Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 5

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Act V of Saving Private Ryan goes from 2:07:00 to 2:42:27. Its structure is a little more complex than the previous three acts and in many ways it is a mirror of Act I. Each of the acts of Ryan has three "chapters" to it, but both Act I and Act V are weighted with extended battle sequences. Act I’s is 25 minutes long and is followed by two shorter chapters, Act V’s is slightly shorter, 21 minutes, and has only a 4-minute suspense sequence as a prelude, followed by a brief 4-minute epilogue. Both Act I and Act V are bookended, of course, by the "present-day" scenes in the Normandy cemetery. Spielberg being Spielberg, he "stands Act I on its head," making the Act V small where Act I’s was big, Act V about hand-to-hand struggle while Act I is about massive numbers of men overwhelming the odds. To take it further, Act V’s battle is about outmatched Americans defending a losing battle against a larger, more well-supplied force rather than Americans attacking a German defense position. It’s almost as though Spielberg, in Act V, puts us in the positions of the Germans in Act I — the shoe is on the other foot now, as it were, the heartless bastards of the pillbox have become the terrified GIs of the bridge at Ramelle.

I’m of the opinion that the Ramelle fight would be known as the greatest battle sequence ever filmed, if it did not, by chance, appear at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Because of that unfortunate bit of luck, it must settle for second place.

2:07:00 — The act begins with the tanks approaching the town from far away. Miller sends Reiben on a small vehicle to act as a "rabbit" to lure the Germans to the bottleneck he’s designed near the bridge. Another director, to heighten the suspense, might cut to the Germans in the street, then back to Miller’s preparations, then back to the Germans, back to Miller, and so on, but Spielberg keeps his camera on the street, knowing nothing more than what Miller knows. He doesn’t even put the camera up in Jackson’s church tower to show us what he sees. Instead, suspense is generated with the sound of the approaching tanks, the clatter and rumble of the tracks and the groaning of metal. Visually, all he shows us is the shaking of the rubble in the streets and the dust sifting down from buildings. The tanks are treated, essentially, like the approaching T-Rex’s in the Jurassic Park movies — they’re scarier because we can’t see them.

(Yesterday, one of my readers likened Act IV of Ryan to Act III of Jaws, and there are definite parallels — there is a preparation for an attack, and time taken out for character-defining monologues. I’d like to think that, somewhere, on some blooper reel, Horvath tells a touching story about how he hates war because he was once attacked by a shark.)

2:13:00 — After a little doubt, the lead tank does indeed take Miller’s bait and rumbles down the street. One of the soldiers approaches it with his "sticky bomb" and fatally underestimates the length of his fuse. The bomb does no damage to the tank, the element of surprise is blown and everything starts to come apart.

Upham becomes the primary protagonist of this sequence, everything else becomes a terror of bullets and bombs and tanks and blood. Spielberg obviously identifies with Upham, making him the protagonist in this case doesn’t just remove us from the action as it does in Act III at the radar station, it heightens the terror of the situation because Upham doesn’t want to be there, is not qualified to fight, and wants only to find a hole and hide in it. This is, of course, the logical response to any battle situation.

Spielberg approaches the Ramelle sequence essentially the same way he approaches any action sequence — he makes a list of every visually interesting thing that might happen under the circumstances and then sets them in an order of escalating impact. The lead tank is immobilized, Jackson takes out a number of men from his sniper’s nest, a grenade comes in a window and is thrown back out, Horvath takes out a half-track with a bazooka, a 20mm cannon is brought in to raise the stakes, so forth.

(Jackson’s position in the church tower is, of course, an inversion of the situation in Neuville, and he is killed in a similar fashion — again, standing the situation on its head.)

Much of the action, however spectacular, is purely mechanical. Just as the Omaha sequence is a step-by-step "How does one capture a pillbox from an inferior position?" the Ramelle sequence is "How does one defend a bridge with inferior numbers?" There are a few character beats — Reiben, apparently, changes his mind about Ryan’s importance and becomes his buddy and literal babysitter (that is, he sits on Ryan to keep him from getting shot) Miller proves himself able to heartessly shoot Germans trapped in a burning tank, Ryan comes up with an instant plan to turn mortar shells into hand grenades.

In another movie, Upham would "become a man," seize the day and end up a hero. Spielberg doesn’t go that way; Upham remains a coward until the very end. Too terrified to make it up a flight of stairs to keep Mellish from being stabbed to death by his own knife (that is, the Hitler-Youth knife Caparzo gave him in Act I, in one of Ryan‘s heavier ironies), Upham, holding a rifle and bedecked with bandoliers of ammo, is nevertheless ready to surrender to the unarmed German who comes down the steps. I don’t know what the German says to Mellish as he kills him, but it seems that he’s saying that he bears him no ill will, it’s nothing personal, he’s just defending himself. That’s why I think he doesn’t bother with Upham, he can see that Upham is no threat to him — he’s not a murderer, he’s only a soldier.

2:28:00 — A second tank rolls into town, too much for our men to defend against, and they fall back to the bridge. Horvath is shot multiple times but keeps coming, practically a tank himself. The tank blows up "the Alamo," the last-stand zone, and Miller, once again, loses his hearing for a moment. As in Act I, he reels for a moment, watching the carnage around him as if from afar. He sees men being shot and beaten with rifles, Ryan curled into a ball, sobbing like a child and Horvath — his "brother" — dead. He tries to blow up the bridge but is shot by — quel irony — Steamboat Willie, who has apparently made it back to the German army. Miller collapses on the bridge, firing his sidearm at the approaching tank. The tank, surprisingly, explodes, bombed by a passing US P-51. Very much a deus ex machina, the saving of the day by airstrike would be unforgivable in many other movies, but makes perfect sense here: Spielberg has demonstrated many times his divine regard for American WWII aircraft — he even goes so far as to have Miller refer to the planes as "angels on our shoulders."

Upham, who spends most of the sequence cowering and keening, becomes suddenly brave when the tables are turned and the Germans are thrust into a position of surrender. The German who killed Mellish was not a murderer, but Upham is: he kills Steamboat Willie in cold blood out of revenge for shooting Miller.

Ryan comes to the collapsed Miller, who grabs him and, with his dying breath, whispers to him: "Earn this." This is good screenwriting — the line couldn’t be simpler, nor more evocative. It speaks directly to Ryan’s immediate situation vis a vis Miller and his men, ie "earn my sacrifice for you," that is, "become a good family man so that our families’ loss won’t be in vain," and also suddenly expands the movie’s vision from this ruined bridge in Ramelle to the whole of WWII and the 50+ years extending from it to the release of the movie. Ryan suddenly becomes us, the audience, and the vision of Ryan suddenly fuses, decency and morality, brotherhood and family, nation and history all compacted together into two words. Miller dies, and Spielberg tilts down to show us his left hand, finally still, his conscience finally quiet.

We then hear Gen Marshall reciting the letter he’s written to Ryan’s mother about him coming home. In his letter, Marshall, for the first time, mentions the "point" of WWII ("the great campaign to rid the world of tyranny and oppression"), suddenly making Ryan, for the first and only time, about something bigger than the familial. (The fact that this scene is done in voice-over makes me wonder when the line was inserted: did Spielberg, at some point, have misgivings about the apolitical nature of his scenario and put in Marshall’s letter to "elevate" the narrative — raise the stakes, as it were?)

Ryan looks down a Miller’s dead body and — surprise! — morphs into the old man we saw at the beginning of the movie, back in the cemetery, looking down at Miller’s gravestone (that is, the guy we were sure was Miller, which is why Miller takes such a long time to die — Spielberg "promised us" at the beginning of the movie that Miller survived to old age, then pulled a switcheroo, an oddly cruel trick for this least cruel of Spielberg movies). We cut to reveal the acres and acres of gravestones, and now we know that there was a life attached to every one of the markers, thousands of Wades and Caparzos and Millers, all fighting for the sake of their families back home.

Emotionally, It’s pretty damned effective enough for the viewer, but it’s a little too much for the aged Ryan, who suddenly needs to be reassured that he has, indeed, "earned this." His wife comes to him — apparently feeling like he’s done enough staring at this gravestone for one day — and Ryan asks her if he’s been a good man, if he’s led a good life. Considering that Ryan is now standing in for "American From WWII until 1998," I’m a little disappointed that Spielberg feels it’s necessary for Ryan to ask this, and more disappointed that he feels it necessary for the wife to reassure him that he is good. If I had edited Ryan (which I demonstrably did not) I would have kept Ryan’s question, which definitely feels earned, but would have removed the wife’s response, which does not. The ending should be asking the viewer if they have earned Miller’s sacrifice, not patting them on the back to assure them they have.


24 Responses to “Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 5”
  1. Todd says:

    Oh yeah, Jackson gets blown up by the tank after shooting a large number of Germans. Sorry. (And it occurs to me now that the tanks kills Jackson the same way Jackson kills the German sniper in Act II — only with worse aim and a much bigger gun. In this way, we could say that Jackson wins on points.)

    Yeah, come to think of it, my ending is more pretentious. Once you put Ryan’s question in there, the wife has to say something, otherwise the movie’s going to feel like an indictment — which it’s not meant to be.

    • stormwyvern says:

      OK. I honestly didn’t recall exactly what happened to Jackson, so I couldn’t remember if it was particularly significant or not. I guess the idea here is that the sniper’s “art” doesn’t mean a heck of a lot when the other guy has a tank.

      Is there any indication that “Steamboat Willie” recognizes Miller when he kills him, or could it be that he was simply shooting Americans and didn’t realize Miller was the man who decided to let him go earlier?

      Enjoyable and insightful analysis, as always. On to…::checks IMDB::..A.I.! Which I’ve never seen!

      • Todd says:

        As far as I know, Steamboat Willie does not know that he’s shooting Miller. He doesn’t even recognize Upham until Upham speaks to him in German. I imagine all Americans look the same to him.

      • rennameeks says:

        It’s been quite a while since I saw Saving Private Ryan too and I’d forgotten about the tank killing Jackson too. I just remember him missing his first shot of the movie mere seconds before he died. It was the only time he lost his cool. Well-put that “art” means nothing in the face of a tank. And I agree, Jackson DOES still win on “cool points” overall. I mean really, what’s a sniper going to do against a tank that isn’t going to stretch the plausibility of the situation?

  2. perich says:

    The tanks are treated, essentially, like the approaching T-Rex’s in the Jurassic Park movies — they’re scarier because we can’t see them.

    I remember reacting in this way to the tanks when I saw this in the theater. First all quiet, then the distant rumbling, then that glimpse of destructive metal giants moving between buildings.

    • adam_0oo says:

      Yeah, this movie more than any other involveing tanks made the sounds and vibrations such a physical force, shaking everything, just the noise was truely intimidating.

  3. iainjcoleman says:

    Immediately after I saw SPR, I decided that the simplest and greatest improvement you could make to the film was to remove all the framing scenes in the cemetary. Start with Miller in the landing craft, end with Miller dying. All the guff at the start and the end just felt insulting.

    • quitwriting says:

      Ah, good, I wasn’t the only one.

      I personally felt all of this was sentimentalist clap-trap added on to try to pat us on the back and assure us that we did a good job. But my opinion is that we could’ve removed the bit at the beginning, even if it did mean that we’d be constantly worried about Miller. The bit at the end is okay without bookending it with the beginning. Just showing “and now you know… the rest of the story…” kind of thing. I guess.

      • Anonymous says:

        No, I didn’t like the prologue and epilogue, either. Otherwise, the whole thing was pretty darned great, so I simply forgot all about the bookending until now.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The approaching enemy at the bridge at the end of Ryan reminded me most of the movie Zulu (one of my all time favorite films), where the approaching army of Zulus to the tiny defense at Roark’s Drift was only heard and not shown for what seems like the longest time (but was in fact only a minute or two of the actual film). The movie could have shown their approach, because they did have two lookouts on a hill, but not showing them built all sorts of lovely and cruel tension. The sound of the massive army nearing them sounded (because they were beating their shields as they ran) like a train coming — very odd and very intimidating. The Zulus finally only appeared when they had the entire makeshift fort surrounded — when retreating was no longer an option.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dammit. That above was Bill Willingham again. I really must figure out how to attach my name at the beginning of a message, so I don’t keep leaving it off of my notes.

    • laminator_x says:

      The dramatic use of sound in Zulu blows my mind to this day. The first thing I thought when watching Gladiator was, “Hey, they Gauls seem to have been dubbed over by Katchuwayo’s impit.”

  5. Must give Spielberg props for the effective (if handed to him) visual poetry of the cemetery: the way the tombstones are arranged in a military cemetery, no matter what direction you look in, all the stones seem to be leading to or pointing at you. One would be hard-pressed to script a line of dialogue or even a whole scene that spells out the film’s entire theme quite so eloquently as a single shot of the cemetery from over Ryan’s shoulder.

    • Anonymous says:

      All you have to do is turn on a camera. I went to the WWII cemetery in Nettuno (near the site of the Anzio landing in Italy) on Memorial Day 2003, skipped the propaganda speeches, and had one of the most moving days of my life. My friends and I spent hours just reading the names off markers.

  6. rennameeks says:

    Agreed; I don’t think that anything she said or could have said would have reassured him on any level.

    Taking things to a more personal scale, this exchange could reflect that no one who hasn’t been through the hell of war themself could even truly understand what it’s like to carry that burden. That was one of the impressions the entire film left me with the first time.

  7. I don’t know what the German says to Mellish as he kills him, but it seems that he’s saying that he bears him no ill will, it’s nothing personal, he’s just defending himself. That’s why I think he doesn’t bother with Upham, he can see that Upham is no threat to him — he’s not a murderer, he’s only a soldier.

    From the ever-indispensible IMDb:

    As the German soldier stabs Mellish to death, he says: “Gib’ auf, du hast keine Chance! Lass’ es uns beenden! Es ist einfacher für dich, viel einfacher. Du wirst sehen, es ist gleich vorbei.” This translates: “Give up, you don’t stand a chance! Let’s end this here! It will be easier for you, much easier. You’ll see it will be over quickly.” The words are spoken in accent free German.

    They recently showed Saving Private Ryan on TNT over the weekend. Curiously, Standards & Practices had absolutely no problem leaving the graphic violence intact in its full hi-def glory, but every utterance of “fuck” (including non-sexual) was edited out.

    FUBAR, man. Just FUBAR.

  8. ndgmtlcd says:

    The bookend scenes in the cemetery sort of ruined the movie for me when I saw it. They come across as if they’ve been slapped on post facto. Is there any truth to the unsourced info I’ve just now read that John Milius was a consultant for Spielberg at the time and that he convinced him to put those bookend scenes in?

    The rest of the film is really entertaining, but because of those awkward scenes and a bit too many “deus ex machina intrventions” I have to say that for me Empire of the Sun (1987) is still the best war film that Spielberg has ever done.

    As it stands Saving Private Ryan looks to me like a fun mix of Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Sahara (1943) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).

  9. curt_holman says:

    Mighty Morphin’ Matt

    “Upham becomes the primary protagonist of this sequence, everything else becomes a terror of bullets and bombs and tanks and blood.”

    I know many people, including myself, who said afterward “In that situation, I probably would have been just like him.”

    “Ryan looks down a Miller’s dead body and — surprise! — morphs into the old man we saw at the beginning of the movie, back in the cemetery”

    As much as I looooove Saving Private Ryan, I really don’t like the special effect that morphs Matt Damon into the elderly actor. It strikes me as an extremely self-conscious and show-offy special effect, in a film that keeps the special effects “invisible” (if it has any CGI at all). I think they could have accomplished the same thing by having, say, the camera looking down Miller’s body, then panning around to look at Matt Damon’s face, then panning down to the MILLER headstone, then around to the old man’s face. I kind of wish someone had said “Just because we could do the CGI effect, doesn’t mean we should.”

    Then again, now that I’m in my 40s, I’m more aware that getting older feels like being Matt Damon inside an elderly body…

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: Mighty Morphin’ Matt

      My recollection is that I agree with your feelings on the morph and I know my husband (at the time my boyfriend) did not like it at all. There are many ways – from your suggestion to a simple cross-fade – that the shot would have been done that would have made it abundantly clear that the old man is Ryan without resorting to “Hey, look what we can do with our computers! WooooOOOoooo!”

  10. Anonymous says:

    I first saw Saving Private Ryan well into its theatrical run at a Saturday matinée. The audience was nearly all men, scattered throughout the room singly or in small groups of two or three. During the epilogue, the room was filled with a distinctive coughing and throat-clearing, the tell-tale sound of men trying to choke back sobs without letting those around them know.

    The seats in front of me were occupied by a man and his two teenage sons. As we all filed out after the movie, one of them sheepishly said, “Well, I’m not joining the army now.”

    On the other hand, I know of at least two guys were completely unmoved by the ending because they were completely distracted by the large breasts of Ryan’s daughters/granddaughters hovering in the background while the critical question is asked. One of them swears that Spielberg did it on purpose.


    • ogier30 says:

      A friend once commented that, based on the granddaughters he produced, Ryan definitely earned it.

      • Todd says:

        Must be a generational thing — I can’t even remember their faces, much less their breasts.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Miller: Earn this.

        Ryan: How?

        Miller: Well, speaking from a strictly heterosexual standpoint, you’re a pretty attractive guy. So if you find yourself a nice, equally attractive woman, get married, have some girls…yeah, that would be good.

        Ryan: So that’s it?

        Miller: That’s it. (dies)

        Ryan: M’kay.