Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 3

Act III of Saving Private Ryan lasts from 1:13:30 and goes until 1:40:00. Like Act II, it’s divided into three sections, which I will call The Plane(*), The Radar Station and Steamboat Willie.free stats

1:13:30 — Miller and his company encounter a crashed airplane. The plane’s pilot tells Miller that he was transporting a general, which required a jeep and two heavy metal plates bolted to the floor of the plane. The plane was too heavy, crashed and 22 men were killed, including the co-pilot and the general. Again, math is the key: 22 men died in order to ineffectively transport one general. Warfare, Ryan suggests, is all based on risks and numbers — how many men is it "worth" to pursue which mission. It’s a question of allocation of resources (Jackson even refers to the mission as a waste of valuable resources in Act II) — bombs and planes and bullets and grenades, what is each one "worth," when do you "spend" them, what does each loss "get" you. I’m almost tempted to call Ryan a capitalist critique — Schindler certainly works as one — but Spielberg keeps the narrative rooted in personal and familial causes, not monetary ones.

1:17:00 — The pilot gives Miller a bag of dog-tags belonging to recently killed soldiers, and Reiben, Mellish and Jackson sit down and sort through them, cracking jokes about the names they find, until Wade chastises them. Reiben, Mellish and Jackson are hardened, and hoping that Ryan’s name is among the tags so they can call off this mission, but Wade, the medic, sees a higher truth: the tags are people, just like the numerous lists in Schindler are people, and a lot of Schindler is devoted to understanding that each name on each list is a life, with a past and hopes and dreams and tragedies. To joke about them, and to wish to find Ryan dead, is an insult to the soldiers all around them.

1:20:00 — Miller talks to a deaf soldier, who gives him Ryan’s location. Miller sits the squad down and maps out a plan. Here, deftly, Miller’s mission, the larger strategy of D-Day and the key to winning the war all intersect. The map scene intesects with the "grown-up" conversation Miller had with Lt Hamill in Act II — Ryan has gone from being a faceless name to being stationed in a position vital to the strategy of the war. Again, an allocation of resources: the bridge Ryan has been assigned to is vital to the war, and is "worth" any number of men to keep it from the Germans. And it’s not a "maybe" thing, that’s what the conversation with Hamill was about — all the battle sites are links in a chain leading to Berlin and victory. Ryan’s reassignment is cold and logical and irrefutable.

As Miller lays out the plan, his hand shakes again. The men see it this time — if Miller’s hand is his Jiminy Cricket, the men all know now that Miller has his doubts about this mission.

1:23:00 — Miller and his men come to a German radar station, which is guarded by a machine-gun. Reiben argues that the squad should just avoid the station altogetether and stay "on mission," but Miller argues that they should stop and take out the machine-gun. Again, it’s numbers and risks. Their mission is to "save Pvt Ryan," but Miller knows that if they don’t take out this machine-gun, it could kill dozens of other men. As he explained to Horvath in the church, his over-arching job is "to save lives," and if that means killing some of his own men in order to save a larger number of other men, then that’s the trade-off. I’m also tempted to say that Miller wants to attack the radar station because he’s not sure if the Ryan mission is a good idea. If Ryan turns out to not be "worth it," ie worth the lives spent to "save" him, he wants to take out the machine-gun in order to balance out the difference. When one of the soldiers says he has "a bad feeling" about it, Miller spits "When was the last time you felt good about anything?"

They attack the nest, and Spielberg keeps us in Upham’s shoes, hiding behind a dead cow, watching the action from afar. The point of this is to remove us from the heat of battle (Upham even, like Spielberg, watches the action through the remove of a lens) so that the following section will have a specific cast to it.

Next thing Upham knows, Wade is dying. We know he’s dying, all the men know he’s dying, Wade knows he’s dying. The only medical assistance he asks is more morphine, which only Miller wants to give him — all the men know Wade will be dead in a moment, and any morphine they give him will be morphine they won’t get when they are dying. It’s the "allocation of resources" theme focused to a pinpoint — is Wade’s comfort worth the vial of morphine it will cost to grant it? Wade’s dying words, of course, focus the movie’s other theme to a pinpoint: "Mama, I wanna go home."

1:32:00 — There is a German survivor to the attack on the machine gun, called Steamboat Willie by the cast list. Steamboat Willie is why we watched the machine-gun attack from Upham’s point of view: Spielberg wants us to judge Steamboat Willie’s fate from the remove of battle. We don’t know what Steamboat Willie did in the fight, who he shot, what his duties were or if he even fought at all — for all we know, he was the German version of Upham, cowering behind some sandbags while the other soldiers fought. For all we know, that’s why he’s still alive.

Removing action from Steamboat Willie’s character makes him a generic "enemy soldier" (which is why the script doesn’t even give him a name). The question becomes not "What do we do with this guy?" but "What do we do with a prisoner of war?" Steamboat Willie focuses yet another of Ryan‘s themes: the Germans aren’t fighting for Hitler or facsism or anything ideological, they’re fighting for their families and homes, just like Miller and his men. Steamboat Willie, when pressed, rattles off American catch-phrases and cartoon characters, then throws in "Fuck Hitler" for good measure. Miller, after some consideration, lets the German go.

Reiben revolts, a development that feels forced to me. Reiben revolts and risks court-martial by telling off Miller. Reiben revolts because Spielberg needs a life-or-death fight to break out among the men so that Miller can stop the fight by giving his big speech. I don’t quite buy the set-up, but the payoff, like a lot of Ryan, is worth it.

The point of Miller’s big speech, it seems to me, is that this mission is not about saving Pvt Ryan, it’s about saving Capt Miller. Miller, in taking on the role of soldier, has sold off a part of his soul, has committed acts — not only killing "the enemy" but sending his own men to their deaths — that any reasonable person would deem evil. How can he go back to his comfortable, quiet life as a schoolteacher after he’s seen the horrors of D-Day and who knows how many other battles before it? War, says Miller, between the lines, isn’t about the actions of the battlefield, it’s about each soldier’s home and family. If Ryan’s home and family aren’t "worth it," are not worth the risk and the allocation of resources, then what is?

*Wikipedia informs me that The Plane is, in fact, The Glider, and that the crash of the glider is based on a real incident.


9 Responses to “Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 3”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    Capitalism is all about stopping the workers from controling their means of production, their tools. To a true capitalist the workers themselves are also tools, to be expended as needed. Miller doesn’t think like that. He sacrifices soldiers, he doesn’t expend them.

    • Todd says:

      “To a true capitalist the workers themselves are also tools”

      Not to mention the consumers, the environment and future generations affected by the capitalist’s agenda.

    • sheherazahde says:

      “Capitalism is all about stopping the workers from controlling their means of production, their tools.”

      I’m willing to be critical of capitalism, but I don’t think that statement is correct. Capitalism is all about using wealth to acquire more wealth. Controlling access to resources is a means not an end.

      Although capitalism requires accounting, not all accounting metaphors are necessarily capitalistic. Even communists still do math.

  2. stormwyvern says:

    As I recall, what makes the end of this act work is that it, like much of the film, manages to keep from becoming too much about ideas as opposed to the realities of the characters and their situation. If Miller had literally come out and said “I need to do this to redeem myself for selling a part of my soul to this war” or “War bad, family good,” it would have fallen apart. But on the face of it at least, Miller still seems to be talking about the Ryan rescue as the job he needs to do and his reason for wanting to go through with it is as simple as getting back home to his own family. But since I don’t believe Miller has any guarantee or understanding of any kind with the military that he can go home if he completes this mission, the audience does have to wonder exactly what he talking about. Does he just mean that doing his job, whatever it may be, is the only thing that will eventually get him home? Or does he think that a mission of mercy is what he needs to square himself up with God, the universe, his conscience, or whatever it is he needs to appease in the more spiritual sense before he can go back to his home and the life he had before?

    I kind of wonder if Miller also thinks that, should he succeed in bring Pvt. Ryan home, that might be the one thing that does make sense to both Captain Miller and schoolteacher Miller. It could end up being the one thing in his whole war experience that he could feel was the right thing to do even by normal homefront standards, something he could tell his wife and hypothetical kids about. Not so much so that he can have a great war story and see himself as a big hero, but so he can look at this one thing even years later and say “Yes, even in hindsight, even when I’m sitting at home where right and wrong or much more clear, I know I did the right thing there.” He’s made the decision to tell his men who he used to be, to create a connection between his life as a soldier and his life back home, so maybe now he needs to do something as a soldier that schoolteacher Miller could understand and approve of.

    • Todd says:

      Or, as Miller puts it (paraphrasing) “Back home, I tell people what I do and they look at me and say ‘well, of course, what else,’ but here it’s this big mystery,” ie, how could a mild-mannered middle-class shlub like me find myself in the position of sending men to their deaths.

      Which also, coincidentally, is what makes it a good part for Tom Hanks, who is, like Miller, this mild-mannered middle-class shlub who somehow has managed to become a hugely powerful force in a very dangerous, cutthroat world.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I just want to say that this sit is beyond amazing, and I learn a lot from reading it. I’m only 17, but I hope to be as gifted in understanding movies as you.

    Also, I always wanted to tell you that those two guys who attacked James Bond in Egypt on “The Spy Who Loved Me” were Barbara Bach’s assistants. (paraphrasing) “Sorry about Boris and Ivan, they superseded their objective.” Why is every Russian in James Bond films named Boris or Ivan?

    I hope you’re looking forward to Quantum of Solace this November, and I cant wait for you to get around to my favorite movie ever, Die Hard.

    • Todd says:

      “Why is every Russian in James Bond films named Boris or Ivan?”

      Are there other Russian names?

      If I may ask, how did you find out about this blog?

      • Anonymous says:


        “I also got pointed by RPGnet to Todd Alcott’s blog posts on the movie, which made me think a bit more about it thematically and I decided maybe I hadn’t given it quite a fair shake (by the way, if you’ve never read Todd’s dissections of the Bond movies or anything else, you owe it to yourself to take the time to do so, especially if you’re interested in film).”