Saving Private Ryan’- a realistic portrayal of history?

From: Amanda B
Category: Films
Date: 24 April 2004


‘‘Saving Private Ryan’, 1998. Directed by:Stephen Spielberg.

The film Saving Private Ryan is Stephen Spielberg’s homage to the American involvement in Operation Overlord on the 6 June 1944. Before viewing, it is tempting to separate the film into two possible camps: a gung-ho action movie, or a profound and shocking one. To pre-judge the film on the basis of Spielberg’s previous movies, his earlier films are entertainment based and drama/ excitement prioritise over reality. Caryl Phillips criticised Spielberg as being involved in ‘decisions that had to be made to heighten the drama’, at the expense of dramatic truth 1 . K.R.M Short points to Hollywood as a ‘dream factory’, where history became part of the ‘Hollywood lie’; films are more for escapism than reality 2. For instance, Since You Went Away (1944) was a patriotic and sentimental film- the music soundtrack ‘triggered emotional responses unconsciously in the American audience’. When viewing films, the historian should assess their ability ‘to reflect historical realities in a useful if not unique manner’3 . Obviously, Hollywood was (and often still is) based on glamour, entertainment and escapism from everyday reality for the audience, and Spielberg’s films are no exception to this rule. Whether or not Spielberg (who said that, “you can’t look at history selfishly”4 ) has now drawn away from his tendencies (bias) toward adventure and escapism and can portray history in a realistic and objective manner, can be discussed with reference to Saving Private Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan is based on a true experience: to find a soldier after his brothers have been killed and escort him to safety. In the movie, the mission is led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks, the admired ‘all-American’ actor) with his troop of men. Private Ryan is played by Matt Damon the ‘all-American’ golden boy. The actors were sent to a harsh boot camp for added realisticity: Tom Hanks voted to remain there when the others had enough, mirroring the situation in the film when Miller faces dissent from the troop about saving Ryan and risking their own lives. The film can be divided into three sections: the D-Day landings at Omaha beach, the search for Private Ryan in the countryside of France, the discovery of Ryan and a final, dramatic war battle. The footage of the landings dispel any doubt about an authentic representation of battle. The cinematography is swathed in a dull coloured effect to reflect the atmosphere. Spielberg’s hand-held and at times, blood splattered camera puts you there on the beach, as scenes capture carnage, individual soldiers’ responses to the hell of ‘Bloody Omaha’ and the military strategies they used to survive. The Germans had moved their 352nd Division to Omaha beach for training on the night before the invasion, which was too late for the planners behind Overlord, who had managed to deceive the enemy in every way. The American soldiers on Omaha beach were sitting ducks to the German army (portrayed by Spielberg from the point of view of a relentless firing gun, a killing machine, without showing the man behind it). The carnage also included sinking tanks and blown up tanks piling onto shore, not entirely conveyed by the film; Spielberg admits that true horror can never be totally depicted on screen 5. Research for the film covered hundreds of veterans’ testimonies and Spielberg honours them by representing the true feeling of soldiers; their fear (Captain Miller’s shaking hand) their bravery (Ryan, wanting to stay with his troop to defend their bridge) and heartache (Miller’s tears). Spielberg points to his responsibility as a director to convey war in an objective manner 6 . Although patriotic (the film opens and closes with an American flying flag and the heroism of the soldiers is made clear) Spielberg can be exonerated from totally swathing the film in American-propaganda. G.I’s are seen shooting surrendering soldiers, a scene depicts a crashed aircraft due to incompetence from the American army by protecting a major and our troop of soldiers recurrently refer to “foo-bar”, a term defining the sheer madness and cruel irony of war. However, Saving Private Ryan may be guilty of falling short on realism and thus misrepresenting ‘history’.

The original exercise to rescue Private Ryan was a propaganda ploy by Generals, on discovery that Ryan’s three brothers had been killed. To successfully bring Private Ryan back would have shed a good light on the army. In the film’s version of this event, the realisation by a secretary that three Ryan brothers have been killed is depicted with moving, orchestral music in the background. The soundtrack is provided by John Williams, a composer reviewed in The Times 7 with his theme to Star Wars;

‘…a piece of music so impossibly stirring that I still find it hard to listen to without feeling the immediate need to go out and enlist for national service.’

The newspaper article claims that, ‘Spielberg’s films are awash with music in a way that drives some critics up the wall’8 . Perhaps this is because soundtracks in Spielberg’s films are there to heighten dramatic and emotional tension in typical Hollywood style (perhaps biasing or commercialising the subject matter like the soundtrack in Since You Went Away). The music we hear when viewing the secretary- and the subsequent scene with gathered Generals deciding to save Private Ryan in an heroic manner- affects the audience watching the scene 9 . There is no inference in the film that the motives of the Generals are anything but of the highest moral order.

Perhaps Spielberg’s decision to present the mission from the start, as an heroic gesture by the American army, can be explained in the documentary interviewing him 10. He defines America as a cynical society and himself, as having a cynical viewpoint. Therefore he uses films to counterbalance this perspective, by providing escapism and sentimentality- this latter quality he is controlling as he grows older. Spielberg is an audiences’ director in the respect that he caters for them in all his films (perhaps he entertains them in fictional style at the expense of dramatic truth though). Spielberg admits that his depiction of German soldiers in Indiana Jones was ‘comic book’ and his later films are more mature efforts to represent history. Saving Private Ryan succeeds in revealing the historical truth of D-Day- never have the landings been presented so realistically, or war scenes filmed so graphically- and tells the soldier’s story in a way many veterans have claimed to identify with. War is Hell- this Spielberg portrays. However, Spielberg’s insistence to don his rosy tinted ‘Hollywood’ spectacles when suggesting that saving Private Ryan had no dubious undertones, does bias this area of history. Spielberg’s sentimentality has produced magic in his films and has helped him become one of the foremost directors of our time- but perhaps in future films he will further abandon it for the hard reality and bare facts of life?