Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 4

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Act IV of Saving Private Ryan is its shortest and most quiet. It contains only one brief battle scene and a large chunk of "meet the cast." It goes from 1:44:00 to 2:07:00 and, like the previous two acts, has three sections, which I will call Meeting Ryan, Preparing for Battle and Edith Piaf.

1:44:00 — Spielberg, being Spielberg, throws us a curveball. We’re expecting some kind of dramatic buildup to meeting Ryan, we’ve been waiting for his appearance for the length of a feature film. So, to keep us on our toes, Spielberg slips him in at the very top of the act. We’ve spent all this time looking for Ryan and Ryan, out of nowhere, shows up and comes to us, blowing up a half-track with a bazooka as Miller leads his squad through a field.

Once Ryan has blown up the half-track, we see Miller, for the first time, actually gun down a trio of Germans. I’m guessing we haven’t dwelt on Miller’s ability to kill in the first three acts in order to build up sympathy for him, but after the Act III climax we need to see him kill to know that he’s capable of doing so — otherwise, he’s just a sentimental softy and an easy target for the climactic battle.

1:46:00 — Having unexpectedly — and anti-climactically — located Ryan, Miller and the others repair to Ramelle, the city with the bridge Ryan is helping defend. The situation in Ramelle doesn’t look very good — there are only a handful of men to defend the bridge and the highest ranking officer is a corporal. Miller tells Ryan about the situation and, as one might by now expect from Spielberg, expectation is stood on its head. Instead of grasping the chance to get home as soon as possible, Ryan instead insists on staying and completing his mission.

It’s a crucial scene, and I must say that I think Matt Damon is just great in it. All the actors playing Miller’s squad are just fine, but the second Damon comes on screen you can tell that a true star has arrived. The other guys are "characters," but Ryan obviously has more layers to him, a subtext, a more complicated soul. He only gets two real scenes to express that and Damon nails them (and it’s my understanding that he wrote at least one of them himself). When the men yell at Ryan for disrespecting the two men who died looking for him, Ryan stops his speechifying for a moment and addresses their beef, pausing for a beat to memorize the names of the men who died. Like in Schindler, the listing of names has a special power to it, in this case to show that Ryan does not take their sacrifce for granted.

In case it has escaped anyone up to this point, the theme of Saving Private Ryan is "The Mission and the Man." The US Army has a mission (to get to Berlin), the individual companies discussed have their missions (to clear the road to Berlin) and the individual men in the companies have their orders within that organizing principle. Colonel Anderson’s orders to Miller, standing convention on its head, make the mission a man. So in a way, Miller swims upstream for two acts, going against the invasion’s organizing principles but also his own sense of duty. Ryan, in his refusal to leave his post, shifts the paradigm again, reminding Miller of the bigger picture and the true hierarchy of the military.

Something else happens here too though I think: Ryan, having just been told that all his brothers are dead, doesn’t even have a moment’s hesitation before he vows to stay in Ramelle against Miller’s orders. In my mind, what Ryan is thinking is that, now that he is an only child, the other men in his company are now his only brothers, brothers who need him where he is, and his refusal is a challenge to Miller to see that. Miller doesn’t know it yet (although I think he suspects it), but the home that he’s been fighting for may be, after all, right here, that these men with him right now are the only family he’ll ever have for the rest of his life. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tom Hanks’s miniseries that aired concurrent with Ryan was called Band of Brothers.)

I wonder sometimes what Miller should have done in Ramelle. What can he do if Ryan refuses to come? He can’t force him to march at gunpoint. I have the feeling that if Ryan’s CO were still alive, he’d agree with Miller, which kind of necessitates the CO’s death. Ryan’s refusal, and the dead CO, put Miller in the situation of not only seeing that Ryan is with his brothers in Ramelle, and that Miller, being the highest-ranking officer in the area, should take on the role oftheir father and fulfill not Miller’s mission but Ryan’s, and by fulfilling Ryan’s mission fulfilling the army’s larger mission. Horvath simplfies all these conflicts with his sentimentalist speech on how saving Pvt Ryan may be the only decent thing the team could take home from the war, but I think it’s more complicated than that — which is why, I think, Horvath gets that speech instead of Miller. Miller, being Miller, hesitates to make his true feelings about the mission known — we kind of have to guess about his feelings based on the information given him and his reactions.

In a way, we could say that the action of Saving Private Ryan is about Miller’s reconciliation of man and mission — he knows that the mission outranks the man, but that the mission is meaningless without the man, the men, the individuals with homes and families, back home, who carry it out.

1:53:45 — The men plan their last-ditch defense of the bridge at Ramelle. (I was a little disappointed, when researching this entry, that Ramelle is not a real village in France, and that the German attack on Ramelle is not characteristic of Germany army maneuvers of the time. These and other fun facts can be found at the Saving Private Ryan Online Encyclopedia.) Miller has now assumed paternity of his new family and, resigned, now sees this shattered town as his new home, going so far as to attempt a domestic scene of getting cold coffee from a cappucino machine (he fails in this mission). Battle plans are drawn and resources are allocated. The scenes are largely technical without losing sight of the basic character issues.

2:00:00 — On a phonograph, Edith Piaf sings her song of loss and sadness, triggering a trio of scenes about romantic love. Reiben tells a story about a MILF he knew back in Brooklyn, Miller gives a tiny glimpse into his domestic life back home and Ryan tells a story of adolescent conquest and filial loyalty. The sudden concentration on romantic love and sexuality is something of an innovation in the scheme of Ryan, and I think is meant to promote the boys of Miller’s company to men, or at least adolescents on the verge of manhood, wondering about the mysteries of maturity, the kind of maturity the paternal Miller represents.

This moment of introspection and longing is broken by the sound of approaching tanks and the call to Act V.

As Act IV is relatively brief, and so is this entry, let me wonder here for a moment if Ryan need necessarily be a WWII movie.  Since Spielberg takes care to make the action personal and strategic rather than political or ideological, could Ryan be set in any war?  Could it be set in Vietnam, or Korea, or Virginia in 1864, or Iraq in 2004?  Do we need to go into the movie with our historical sense of WWII as "the good war" in order to negotiate Ryan‘s sense of morality, or would a different war serve just as well, if not better?  If Ryan were set in Vietnam, Sgt Horvath’s speech about wanting to get one decent act out of the war would carry more weight, but on the other hand we already know that Vietnam was an unholy clusterfuck.  Or is there an over-arching political viewpoint essential to the movie, a chiding reminder to the audience of 1998 of the war they’ve taken for granted?



15 Responses to “Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 4”
  1. ogier30 says:

    I think the overall message of the film is for us, this generation or any following generation, to be worth the sacrifice of that generation. One of the reasons, I think, for the repetition of the names to Ryan is to remind us of the names, so we’ll remember as well.

    1998 was the year Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” was published, and there was a real new awareness of World War II during the time, driving in part by Stephen Ambrose’ series of books about the topic.

    I don’t think the story had to be set in WWII, but I think it does gain some respect it would lack otherwise.

    And Band of Brothers didn’t broadcast until 2001, after starting production in ’98. So not quite concurrent with SVP.

  2. foryourfyi says:

    Does it have to be WWII?

    The story would work in any war but my guess is the filmmakers chose WWII because many of its veterans are still living, yet won’t be around much longer. It’s partly an effort to encourage grandchildren to appreciate their grandparents before they’re gone. The plot would have served the same purpose if it was made in Europe in the mid-60s and set it in the Great War.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think there are lots of reasons it had to be set in WWII, the most obvious being that this was the last time vast armies of most of the world were involved — so we get the ultimate question: when the entire world is at war, what is the value of one life? Vietnam, for example,wouldn’t provide that question.

    And next is the conflict at the end when Ryan refuses to go until his mission is complete. In WWII, completing those missions was important — perhaps important enough to balance the need we have to save Ryan. In Korea or Vietnam for examples again, since we know they ended in a negotiated stalemant in one instance, and “we quit and go home” in the other instance, any mission in those wars would not have had any importance at all, and therefore wouldn’t have had the strength to stack up against the need to get Ryan home immediately, without further losses to our guys.

    And then there are the technologcal aspects. In WWII you had this massive clusterfuck of the post D-Day invasion, where the locations of so many specific soldiers weren’t known or even knowable. In Vietnam, the movie would be five minutes long. “Jump in a copter and go get Ryan. He’s stationed at (fill in the blank) and it seems their telephone is out of order.”

    And then, since the Ryan situation is based on a real historical WWII event, when all four male members of one family (whose name escapes me at the moment, which surprises me, since it’s such a well-known story to me and since the new US Military policy that siblings can’t serve in the same units/ships is named after their name) were stationed on the same ship, so that when the ship went down, the entire family was killed all at once, I suspect Spielberg felt a need on some level to make his fictional version at least part of the same war. That’s just speculation of course. I have no idea at his motivations.

    Bill Willingham

    • Todd says:

      Oh, I’m absolutely sure that Spielberg’s attraction to the story was connected to its WWII setting — he has a deep connection to that war.

      As for the real life brothers, Wikipedia to the rescue.

      • Anonymous says:

        Actually it was the five Sullivan Brothers whom I was thinking of, but couldn’t recall them until I’d already posted this. Losing all five of them with the loss of one ship was what prompted the Military to enact a rule against brothers serving in the same unit.

        I have no computer skills, or I’d post a link too.

        I didn’t realize there was a similar incident in the Army as well.

        Bill Willingham

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    I think that it absolutely had to be set in WWII. It was “the good war” like you say. WWII isn’t too far away like WWI, “The Great War” whose war movies are few and far apart, compared to the movies and TV things made about WWII. The other wars are farther away still.

    WWII is also a war that’s not too close, which means that Spielberg can play with a lot of the aspects of reality, as he needs to for making a good movie, on his terms. There aren’t enough survivors of WW II around and their memories aren’t perfect so they don’t count much as a sub-group of the audience, even if Spielberg shows he’s ready to respect them as lone individuals.

    Spielberg plays with the reality of WWII and the weeks after D-day a whole lot more than what you read up in the “Saving Private Ryan Online Encyclopedia”. If you want to know just how far, the best written, solidly grounded books on the subject are The Boys’ Crusade : The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945 (2003) by Paul Fussell (who was there in addition to being a pro historian) and Six Armies in Normandy (1982) by John Keegan. Keegan gives a wider, richer, less US-centric view of the thing.

    After reading those you’ll realize that WWII was as much a piece of hell and torment as the Vietnam war. But the Vietnam survivors are still around while (with a few exceptions like Fussell) the WWII survivors aren’t there to bother Spielberg or complain too loudly about the way he’s used them as caricatures, pawns jostled around the stage to show people the importance of art, brotherhood, and cinematography.

  5. rennameeks says:

    Definitely agree with the previous thoughts on why WWII as opposed to any other war. In addition to needing the “clear” moral ground and possibly not wanting to deal with the survivors’ memories, the contrast between a “clean war” and the actual clusterfuck it actually was in the field was necessary to Spielberg and his practice of standing things on their head. I think this applies to most other “heavy” war movies – the wars represented are the ones chosen out of necessity because of the war’s themes and settings, which define the war and bring their own layers of depth to the story.

    As we know, Spielberg likes standing things on their head, regardless of the genre he’s working in. I wonder if the underlying contradictions are why he is so fascinated by WWII (aside from the whole Jewish roots thing; this obsession of his goes beyond that).

  6. curt_holman says:

    “The men plan their last-ditch defense of the bridge at Ramelle.”

    I suspect you were going to say this (or maybe you did in an earlier post) but Acts IV and V of Saving Private Ryan remind me very much of the scenes aboard the Orca in Jaws, which you also divided into two acts. Interesting that Upham survives in the one, and Hooper in the other (to peek ahead).

    I really like the characterization of Miller as professional, fatherly and separate from the men under his command: it reminds me very much of the novels and books I’ve read about World War II servicemen and the mystique of certain combat officers.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve learned that Capt Miller, in terms of real life, is much too old to be a captain in the Rangers. They show him as a man in his forties and his men in their twenties — in real life, he’d be in his twenties and his men in their teens, which would make the family dynamic in Ryan a bit different.

      • quitwriting says:

        I was always always told that the average age of soldiers in WWII was 27. He’d’ve probably been in his 30’s.

        • ndgmtlcd says:

          That’s an average which includes the huge mass of soldiers doing logistics and repair work in the rear (or close to the front but not enough to lead attacks) for that mechanized army. The average age for front line soliders was usually much lower. They really were men in their teens. It’s necessary because at that age they’re less conscious of their mortality. A few years later and they’re playing it too safe to be useful in the front lines. Their captain would be older than them but not by much, like Todd Alcott says.

      • curt_holman says:

        Saving Col. Kurtz

        That reminds me of the detail in Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen’s Willard is going up river researching the career of Col. Kurtz, and discovers that Kurtz (apparently recently) went through basic training for Special Forces, or some equivalent elite military organization: “The next oldest man in his group was half his age.”

        And once Marlon Brando turned up, I thought, “THIS guy just went through Special Forces training?”

    • quitwriting says:

      I <3 your user icon. It's... it's perfect. I'm forever going to refer to him as Cotton and her as Peggy, now. :D

      Sorry, back on topic…

      Miller has become one of my favorite characters in any movie. He reminds me so much of my grandfather. My grandfather survived the war. I cherished what little he would tell me about his service, but he never liked to discuss it much.

  7. He only gets two real scenes to express that and Damon nails them (and it’s my understanding that he wrote at least one of them himself).

    If IMDb is to be believed, Damon improvised the memory scene.