War films can be broken into two basic categories; the propaganda film, which celebrates bravery and patriotism; and the anti-war film, which shows the suffering and futility of war. The most extreme propaganda films are usually produced when a war is threatened or actually in progress and either demonize or belittle the individual enemy soldier. This is useful for both inspiring the home front and for assuring it that there will be an ultimate victory. While these films play well with a wartime audience they appear somewhat silly when viewed in a post-war environment.
An exception to this war-in-progress concept was is “Saving Private Ryan”. Cloaked in an anti-war facade, this film was more typical of what would have been produced in 1944 (its setting) than 1998 (its year of release).
Under its thin anti-war facade of realistic looking destruction, Private Ryan breaks with the characterization elements that are essential for classification as an anti-war work. Almost by definition anti-war films use a faceless enemy (“Paths of Glory”) or portray the enemy soldier as sharing in the suffering and futility of war (“The Enemy Below”). Often they are portrayed as victims of a fanatical leadership and the audience is invited to identify with or at least understand them (“The Longest Day”).
This is because after a war, both the victors and the vanquished have an incentive to portray their enemy as brave and determined, otherwise victory is hollow and defeat is humiliating. Not so in Private Ryan; if the German battle performance and basic infantry tactics shown in the film were representative of what was actually practiced, a single allied division could have occupied all of Germany by the end of June 1944. The final battle scene alone makes the viewer wonder how, facing such a totally inept enemy, the war could have gone on more than a few days after the D-Day Landings. Among the most obvious:
A sequence where American soldiers run back and forth in front of a Tiger I tank without drawing the fire of the tank’s machine guns. These tanks had internally operated machine guns, which would have easily cut down these soldiers. Knowing this the soldiers would not have exposed themselves to this fire.
Tanks entering an urban area ahead of infantry, driving down the middle of the town as if on parade. Instead infantry would flank any defensive position on the street and secure the area immediately ahead of the tanks so they do not come into range of anti-tank weapons. These tactics were validated during early fighting on the Russian front and became operational imperatives for all Panzer units.
A Hitler Youth dagger found in the trench right after the first bunker is taken on the beach. The men in these bunkers were mostly older second-tier draftees and Ukrainian conscripts. Normandy was not expected to be the invasion target and it’s highly unlikely that a member or former member of the Hitler Youth would have been assigned to these marginal units. But it was an excellent way to make the audience less squeamish about the brutality inflicted by the allied soldiers when these German units attempted to surrender.
So just what is “Saving Private Ryan”? The first 24 minutes are a high budget remake of the “Longest Day” whose less expensive landing sequence conveyed more tactical believability about the process of securing a beachhead. The next 90 minutes are a mistake-ridden, choppy, and contrived remake of “The Big Red One”. Ultimately, this overlong odyssey said less about patrolling behind enemy lines than “Kelly’s Heroes”- a counterculture comedy whose serious scenes and character development were superior in almost every way.
Then there is the finale, a total rip-off of Arthur Pohl’s “The Bridge” (1949), which focused on a handful of recently conscripted German schoolboys who fight for control of an inconsequential bridge during the last weeks of the war. They were at the bridge because of a series of accidents and they naively stayed there because of their youthful idealism and sense of duty. Like Private Ryan, most do not survive the engagement. What is notable is not that Pohl was able to make a much better film for a fraction of the cost (that is not particularly unusual), but that he was able to convey more perspective four years after the event than Spielberg could manage 50 years later.
But these criticisms of Private Ryan are based on the assumption that Spielberg’s intent was to make a worthwhile war film and there is simply nothing to support this assumption. More likely Spielberg’s agenda was make money while subtly refuting post-war portrayals (such as “Das Boot” and “Cross of Iron”) of the German soldier as something more than the sub- human creature of WWII propaganda days or the cartoon villains of his own “Raiders of the Lost Ark” series.
The genius of Private Ryan is its success in packaging this sick message inside a commercially successful film. At the time of its release and its almost universal acclaim, this aspect of the film was largely unrecognized (and unexamined) by both audiences and critics. In this respect it owes less to the war films it shamelessly plagiarizes than to early 1950’s cinema, where McCarthy-paralyzed Hollywood directors resorted to subtle themes that went undetected by studio executives and regulators. Only recently has its status begun to erode as individual critics more carefully examine its elements, away from the euphoria that surrounded its initial release
Although “Saving Private Ryan was popular, remember that the “Rat Patrol” ran for 58 episodes, watched by television audiences who were also entertained by similar silly nonsense.
Then again, what do I know? I’m only a child.