‘Horrifyingly graphic’ Saving Private Ryan reviewed in 1998

As Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama Saving Private Ryan returns to cinemas for its 25th anniversary, we look back at an original Sight and Sound review of the film, first published in September 1998.

27 November 2023

By John Wrathall

Tom Sizemore and Tom Hanks as Sergeant Horvath and Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (2023)
Sight and Sound

Like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan ends in the present day, with a survivor of appalling carnage during World War Two contemplating a memorial to the man who saved him. The saviour this time is Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller, who in the aftermath of D-Day is sent behind German lines on a mission to rescue Private Ryan, an American soldier whose three brothers have all been killed in action in the same week. Miller’s quixotic mission, to save one symbolic American soldier while thousands die around him, inevitably recalls Schindler’s struggle to save a thousand out of the six million. In fact, the same tagline could do for both films: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Unlike Schindler’s List, which was based on fact (by way of Thomas Keneally’s novel), Saving Private Ryan is the invention of screenwriter Robert Rodat (whose best-known work hitherto was as co-writer of Fly Away Home). Unusually for Spielberg, it’s not a project he initiated himself. But by choosing it he seems to be grasping the opportunity to revisit Schindler’s List, only this time liberated from the ideological baggage which any Holocaust film must carry. 

Working once again with the Polish-born cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg abandons his usual emphatically storyboarded style in favour of a more urgent, handheld approach, with desaturated colour emulating the look of World War Two colour newsreels. From the staggering 25-minute opening sequence on Omaha beach during which Miller’s troops are shot to pieces as they struggle to disembark from landing craft, the violence has the terrifying immediacy of the ghetto-clearance scenes in Schindler’s List. 

But this time there’s no equivalent of the little girl in red, the one sentimental spot of colour in a monochrome world. Apart from John Williams’ sparingly used music, the climactic, deus ex machina appearance of US bombers roaring overhead, and the moment before the final battle when the rumble of approaching German tanks conjures up a memory of Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan is conspicuously free of overt Spielberg touches.

It’s meaningless for critics to write of ‘realism’ in war movies, as most of us have no idea what war really looks like. But the action sequences in Saving Private Ryan are extraordinary: utterly believable, horrifyingly graphic in their depiction of death and injury, but somehow matter of fact, so that the worst atrocities are glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye, and the choreography never shows. 

For sheer gut-wrenching immediacy, the only war film that’s comparable is Come and See, Elem Klimov’s gruelling 1985 account of Nazi massacres in Belarus, which Spielberg would surely-have watched while doing research for Schindler’s List, if not before. One trick in particular-recalls Klimov: at the height of the fighting, first on Omaha beach, then again at the very end in the devastated town of Ramelle, as the US soldiers defend a bridge from ferocious Panzer attack, Spielberg fades out the sound and replaces it with the roar inside the shellshocked Miller’s head as all hell breaks loose around him.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The unselfconscious directness of Spielberg’s mise en scene is matched by Robert Rodat’s solidly constructed, unsensationalist script. Although the futility of Miller’s mission – losing several men in order to save one – is pointed out by the squad’s resident malcontent, Edward Burns’ Private Rei ben, this isn’t a film about the insanity of war. Spielberg’s war may be hell, but it has a point. Holding the bridge at Ramelle in the film’s climactic battle will, we are told, help the Allies get to Berlin more quickly. (While contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone have made films about Vietnam, Spielberg has preferred the more clear-cut moral universe of World War Two. This is his fourth film about that war, not counting the Indiana Jones trilogy with its Nazi villains.)

In between the breathtaking action sequences, Rodat subtly sketches in the character and background of Miller and his seven men, including dependable NCO (Tom Sizemore’s Horvath), Brooklyn cynic (Reiben) and sensitive Medic (Giovanni Ribisi’s Wade). They may sound like stock characters on paper, but it’s to the credit of Rodat’s writing and some very astute casting that only one of them ever seems like a scriptwriter’s contrivance: Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a superhumanly gifted sniper from the Deep South who prays out loud as he squints down his telescopic sight. 

In Apollo 13, Hanks never seemed totally convincing as a man of action. But here he is perfectly cast as an ordinary man doing the best he can in impossible circumstances, and gradually losing his grip. The revelation of Miller’s peacetime origins, the subject of much speculation among the other soldiers, is brilliantly timed to provide one of the film’s most compelling moments. 

The film’s key character isn’t Miller, however, or Matt Damon’s Private Ryan, but Corporal Upham. An interpreter seconded to Miller’s squad after the landing at Omaha, Upham is the character closest to the audience and to Spielberg himself: he knows about war, and can quote Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, but he has never seen action. Played by Jeremy Davies, the incestuous teenager from Spanking the Monkey, Upham is bright, but nervous and clumsy. From the start he is set up as the innocent who – in time-honoured war-movie tradition – will surely come into his own under fire. There’s a running joke about the squad’s favourite expression, “FUBAR”, an acronym which he understands only when he has experienced the situation it describes first hand (to reveal it here would spoil the joke).

Upham also represents the squad’s conscience. When they storm a machinegun post behind lines, the other soldiers, enraged by the death of their comrade Wade during the assault, are about to kill the only surviving German soldier. Upham is appalled. After talking to the German, who pleads for his life by reeling off every American pop-culture reference he can think of, Upham persuades Miller to spare him. As they cannot take the prisoner with them on their mission, they have to let him go. 

Later, during the final battle in Ramelle, Upham is paralysed by fear. Spielberg keeps playing on our expectations that he will snap out of it and do something heroic. But he never does. In fact, in the film’s most agonising scene, Upham fails to come to the rescue of Mellish, one of his comrades, as a German soldier slowly, almost tenderly, stabs him to death, telling him it’s easier just to give in and die than to keep on fighting. Mellish isn’t just any old GI: he’s the squad’s only Jew, earlier seen defiantly waving a Star of David in the faces of German prisoners of war. The man who kills him turns out to be the same German Upham saved earlier. Only at the very end of the film does Upham finally take action, recapturing the German and shooting him in cold blood. But it’s hardly an act of redemption.

All this, in the light of Schindler’s List, can hardly be coincidental. But what exactly is Spielberg trying to tell us here? That it’s all right to kill prisoners of war? Or that American intellectuals like Upham, through their sympathy with the Germans as civilised human beings, somehow condoned the Holocaust? It’s open to interpretation. But that itself is a breakthrough in a Spielberg film. The fact that he refrains from telling us what to think, even after setting us up for manipulation, is the ultimate proof – if any more were needed after this magnificent film – that he has come of age as an artist.

 ► Saving Private Ryan returns to UK cinemas on December 1. 

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