unified group. The classic combat film group is made up of a mixture of ethnic and geographic types, typically including an Italian, a Jew, a cynical complainer from Brooklyn, a sharpshooter from the mountains, a Midwesterner (our Private Ryan in this case) and a character who must be initiated in some way. Saving Private Ryan 's group matches the cast requirements exactly. Taken one step further, the fictional identities not only conform to genre conventions but also fall in line with familiar historical character identities. Adopting the same group definitions of previous war films, the troops in Saving Private Ryan are easily recognized as representative personalities from the past. Furthermore, the film's group, like any combat film group, presents itself as differentiated but homogenous and, despite the fights that break out within the group itself, it remains united until the end.
Beyond the patriotic objectives and the classical group makeup, the most vibrant and important requirement of any combat film remains that of the hero, captured in Saving Private Ryan by Tom Hanks's Captain Miller. Typical of any combat film, the men and the story are all united around the lead character and hero, Captain Miller. When we begin the film at the invasion of Normandy, we do so alongside Miller. As the battle progresses, our fear is realized alongside his and our faith in escaping the battles is unconsciously acknowledged by the film's need to continue along its narrative path by his side. By the end of the film, it is expected that the ultimate sacrifice given to the cause of the war will be the life of our ultimate hero.
Akin to classical war genre films and unlike earlier films of the 1980s and 1990s, Spielberg's 1998 hero is a true hero, not an antihero. There is nothing absurd, scandalous, criminal or debasing about his character. Instead, he stands in for the hero veterans of World War II, preserved and presented completely in reverent reflection. He also embodies all the traits of the classical war genre hero. Captain Miller manages to unify his troops and lead them into battle without embarrassment, weakness, chaos or defeat. When a fight does break out within his group, he intercepts disaster by confessing his previously unknown home-front occupation, that of a teacher. Throughout Saving Private Ryan the lesson being taught is delivered to us through the leadership of our hero.
Captain Miller, like the hero in any classic combat film, is a realization of everything idealistic and iconic within our national identity. It is for this reason that the largest name and the biggest movie star within the film is cast as its hero, as is the case in Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks, dubbed the "Performer of the Decade" in Premiere 's April 1999 issue, is the modern day everyman. His prior hero roles have included playing the sympathetic love-hero in Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. the stricken hero in Philadelphia. the simpleton hero in Forrest Gump and the classic hero in Apollo 13. Through the culmination of these roles, his actor identity easily lends itself to the all-American Captain Miller hero of Saving Private Ryan .
In contrast and ironically, Spielberg intended his Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon, to be a relative unknown when he made the film. Hollywood stepped in, however, and Matt Damon became a household name between the making of the film and its theatrical release with his breakout role in the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. The original concept of the character of Private Ryan pivoted on the actor's unfamiliarity as a star and thereby his insignificance within the film. As Spielberg explained, "he's in the last hour, but his role is more symbolic than substantive." However, Damon's newfound fame altered the weight of the Private Ryan character and the narrative focus on finding him. (As the troops search for Private Ryan across the French countryside, the audience searches for the recognizable face of actor Matt Damon.)
A secondary result of this shift in character weight brings a higher degree of significance to the questionable nature of the film's narrative flashback. The flashback that kicks off the film's narrative presents Saving Private Ryan 's biggest anachronism: how is Private Ryan able to recall the events depicted in the film when he wasn't there for most of them? When the film opens, we are at a graveyard with an old man whose memories seem to initiate the telling of the film's story. At the end of the film we recognize that the old man is none other than Private Ryan himself, who was saved through the story by Captain Miller's troops. Since movies are inherently an authoritarian medium, the one truth we are being told as our narrative version of history is problematically being told by someone who wasn't there to have had all these memories in the first place. "He knew nothing of the attack on the beach, knew nothing of the odyssey that followed, and he never had a chance to hear about it."
While obviously problematic, this anachronism does serve to highlight one of the compelling components of the film in terms of its placement within film history. The story follows eight men as they venture out to find and save one man. In typical Hollywood combat films, this type of mission is often assigned but it is justified by the "one man" being some sort of key figure, such as a president or king, a top commander, a brilliant scientist or even a group of prisoners or civilians. Turning the spotlight on the individual to serve the needs of the "me" generation, Saving Private Ryan isn't about rescuing anyone famous or exceptional, but is instead about saving just another regular guy.
It is through this hopefully personal identification with Ryan that Spielberg drives home the key message of the film. At the end of the story, as Captain Miller, the film's hero, is dying, he leans in to whisper something to Private Ryan. The two words Captain Miller says are "Earn this." It is these two words that Spielberg intends his audience to take with them. By focusing on the "earn this" idea, Spielberg intends for his audience to leave the film reflecting upon the entire war experience with an air of appreciation and an intention to truly have "earned" what the heroes of World War II fought for. Spielberg aims to convey this message to his audience by transferring their emotional investment in his characters into an emotional investment in his message. Once again, this follows the classic formula of the combat film, transferring the narrative history lesson into a greater moral assignment.
The message of Saving Private Ryan is one of unified national identity and patriotism. As a result, seeing the film becomes a political act. Enjoying it is a confirmation of one's national pride and historically endowed political correctness. Criticizing it is an attack on the views of history and national identity it attempts to put forth. Generally speaking, participating in the ritual of seeing Saving Private Ryan in theaters was clearly a unifying experience. Not having seen the film inherently left one out of a recognizable peer group while an audience collectively watching the film contributed to a concentrated national consciousness evolving from Spielberg's new historical perspective. Being that the politics of the film were neither liberal nor conservative but instead generically patriotic, a normally divided audience could effectively rally together around this new and more personal version of its national history.
Saving Private Ryan. by rousing this new national consciousness, proved itself to be a truly modern historical document. It successfully united a population that remains greatly distanced from the brutalities of war around a fictionalized but hyper-realistic presentation of a historic battle. Despite portraying 1944, the film could not have been produced anywhere near the time in history it is attempting to represent. Films created during that period faced issues of censorship as well as a requirement to wholeheartedly promote the causes of the war.
During the years of World War II, the films Hollywood produced were blatantly propagandistic in nature. As Spielberg himself explained "films that were made during the actual war years never really concerned themselves with realism, but more with extolling the virtues of winning and sacrificing ourselves upon the altar of freedom." The intentions of combat films in the 1940s were strictly patriotic and explanatory. Documentaries with titles like Why We Fight were shown in theaters across the country to communicate government sanctioned messages to the American population. Films of the period were focused on condemning the evils of the enemy and illuminating the need for national wartime support.
Furthermore, the need to show the harsh realities of the battleground was nonexistent during that period. "The 1940s audience was not detached from the horror of war. They were losing friends and family every day, and welcoming home the maimed and wounded." The violence that takes place in Saving Private Ryan would never have been shown onscreen in the 1940s. In both documentaries and fiction films, it was a generally accepted policy that films would never show American soldiers killed on the battlefield. Death only happened to the enemy and even then, depictions were clean and bloodless.
Beyond this general policy, there were also filmmaking rules that barred displaying excessive violence, mutilation and death onscreen during this period. The Production Code did not specifically govern combat violence but did declare that "action showing the taking of human life is to be held to the minimum" and "brutal killings are not to be shown in detail." With violence kept to a minimum and philosophical guidelines governing who could live and die onscreen, truthfully presenting the realities of war was an impossibility.
Saving Private Ryan remains a film of the 1990s for other reasons as well. According to Spielberg, "Vietnam pushed people from [his] generation to tell the truth about war without glorifying it." This helps to explain his drive to create the most realistic representations of battle ever captured on film. Although memorializing the veterans and troops of World War II, the film certainly does not celebrate the war in any glamorous or enviable fashion. Spielberg's dedication to combat realism lead him to require that his actors, all except Matt Damon that is, attend a two-week boot camp that simulated the conditions of the war. He hired Dale Dye, a retired combat veteran from Vietnam and also the battlefield expert who consulted on the films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. to orchestrate the boot camp and then oversee the combat action throughout the film. This desire to recreate the war experience for the actors presents itself as highly specific to the 1990s, a period in which the current generation of Hollywood actors would certainly never have faced battle conditions in real life.
The film's position in 1998 is also reflected by the motivations behind creating the film at this particular time. In the 1950s, an "after the fact" perspective took hold of combat films and then in the 1960s, the war genre tended to celebrate the victories of World War II. Filmmakers in the 1970s watched as Vietnam took hold and the war films tended to reflect disillusionment more than anything. Following Vietnam, war films took on a state of denial, satire or resentment until finally in the 1990s, after many of the demons of Vietnam were worked out in the films of the 1980s, returning to World War II finally presented itself as viable option. Despite half a century having passed since World War II, the 1990s proved that the war had not disappeared from the American landscape. With the ever-popular insurgence of cable and satellite television programming, images and stories from the war can be found any time day or night on television. The classic war films that were made in the 1950s and 1960s rotate through the stations weekly, reminding directors like Spielberg, who had watched combat films as boys, of their desire to make their own.
Most importantly, however, Saving Private Ryan was made under the looming new millennium. When Robert Rodat starting writing the screenplay, the 50 th anniversary of D-Day was just around the corner. Reflecting upon the past century, Spielberg acknowledged that "World War II [was] the most significant event of the last 100 years." When Rodat's screenplay met with Spielberg's desire to memorialize the war, Saving Private Ryan was born. As the year 2000 approached, it seemed there couldn't be a better time for audiences to reflect and ask themselves "Did I earn this?" as the older Private Ryan does at the end of the film. Presented with the hyper-realistic brutal carnage conveyed on the human level of sympathetic and recognizable characters, the film also reminds modern audiences that war is something to be avoided. Most importantly, though, Saving Private Ryan stands as perhaps one of the last great World War II films that will be shown to an audience that actually includes its own veterans. Saving Private Ryan is nostalgic for and memorializes what is commonly recognized in our national consciousness as the last great generation that willfully fought and died with pride for our country.
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