In trying to keep with a theme for this month’s batch of TBT’s, I have failed. 😦 I kind of put myself in a bad spot by opening the month (and the year) with Arnie’s disastrous adventure involving Armageddon in End of Days, a film I didn’t really feel comfortable with “associating” with any others as it’s just so poorly made. Unless I wanted a month of movies that fell well below their potentials I would have to go with some randoms for January. With that in mind, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and explore
Today’s food for thought: Saving Private Ryan.
Storming Normandy since: July 24, 1998
Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is one of those films you can recall precisely where you were when you first watched it. For me, that was crammed into a small bedroom in Columbus, Ohio on a road trip me and a high school friend took in the fall of 2003. He had suggested watching it since he had never seen it, and up until that point I hadn’t been overly enthusiastic over putting myself through something I had heard was so grisly violent. Finally, on the last night of being in town, we slipped the disc into the DVD player.
I’m not sure how many I’m talking to here when I say that if you are anything like I was, reluctant, you have good reason to be if you have yet to experience Saving Private Ryan, particularly the opening half hour. More akin to a form of psychological boot camp designed to test viewers’ resolve than just another confronting scene of blood and gore, the infamous D-Day invasion of Normandy beach cements the film as essential viewing. The reality of war has never manifested as a nightmare so uniquely absurd, what with bodies being engulfed in walls of fire only to emerge as liquefied flesh.
Grenades rendering the very unlucky without a face.
That boy crying out for his mama.
Good thing film can’t tap into our sense of smell and taste; although there comes a point where the blood becomes so much its coppery taste is palpable. It’s also ironic: while wartime violence is something no one should ever witness, this harrowing sequence is history no one can afford to ignore.
After I had made it through this part and the room had righted itself again — I sometimes get the feeling the room is turning sideways whenever I get very uncomfortable in my seat — I felt uplifted, as though I had just achieved something. At the same time I felt callousness as I had this sense that whatever would pass by my eyes next would not be as severe as . . . well, that. There would be continued loss of life and likely there’d be other confronting passages — goodbye, Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) — but I knew even then that Spielberg had crafted something unique once Tom Hanks and his band of brothers gained the hill and bunkers and managed to regroup.
Saving Private Ryan is a title that explains itself but for the sake of coloring the picture: Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is unaware that his three other brothers have all been killed in battle over the last week, and it is now up to Hanks’ Captain Miller and his company (which is comprised of several names that would later become major players in the entertainment biz, including Vin Diesel) to track him down and ensure his safe return to the States. There’s a tension that somewhat dissipates once we’re off the beach, a transition some have misconstrued as the film losing its strength. That may be true, but only insofar as the opening scenes possess a power that no film can really maintain. Spielberg wasn’t setting out to be masochistic in his choices, nor did he have intentions of frustrating those expecting the bloodletting to continue for two full hours uninterrupted. In his orchestration of the D-Day landing, yes we suffer. And audiences suffer a lot in this sweeping chronicle, but not for nothing.
After the bunkers the narrative distinctly shifts gears, for we move behind enemy lines with Miller et al as they forge ahead through wastelands created by aerial bombings and the crushing weight of Nazi tanks and troops. We escape pervasive, shocking violence but move into a realm that’s arguably more disturbing; the aftermath of war upon civilization. The mission proper gets underway and we move through towns that now bare more of a resemblance to the surface of the moon than anything on Earth, searching for a needle in a gigantic, blood-soaked haystack. Spielberg scatters all kinds of present danger across a steadily sprawling map. From hair-raising sniper shoot-outs to savage hand-to-hand combat in abandoned homes the brutality of war manifests itself in far more personal ways.
The violence doesn’t go away because you . . . excuse me, I . . . wanted it to. Because you want the room to stop spinning like crazy. Because you feel ill. All of these things are symptoms of a person who either watches films too seriously (probably true) or effects of a director whose vision refuses to be compromised. The notion that something has been banned in several countries based on realistic depictions of wartime violence and not because it features a lot of graphic sex scenes necessarily places the film on a short list of extremely disturbing films that are remarkably without great controversy. Rightfully so. Steven Spielberg’s film, though difficult to watch and of the variety that’s good to watch once and be done with, is a cinematic landmark, and quite possibly the standard to which all war films are going to forever be held. Even the ones that have preceded it.
Not that any of this was my immediate impression having randomly thrown this on on a crappy tube-TV in Ohio. It would take me years to comprehend the depravity of its violence, and for me to appreciate how hard it is for a filmmaker to recreate such atrocities with such an unflinching eye, an urgency to tell it like it is.
Recommendation: Far from comfortable, Saving Private Ryan is compulsory viewing. An extraordinary achievement in practical special effects and committed storytelling. A powerful vision of the sheer scale and desperation of the D-Day invasion (thanks goes to Mr. Alan Turing for his helping Britain decipher the German Enigma code so they’d know where to invade and when). An altogether unforgettable experience. For all these reasons and quite a few more, you should commit yourself to this film if you have not already.
Running Time: 169 mins.
TBTrivia: In the German-dubbed version of the movie, one of the actors, himself a German veteran of the Normandy invasion, couldn’t deal with the emotional realism of the film and dropped out and had to be replaced.
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