The depiction of violence in the Hollywood movie Saving Private Ryan(Spielberg, 1998)
This essay will begin with a short description of the Saving Private Ryan movie-plot, even though one must consider that this “film is not about its plot. It is about the war in Europe, and more deeply, about the value of human life.“ This has to be described so that one has a foundation when discussing selected substances of the movie. I will then outline the depiction of violence in the movie Saving Private Ryan especially in the highly praised opening scene of the film.
The movie Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dream Works Pictures, directed by Steven Spielberg) begins with the screen-filling American flag flapping in the wind at a war cemetery somewhere in France and some time in the present. It continues with the main movie and the landing of American troops on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6th 1944, in Normandy, which is in the north of France. Captain Miller and his men land on the beach where the bloody battle against the Germans takes place. Meanwhile the staff in Washington realizes that three out of four Ryan family brothers died in combat. A mission of help is organized to find the last of the four brothers, James F. Ryan who was parachuted behind the enemy lines with the 101st Airborne division. Captain Miller, a literature teacher from Pennsylvania, and his eight elite soldiers get the mission to find Private Ryan and send him back to America. The soldiers are outraged when they discover what their mission will be. They do not understand why so many lives should be risked for the sake of just one. During their mission very personal talks tie them together as a team that can overcome all the mishaps of their journey through France. It is only later, by chance, that they find Private Ryan who is at a significant bridge in Merderet. He refuses to leave the soldiers he fought with. They and Miller’s men unite and fight a fierce battle against the Germans. Only a few survive this battle, Private Ryan being one of them. Now his purpose in life is to live a life to honour the sacrifices made by the men who died to save his life. The movie closes with the present day scene of the war cemetery where the old Private Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller and ponders about the purpose of his life. Again a screen-filling American flag symbolizes the patriotic message of the movie.
The first 20 minutes of the movie depict the landing of American soldiers at Omaha beach. This scene had been praised for it’s “grim depiction of the chaos and the casualties of the invasion of the Normandy. Spielberg‘s approach (was) to portray the confusion and violence of the battle on a personal, not a tactical, level.”. This is what makes the movie Saving Private Ryan so “brilliant not only in terms of technique but in the depth of viewer’s reaction it generates” Steven Spielberg consulted the historian Stephen E. Ambrose as well as the retired Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye to make the movie authentic. World War II veterans stated that Saving Private Ryan was the most realistic presentation of combat they have seen. But why exactly did this movie seem so realistic? The answer doesn’t lie in just one technique but in the numerous methods Spielberg applies.
There is for instance the choice of characters. Spielberg chose a “nice guy” as a captain and “normal guys” as soldiers. This makes the war seem even more hideous because the audience sympathizes with Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his soldiers because they are “average Joes with wives, jobs and rose bushes back home. And that makes the violence of the battle scenes all the more horrifying, the cost of 96 lives all the more painful.”
Another very important aspect is the usage of camera. In the first battle sequence, the landing on Omaha Beach, the camera is hand held which creates a jittery but not blurry picture of the fierce battle. Critics believe that Spielberg shot this sequence in double speed using every other frame, this is what made the film appear sharper, edgier and less soft. All of these strategies place the members of audience into combat experiences. So basically the audience doesn’t get a big picture of the battle, it is more that the viewers get a personal point of view.
There are no establishing shots or god’s-eye views of the beach, which creates a vivid picture of war and not one of an unemotional action movie. The camera switches sides, sometimes it shows the battle from the apparently secure upper position of the Germans but most of the times it shows an American soldier’s-eye view. It is remarkable that whenever the camera focuses on a soldier dying “it seems (as if) two others are killed in the corners of the screen.” This unconsciously creates the feeling that uncountable lives were lost in that battle.
The audience doesn’t know the main characters yet they can focus on the vivid depiction of the battle. The viewers can sense some of the fear that the soldiers suffer from. Spielberg illustrates these fears in the sequence where the soldiers are still on the boat getting prepared for the landing. It shows the soldiers in action but not in the normal heroic but, as I stated before in another context, in a very down-to-earth sense. The soldiers are frightened, really frightened. One of them vomits, another cries for his mother whereas another does his last prayers. They are heroes, but still they are normal people. They seem more vulnerable and hence more realistic. Spielberg demonstrates the terribly frightened soldiers, the confusion and chaos as well as really bloody visualisations of war, ripped body parts and open entrails.
Another method Steven Spielberg employs to create a realistic portrayal of World War II combat is the sound. He seems to be a master in making usage of that in order to create a very vivid picture. When the soldiers are shown on the landing boat the motors are clear and distinct. This makes the whole scene seem mundane and real, there is nothing heroic or romanticized about it. But this is not really the exciting detail when looking at the usage of sound in Saving Private Ryan. More memorable is the fact that sometimes Spielberg eliminated or reduced the sound. For instance when the camera moves underwater, this is the case when the soldiers disembark the landing boat, the sound is distant. To put it in other words when the soldiers go underwater the camera follows them and just like in real life the sound becomes distant. It seems a little dreamlike but still very real. But as soon as the camera breaks the surface the whizzing bullets and the screams of dying men return. All in all one experiences the first sequence to be very loud compared to the rest of the movie.
There are two sequences where the sound seems to take Captain Miller’s perspective. The first is again during the opening sequence and the second one during the last fight on the bridge of Merderet. When looking at the first sequence one can analyse it in two ways, the mental and the acoustic one. Fact is that the sound is highly reduced when bombs detonate next to the Captain. It seems understandable acoustically that Miller’s hearing did suffer from the explosion but it also seems understandable that this detonation has a big impact on his mental state. Miller might be in a kind of trauma where the questions of his men only reach him from a distance, we actually only see his men screaming at their Captain yearning to know what to do next. The first sequence doesn’t involve much coherent dialogue, there are screams and the exchange of basic information as well as yelled out instructions, an association one might have to combat.
Another aspect which produces a realistic depiction of the combat is the muted colour. There is not much that can be said about it but it is an aspect that should be mentioned here. These muted colours give the audience an image of the documentaries created by the cinematographers on the battlefield.
The strategies explained so far contribute a great deal to the fact that Saving Private Ryan is considered to be such an extraordinary movie. Compared to Pearl Harbour (Bruckheimer, 2001), where the viewers are spectators of a great cinematic performance with rushed images of American servicemen falling to death, and god’s-eye perspectives of the battle, Saving Private Ryan employs other techniques. Pearl Harbour seems to be more like a action-adventure story which is viewed from a distance whereas in Saving Private Ryan the viewers are supposed to be emphatic observers who feel a personal closeness to the tragedy, the viewers are supposed to dive in that battle scene on D-Day at Omaha beach.
All these strategies emphasize the intention of the director Spielberg and the writer Robert Rodat. The intention is not to learn a great deal about the history of World War II and the invasions of the allies at Normandy but to get a sense of the emotions felt during such battles as well as viewing something that resembles the real fighting.
I think Spielberg wanted to commemorate part of his father’s history just like many other members of that generation did with novels, articles or other movies. I believe that he wanted to create a vivid depiction of the war his father’s generation fought to set the foundation for the World that it is today, a sort of peaceful world. That is one of the reasons why all the Hollywood movies depicting World War II or other wars always glorify the sacrifices American soldiers made for the sake of the safety of the World and their country. There always seems to be a patriotic message.
Additionally the war that Spielberg illustrates in “Saving Private Ryan made war “good” again, this was war as men of Spielberg’s generation played it on the street when they were boys : storming beaches, house-to-house fighting, sharpshooters in doorways, vulnerable human beings against tanks, always outnumbered.”
All in all one can say that this movie is rightly praised, mainly due to its first sequence. The violence in the movie is illustrated in a very brutal and very realistic way. The means Spielberg employs to make Saving Private Ryan a demonstration of the real combat are fairly innovative, primarily because of “modern technology (which) allowed filmmakers to reproduce the frightening sound of German gunfire and the brutal reality of exploding body parts.”
One might wonder why this movie, even though it puts on view very brutal scenes, was rated R. The director illustrates for example a scene during the last battle at Merderet where a GI is slowly stabbed into the heart by a German soldier. This scene seems to brutal that it seems questionable why the MPAA rated Saving Private Ryan only R and not, as it would seem more appropriate an X. This is only appropriate because “Spielberg handles the subject matter well. He deals with a gruesome subject matter honestly and appropriately…no scene glorifies the mass slaughter of enemy soldiers.”
After the success of the movie Saving Private Ryan a whole new wave of Hollywood productions dealing with war stated. No one knew that by the time they were filmed America would be at war again and that there would be an even greater call for patriotic war movies depicting a “good war”, one that was fought for a just cause and that was won for good.
 vgl: www.dday-overlord.com/SPRHeng.htm
 vgl. http://moviehabit.com/reviews/sav_gz98.shtm
 vgl. www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/1998/9810/9810FIL.CFM
 vgl. Toplin, Robert B.; Reel History- in defence of Hollywood. 2002 p.110 ff