Continuing our discussion of movies that have inspired and informed our gratitude for our freedom and those who serve to defend it, it seemed appropriate to next tackle Saving Private Ryan. When we asked which films had informed and inspired you most, this was by far the most popular answer. Why is that?
I think there are several reasons:
For starters, Saving Private Ryan was probably the most accurate depiction of military conflict that we civilians had ever seen to that point in movie history. Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, and up to that point most military combat in movies had been fairly glorified and Hollywood-ized. There had certainly been graphic movies before. But none to that point had quite managed to capture what combat felt like to the people who were in it. I remember hearing before I had gone to see it, people asking, “Have you seen Private Ryan yet? Man. The first 20 minutes will blow your mind.” I also remember seeing interviews with Veterans who were there at Omaha beach, and hearing them say that Private Ryan was the most realistic depiction they had ever seen of what it was really like.
In the opening 20 minutes, we see the Troops storming Omaha beach on D-Day. It’s absolute mayhem. The water is red with blood. Bodies are everywhere. We see limbs flying off, Soldiers lying with their internal organs spilling out around them, bullets and bombs flying everywhere, and the disorientation of Soldiers trying to navigate the beachhead to a place of cover. We see everything from brave focus and determination to mortally wounded men screaming for their mother as they lie dying. And we see the randomness of combat – that you might be talking to a guy right next to you, and a split second later he’s dead -- shot in the head while you turned yours away. We also see the great degrees to which people respond to combat – the heroism in the face of great danger; the crippling terror; the confusion; the barbarity; and even still, the humanity, and everything in between.
There were no glorified slow motion shots in Saving Private Ryan; no heroic advances, no infallible characters. The men in the movie were as real, and as fallible as they could be; just there to do their job, and try to make it home alive; caught between believing in what they were doing, and at the same time realizing the futility of war.
The mission to save Private Ryan is a metaphor for all of the sons, brothers, and fathers who were lost in WWII. It is a focused, powerful reminder that families everywhere lost, and still lose loved ones in war. And it reminds us of the terrible price that is paid by a relative few, so that the majority of us can live free and safe. Of the seven men assembled to find Private Ryan and return him to his family, only two survive the mission.
In the final scenes of the movie, as Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller lies dying at the edge of the bridge, his final words are to Private Ryan. He says, “Earn this.” In the final scene, as an elderly Ryan is visiting Miller’s grave some 54 years later, he says, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me.”
This is Spielberg’s challenge to us all. To earn what these men and women have sacrificed so greatly to protect and defend for us.
Have we? Are we?