Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Greatest War Movies No 4, Saving Private Ryan

After a long hiatus my Greatest War Movies countdown is back. I had to think long and hard about whether to include this Spielberg classic in my list because truthfully I never liked the storyline that much. I think it takes the American "leave no man behind" ethos to an unrealistic length. I think there is plenty of sap and cringe in the movie that makes some scenes irritating to watch. Having said that, the sheer realism and and the impact that it has had on war movies means that it cannot be left of my list.

I will never ever forget the atmosphere in the cinema during that opening scene on Omaha beach. There were gasps, cries and wide eyed stares as a cinema full of people collectively had their previous impressions of war completely shattered. At the end of those unforgettable ten minutes, some people had left, others were short of breath and everybody was utterly stunned. This continued right through the movie culminating in the final battle scene which is in my opinion the best most realistic movie scene ever made. Of course nothing can ever get get close to the real thing. But a realistic war movie can make people realise that war is not a game. Good and bad people get slaughtered in war, sometimes in unimaginably horrible ways. We see this graphically in Saving Private Ryan. Who could forget the vicious scene (below) where Private Mellish and a German soldier have a hand to hand fight to the death.

Saving Private Ryan takes place during the first ten days of the allied invasion of France in June 1944. The death rate during the first three months of the Normandy campaign were the highest that the western allied armies would suffer during the entire war. It rivaled the death toll seen on the western front during World War One. Saving Private Ryan really reflects this. The movie depicts clearly how survival of the war was based on inner steel, skill and most of all luck. The movie also addresses some interesting moral questions when it comes to war. For example, what should you do with a captured enemy soldier. The answer is surely easy, you take him prisoner and hand him over to the military police. But what if your deep behind enemy lines and there are only 6 of you. Do you really want to have to keep an eye on a Prisoner of War whilst trekking across miles of hostile territory. In the movie, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) decided to release the prisoner rather than execute him. It seemed like the decent thing to do. But the soldier was picked up by his own side and ended up back in circulation where he eventually kills Captain Miller. I'm obviously not saying you shouldn't take prisoners in war but the movie did very cleverly make it clear to the audience that in war you sometime have to make exceptionally tough decisions.

Most of my favourite war movies are about the second World War. Most were made in the 1960's and 70's. Kelly's Heroes, Where Eagles Dare, and The Great Escape to name but a few. However while these movies may come up trumps when it comes to dialogue, drama and storyline, their attempts at portraying the horrors of war are quite feeble. The action scenes are sometime laughable. The kills are clean and the mortar explosions take the form of exploding sand bags that actually look like fun. If you get shot in these movies you usually get a chance to make a little speech before you head off to the next world to the sound of patriotic movie. Saving Private Ryan changed war movies forever and for this reason I a feel compelled to put it down as my fourth favourite war movie of all time.


Gary said...

Good choice. This was not on my favorites list (mainly because of the plot line), but I agree that it it changed the way war movies will be made in the future.The same team, Hanks and Spielberg, also made the series Band of Brothers, about the 101st airborne in WWII. That "made for cable" series had a lot of the same realism of Saving Private Ryan and it did make it to my favorites list, so I guess we are not too far apart...

Dan said...

I agree with the above. B.O.B was epic, "Pacific" had a few quality battle scenes but overall was a bit crap.

Enemy at the Gate, Atonement & Schindler's List have some of the best war scenes.

Some crap war movies can be pretty watchable too:

Das Boot
Kingdom of Heaven
Thin Red Line

Gary said...

I think you are right on about this list. I was very disappointed in Pacific. I think one problem was just trying to put so much into so few episodes.
Kingdom of Heaven had some great writing but the acting just did not carry it. For example, the scene where they make all the fighters into knights. Bloom just did not have the strength to make that as inspirational as it's potential. Nevertheless, the movie was entertaining.

thesystemworks said...

I agree that Saving Private Ryan was unremarkable in many ways, but Spielberg outdid himself in relation to the battles and gritty realism, and the film was something of a milestone. I am more of a Band of Brothers man myself.

Spielberg is a versatile director, able to work in many genres and do them well. The guy came up with huge summer blockbusters that were actually memorable and stand the test of time: Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, etc. Then as a personal project, he blew us all away with something completely different in the form of Schindler's List. A titan. I imagine you are including genocide films in the 'war film' mix, judging by your worthy inclusion of the Killing Fields.

Ted Leddy said...


I loved Band of Brothers too. But I still haven't seen any of "Pacific" but from what you and Dan say it seems I am not missing much. Kingdom of Heaven is my favourite of all the modern epics, mainly because the topic, the crusades, is fascinating to me. But as you say, their are some rather ridiculous scenes in it.

Ted Leddy said...


You disappoint me. I was really looking forward to watching "Pacific" but it seems it's no good.

I loved Enemy at the Gates and Schindler's List. They may yet feature on my own list. Atonement is not really a war movie for the most part but the scene that shows the chaos on the beech of Dunkirk is as brilliant a scene that I have seen in any war movie.

I actually liked The Thin Red Line. I know its very long and hard work at times but I read the James Jones book that details his personal experiences of the battle for Guadalcanal of which the movie is based so I had extra reason to enjoy it.

Ted Leddy said...


Spielberg certainly is a genius for the reasons you mention. When you come away from a movie feeling completely overwhelmed you know it has worked. Anybody who came away from Saving Private Ryan and particularly Schindler's List, not feeling completely dumbfounded, probably has something wrong with them.

Dan said...

Hey Ted,

Don't get me wrong, Pacific is very watchable but just not as good as B.O.B. They missed some really good oportunities to have some proper full on ocean battle scenes.

There are some excellent battle scenes though and a lot of interesting "period" stuff. The characters are just very shallow or weak and there is way too much build up.

I can give you the full series in HD if you like (pc only)

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Dan

I may just take you up on that offer.

Paul said...

It's only the first 20 minutes of this film that's good, the Omaha beach scene. It does fall into the Amero-centric (is that a word) way of looking at things a bit too much. But the Omaha beach scene is good. The other combat scenes especially the final ones are comically unrealistic. It also fails in its attempt to portray the character and emotion of the combat soldier. The scene when Hanks explains his motivations for going on to hsi soldiers doesn't fit well. If you read any of the personal histories concerned, George McDonald Fraser for example or others. It's clear the majority of soldiers never sat around moralizing or talking of why they had to fight. They just had a job and they didn't want to let their mates down.

Strangely enough my favourite war movies are those that do provide realistic portrayals of what war is like for the soldier in both its horror and its humour. 'The odd Angry Shot' for instance about the Aussies in 'Nam is one. I also loved the way Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump depicted his service in Vietnam quite realistic. But all this 'war is hell, but we must endure because we're saving the world' is bogus. Few people who've been there believe that or say that, war can be hell, it can be fun just look after your mates as they never let you down. Forrest Gump and his mate 'Bubba' understood that.

Oh and as to Greatest War Films you've got to include 'Starship Troopers', you must make room for the ones that just take the piss!

Ted Leddy said...


Excellent analysis, particularly the inaccurate portrayal of the reflective and emotionally combat soldier.

However I did like the final battle scene in the movie. I though it was brilliantly filmed. I have never been in combat so I cannot speak about its intensity. But in the accounts I have read about the battles for the towns and villages of Normandy the brutality of it was only second to the slaughter of the Eastern front. I always thought the final battle scene in Saving Private Ryan was a powerful illustration of this.

Paul said...

'However I did like the final battle scene in the movie. I though it was brilliantly filmed. I have never been in combat so I cannot speak about its intensity. But in the accounts I have read about the battles for the towns and villages of Normandy the brutality of it was only second to the slaughter of the Eastern front.'

You're quite right with regards to the brutality of fighting in Normandy. My grippes about the final combat scenes though is that whilst it is gripping, it still borders on farce. For one thing all of the defenders seem to get killed and rather quickly, no one is injured. This is quite unlike the earlier Omaha beach scene. There was no end of brutal fighting in Normandy. But the kind of counter attack launched at the American defenders was usually only very rarely repulsed with hand to hand fighting (the Poles at Falaise a notable exception good article on Wiki look under Operation Tractable). What the Allies used were prodigious quantities of artillery and air support. They fought a more intelligent battle than is often realised. Although the bombardments usually destroyed huge swathes of French territory, the Normans paid a heavy price for their liberation although less so than the Philippinos did.

Gary said...

It is just my personal taste but I am am actually glad some of these movies are not as real as some seem to desire. I have experienced war and do not am not too crazy about getting too close to it again in a theater.
A certain amount of realism and historical accuracy is good, even required, but there is a limit. I actually prefer a little inspiration and "flag waving" and seeing the good guys win..
I guess I just want Hollywood to entertain me and let me get the facts elsewhere....

Ted Leddy said...


I understand what you are saying. Heavy weapons is how these counter attacks would normally have been repulsed. In fairness to Spielberg though, the soldiers in the film were an isolated bunch of 50 or so soldiers left defending the town. When the cavalry did arrive at the very end it was all mortars and air power. I'm sure, such was the vastness of the front and the millions who fought in it, that it wouldn't be too uncommon for battles to occur (which would probably go down as skirmishes) between relatively few numbers of troops that involved vicious hand to hand fighting.

You are right to mention the suffering of the people of Normandy. Romantic history would have us believe that they greeted the allies with flowers and cheers. While I'm sure most were happy to be liberated, they were probably more concerned with there flattened towns and villages. If my country were being occupied by a Nazi like force, I would welcome liberation, but I would certainly hope the focal point of that liberation would be 20 miles up the road and not my home town.

Ted Leddy said...


I have never been involved in a war. But I have read many books on the subject. So I probably know just about enough to realise that in truth I know nothing about war. Movies will never get close to accurately portraying the horrors of war. And maybe you're right. Maybe the cinema should just be about entertainment.

Paul said...

‘It is just my personal taste but I am am actually glad some of these movies are not as real as some seem to desire. I have experienced war and do not am not too crazy about getting too close to it again in a theatre.’

Snap, you and I both. I do understand why you say that Gary. My point was not that there should be excessive blood and guts (although I suppose it might be better to see it in a war film than horror-porn like ‘Hostel’). Rather what I would like to see is more realistic and sympathetic portrayals of the combat soldier. The oft repeated phrase ‘the Golden age’ of cinema in Britain heralded intensely unrealistic war films. Did you know that commandoes in the Second World War were all middle aged English men? Of course not but that is the impression you get if you watch the likes of ‘Force 10 from Navarone’.

I personally am not over found of all the flag waving, but-I’d rather watch that than some politicised crap by Ken Loach. Who is a good film maker I’d agree but would never in any film of his portray British or American soldiers sympathetically. I do want the good guys to win and it is good that American cinema on the whole still believes in that. But then again America still believes in America. Europe went to the dogs after 1945, even Britain did after Thatcher. There may be nationalism in some parts but no patriotism really. However give it time eh, read ‘The Post American presidency’ for a hugely critical shot at Obama.