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Updated: Jun 8th, 2021
The key theme of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan is war. The subjects of the movie include World War II, the landing of American battalions in Normandy, mass heroism, deaths of innocent people, and the value of human life. At the same time, Saving Private Ryan has an indirect relation to the war since the battle in Normandy is a metaphor, nothing more than an excuse for the director’s metaphysical and sociopolitical constructions. The whimsical dialectic of the film multiplies allusions and provokes a detailed investigation, becoming the main advantage of the movie. For twenty-five minutes, the scene of the introductory battle continues with the enemy dug in at the coastal height, and this episode contributes most to addressing the theme of the film.
Making a film about war means solving a complex ethical problem. It is hard to observe how, in the high technology mode, the flesh of citizens of the United States scatters along the Norman shores. A piercing whistle, sophisticated pyrotechnics, significant financial investments — all these separate elements make the atmosphere of the movie more intense. In the context of other separate elements, Spielberg is not too original. Power and state are depicted as omnipotent gods, by the will of which human sacrifices are depicted in the movie. The final scene, which shows the American flag waving, dispels all doubts about the significance of the film’s separate elements.
The story is narrated in a heart-touching manner, despite the violence and brutality of the film. Spielberg is one of the greatest film masters in history, so it is not surprising that he pays significant attention to details in the plot structure. Already the first scenes of the picture set the tone for what is about to happen. The landing of the rangers on the Omaha coast at first glance seems a complete failure. Soldiers are met by a heavy barrage from well-fortified coastal bridgeheads, and the MG-42 machine gun bullets turn a living person into a bloody mess. Saving Private Ryan reminds viewers that in a times of war, people’s dreams and aspirations lose their significance in front of the barrel of enemy’s weapon, turning soldiers into sacks full of blood and bones. The lack of panoramic frames and a down-to-earth manner of shooting right at the epicenter of events create the illusion of being in such adverse conditions. Thus, without using any flashbacks or non-linear elements, the film succeeds in conveying the terrible atmosphere of war in a chronological way. At the same time, the whole story is, in fact, a flashback, since it is framed by a modern shot, in which the viewers see an elderly Ryan reminiscing about war.
Captain John Miller, the protagonist of the film, is played by the magnificent actor Tom Hanks. He is depicted as a commander of the Second Battalion of Rangers, who is assigned the task of participation in war from the top authorities. Before the war, Captain Miller had been working for the last 11 years as a schoolteacher at the Thomas Edison School. Being a man of duty, Captain Miller is a real protagonist of the movie who evokes respect and empathy among the audience. In his hastily formed platoon of subordinates, all soldiers not only obey subordination but also believe in their captain and listen to him, even in controversial situations. In essence, the protagonist’s character changes as the film progresses. This is especially felt in a scene where, after months of speculation, Miller tells his friends and subordinates about his life before the war.
Filming took place from June to September 1997 in Europe. One of the crucial tasks Spielberg considered the most accurate reconstruction of the landing on the beach, code-named “Omaha Beach.” High quality of photography and lighting contributed to the fact that the overall obscure film’s mood was enhanced by camera framing and placement. Due to various circumstances, it was impossible to shoot on the banks of Normandy, but the director insisted on a similar landscape and even the same yellow sand. A suitable shore was found in Wexford County in southeastern Ireland. The climate of England and Ireland added a special effect to the visual side of the film. Frequent rains and fogs made the light in the frame more diffuse and colors more pastel. In addition, film’s directors actively resorted to the help of smoke machines. Basically, all over the film, the camera was not at a shoulder level, but closer to the ground.
Naturalism and almost reportage shooting significantly contribute to the realism of the movie, while the director’s artistry still remains in the foreground. The pace and tempo of the movie are measured and slow, which adds to the overall tragedy of the picture. Due to the specific visual effect, the picture gains even greater expressiveness and contrast. In battle scenes, such a technique shivers even now, many years after the release of the film. It was that initial episode which allowed the tape Saving Private Ryan to become a classic of cinema. The operator actively used hand-held cameras, as well as cameras installed in the most unexpected places, even in water. The operator also decided to experiment with a shutter angle. Instead of the more traditional 180°, he shot with a shutter angle of 45° or 90°, which gave the effect of a stumbling and intermittent image. From an organizational point of view, this was a challenging job with many details falling into the frame at the same time. Although Spielberg wanted to emphasize the horror and chaos of real military operations, there was imaginary chaos on the screen, created as a result of long rehearsals and the clear planning of each fragment.
In total, 3500 authentic uniforms were sewn for the filming of the movie, and 2000 fake copies of hand weapons were made. Moreover, 12 warships and Higgins landing boats, as well as several tanks, including the Soviet T-34 and Czech 38, were used in the shootings. Based on them, imitations of the German Tigers and Marder III were constructed. When recreating the Omaha assault, Spielberg and the director of photography sought the highest possible historical accuracy in feature films; therefore, all costumes and make-up of heroes correspond to the atmosphere of those times. For filming, anti-tank hedgehogs were installed, barbed wire was stretched, and bunkers were erected. The group worked in various locations in England, such as Hatfield, Oxfordshire, and Wiltshire. The large-scale decoration of the dilapidated French city for the final scenes required special efforts. It has been erected for four months at the base of the British Air Force near London. Also, part of the shooting took place in Normandy, including opening and closing scenes that were made in an American cemetery and the memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer.
The first scene of the film perfectly depicts the director’s style and the overall atmosphere of the picture. The initial 25-minute landing scene in Normandy is often included in the best battle episodes of world cinema. This scene impresses the audience with the highest level of realism. The other powerful episode at the end of the movie depicts Captain Miller, wounded and almost unarmed, left alone with the German tank. His weakening hand cannot hold a gun, there are few cartridges left, but Miller continues to resist the deadly machine. This scene shows the director’s specific style and attention to the smallest details. The third act is connected with a large-scale battle episode of the defense of the bridge and the French village. This scene shows how heroes face the final test, which completely changes them.
Saving Private Ryan has become a real cultural phenomenon and literally the quintessence of the theme of confrontation between allies on the Western Front and generally military dramas with an abundance of action scenes. For me, this film is not about America saving the world, and not about the return of the son to his family. This is a movie about the attempt of people caught in terrible and sanguineous conditions to realize their place in this war and in this life. When watching such a large-scale picture, I experienced a vast range of emotions, starting from an ordinary smile, and ending with bitter sorrow. I was genuinely amazed by the courage and dedication of the heroes. Saving Private Ryan is one of the best military films, for me personally. I like this movie because it managed to tell a seemingly incredible story about the exploit of ordinary soldiers in a heart-touching manner.
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