War movies are a part of me. Growing up in my Irish-Catholic home town, no holiday evening was complete without watching a good war flick on television. Looking back, it seems an odd combination: Christmas tree lights blinking, celluloid people killing each other, your mother knitting, your father glancing up from Agatha Christie from time-to-time to catch a crucial scene.
But really it made perfect sense. In North America, where security and consumerism have strangled mainstream religion, war movies acted as modernist fairy tales. Almost all of them were set during the second world war the one 20th-century war which had clearly delineated “good guys” and “bad guys”, and which easily reflects the good/evil business of religion. In second world war mythology, of course, “good” becomes America, sometimes Britain the ambiguous virtue of the French and the Soviets making them less appealing as objects of Western mythology.
Steven Spielberg’s latest epic, Saving Private Ryan, is at once a return to, and the perfection of, the war movie genre. It is fairly obvious why Ryan “perfects” the form: for all his brilliance Spielberg (like his partner in crime George Lucas) doesn’t do new things with film: he simply does all the old things better than they’ve been done before.
It is a “return” because the 1960s (and the 1970s and 80s) were not kind to the war epic. As people in this country know very well, America’s foreign policy adventures after Vietnam tended to soil its image as the bastion of all things good. With that image thrown into doubt, it became difficult to sell the old mythology.
Vietnam compelled American film-makers to approach the war movie in different terms. They’ve tried to tie the form to mythologies other than nationalism (the most interesting of which remains Apocalypse Now) or, like Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, to present other sides of the old mythology. Generally Spielberg has restricted his experiments to the technical side of film. This is equally evident in Ryan.
You realise what an anachronism this film is during its opening sequence. The scene is an American veteran’s cemetery in Normandy. This is an “intimate” scene but it displays all the imprints of those big blockbusters which characterise the war movie genre. The limping Grandad Ryan walks purposefully towards a particular grave accompanied by a concerned-looking family (including a flock of pretty, intensely blond grand-daughters), and big, orchestral music. The score is vaguely reminiscent of Aaron Copland but the film credits reveal that it is the work of none other than John Williams, whose plaintive strains have accompanied the likes of Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker through films produced a long time ago, and far, far away.
The story isn’t actually told from the perspective of Private Ryan but a captain in the US Rangers (one of those “elite” units of the American military) played ably here by Tom Hanks. Similarly, the movie really opens on D-Day on Omaha Beach. For more than a half hour, the camera drags you through the inferno of D-Day and, in truth, it is a technical masterpiece.
This scene has apparently sent second world war veterans into hysterics and it has won the director so many plaudits from the critics that it will probably win Spielberg another Oscar next year. The camera and sound effects streams of blood running into the Atlantic, the virtuoso transformation of actors into destroyed corpses, seat-shaking explosions, the ting-thud of bullets striking helmets and sinking into brain tissue are a cinematic tour de force.
Having fondled your heart in the cemetery and lacerated your senses on Omaha Beach, Spielberg then launches into the plot proper. The US high command discovers that a particular Mrs Ryan has lost three of her four sons in combat. The fourth son, a member of the paratroopers, has not been heard from since he was dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy. Hanks, and those of his command still alive, are given the task of finding Ryan and bringing him back home to mum.
The basic theme that the plot wrestles with for the rest of the film is nothing less than the premise of war itself: the morality of sacrificing the lives of a few to save the lives and presumably liberty of the many. By sending the rangers after Ryan, Spielberg throws this premise on its head and makes his film a contemplation of individual human worth. It’s tempting to applaud Spielberg for this sleight-of-hand until you remember that all American war movies are contemplations of individual human worth.
If this was the film’s sole impact it would be possible to praise it as a technically brilliant anachronism. But it is more than that. Following Hanks and his ever-diminishing unit into Normandy, we watch Spielberg strip away all the shades of grey that have entered the genre over the last 30 years, reducing war back to black and white.
The young translator who is enlisted to help in the search for Ryan, despite his lack of battle experience, serves to inject an element of human decency into the brutal proceedings. He defends the life of a German prisoner against the others in the squad who want to kill him. But by the end of the film his morality is revealed as naïve when the released prisoner re-appears to kill the soldiers who’d freed him. Hanks’ unit finally does find Private Ryan, informs him about the loss of his brothers and his imminent departure from the war. To the surprise of everyone in the unit, but no one in the audience, Ryan (Matt Damon) chooses to remain with his badly mauled unit, which has been charged with defending a bridge at all costs. By choosing his “unit”, his country, over his family, Ryan proves himself a poster boy for the US Army. By invoking themes such as “loyalty”, “family” and “nation”, the film becomes more of a paean to American nationalism than an indictment of the evils of war.
This is why Saving Private Ryan is such a reprehensible film. Spielberg’s hyper-realistic cinematography lulls you into the delusion that this is Truth itself. You can’t fault Spielberg for mastery of his craft but it is necessary to be critical of his subject matter and his timing. Schindler’s List was in many ways an excellent film but you had to be sceptical of a film about the Holocaust at a time of unprecedented Zionist aggression. So must we wonder about the timing of a film that re-creates the myth of the American military’s unconditional virtue, when the US is lobbing cruise missiles into Sudan. Do not see this film.