Saving Private Ryan. Director: Steven Spielberg.
Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a distressing and harrowing account of one part of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 in World War Two, and one particular mission that followed. The plot is based on a true event. It concerns a group of American soldiers, led in the film by Tom Hanks, who have to find and “save” a Private James Ryan. Ryan’s three brothers have all just been killed in action and to ensure that their mother has at least one son left alive it is decided to send the one surviving brother home.
What has attracted so much attention about this film is the initial 25 minutes, where we are thrown straight into chaos of one part of the D-Day invasion without any introduction to the characters. One of the invasion beaches, code-name Omaha, was a disaster for the young Americans that were chosen for the first wave of attack. As soon as the invading boats let down their doors all hell broke loose, with the sea becoming a blood bath. But words cannot convey what Spielberg shows, we can only witness it on screen. Much debate has centred on how true his depiction is, although many survivors believe it to be authentic, with some veterans claiming that the reality was even worse. After the initial battle the film settles down into developing the main characters and the story of how they find Ryan. Eventually the film is climaxed by another battle, almost as sickening as the first.
Whilst Spielberg can always be relied upon to tell a good story, albeit without much subtlety, I found Private Ryan sometimes unsure of itself on the issues it raised. Spielberg admits this was deliberate as he wants his audience to draw their own conclusions. On two occasions the American flag is seen flying, but it’s not one we are used to. It is faded and grey so that we can barely make out the colours but the significance of this is uncertain. One theme in the film appears to be the question of the value of saving one man when so many others are being slaughtered. Another is the possibility of humans behaving decently when death is always a threat. What the film does not directly question is the purpose of the war or its justification. It cannot even be said that the film is, in itself, anti-war despite its violence and loss of life. For that stance we have to re-visit films like Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 classic Paths of Glory, which also has class as a theme as it contrasts the poverty of ordinary soldiers with their generals living in luxury. As socialists we always question why a war is being fought. Invariably it is bound up with ownership and control of a particular part of the world. As ordinary people do not share in the benefits of this ownership and control we have always taken the position they should not get involved in fighting any war. Spielberg does not address any of this.
Where the film does succeed more is in its depiction of “human nature”. Socialists are sometimes confronted with the argument that war is, at least, party caused by “human nature”. That we are naturally aggressive and that conflicts come easy to us. Spielberg shows this to be nonsense. His men kill but only because they know no other way. On the beach they do not thrive as individuals-they are lost, isolated in a situation that is alien to them. All they fight for is the chance to get back home, and when they get shot they cry out helplessly, almost pathetically, for their mothers. At the same time when Ryan is found and has the chance to escape home he chooses to stay, not because he wants to fight but rather he cannot bear to desert his comrades. Such a noble portrayal of people has nothing in common with those that argue that we are aggressive, selfish creatures always concerned with looking after our individual interests.
Even as I write this review 48 hours after seeing the film, the images of grotesque suffering still stray painfully into mind. Spielberg doesn’t glorify the fighting or lean towards cynicism, he merely attempts to recreate experiences as close to reality as possible. It is left to us to condemn what happened, which is just as well because if we are to stop the threat of future war then it is only us that can do it. Film-makers can portray and interpret history but ultimately we must draw our own conclusions. Many of us, particularly the younger generations, will be filled with bitter incomprehension that as a society we can allow such atrocities to happen, along with great determination that a society that breeds such conflicts should never be tolerated.