December 11th, 2001

Saving Private Ryan

The critical approval rating for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan was, according to Rotten Tomatoes website, 98% – eat your heart out, George Bush. The best-grossing movie of the year, it was feted for brilliantly conveying the true, visceral horrors of combat and in honouring America’s war heroes. Critics, it seems, were too misty-eyed with patriotic fervour, too goggle-eyed by the opening 27 minute gorefest, to recognise its grotesque shortcomings. Meanwhile, star Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg are dishing up precisely the same recipe of blood and guff in the form of Band Of Brothers.

The film tells the story of a squad of US soldiers led by Hanks, who having made the difficult landing at Normandy are ordered on a mission to retrieve a Private Ryan, whose brothers have been killed in combat and who is therefore to be sent home to his Mother, essentially as a PR exercise. Hanks and his detachment are naturally cynical, moan away an hour of the movie, rather echoing the thoughts of the more sceptical viewer such as who the fuck is this guy, why should we care and, look, Hanks, just rescue the twat so that we can get out of this multiplex and all go back to our families, already.

Of course, when Ryan turns out to be Matt Damon, and a thoroughly annoying goody two-shoes at that (“I will not leave behind the only men who are my true brothers!”) everything is supposed to make sense. Truth is, however, that despite Spielberg’s grandiosity of scale and ambition Saving Private Ryan reveals the all-American parochial smallness of his vision. Thematically, this is a negligible, deeply reactionary movie.

Take the much-feted D-Day sequence. Visceral it may be but what does it tell us? a) That bullets probably hurt and b) That if a grenade is flung your way, your best bet, to paraphrase Blackadder, is to throw yourself 30 feet in the air and scatter yourself over a wide area. It’s a pornocopia of blood’n’guts, most obscene in that it treats the Germans as distant targets, little better drawn than the lead-eating Fritzes and Jerries of Warlord comic. The wider historical or ideological context of World War II is ignored in the movie. In Spielbergland, there are no Allied forces of other nationalities (as the Brits loudly complained), nor even black Americans. These are white Americans, bonded by “brotherhood” who are combating a foe as senseless, dehumanised and malevolent as the shark in Jaws or the juggernaut driver in Duel or, indeed, the evil “terrorists” who, for motives Americans have never made any effort to understand, lash out at the US and who must be obliterated. Spielberg shares the narrow, America-is-all mindset of his countrymen.

The film is riddled with flaws – the splash of blood on the camera lens during the D-Day sequence was doubtless intended as an audacious piece of cinematography. But what is it supposed to signify? Are we to suspend disbelief to the extent of imagining that this is actual D-Day footage, or that, for authenticity’s sake, real extras were genuinely massacred with actual machine gun fire? What? There’s the bowel-curdlingly mawkish bookending of the movie with the veteran in the graveyard, there’s John Williams’ score, all manipulative strings, as syrupy and turgidly sentimental as his score for the wretched Amistad – it’s as if Spielberg makes films to suit Williams’ music rather than vice versa.There’s the murmuring tedium of the film’s mid-section and the failure to invest any of the squad with discernible personalities – Lord forbid screenwriter Robert Rodat should have watched The Dirty Dozen or even Dad’s Army, for lessons in characterisation.

What’s most worrying, however, is that Spielberg’s po-faced confections are taken as ersatz cinematic history. Yet Schindler’s List, for instance, shows no awareness of the best and most recent scholarship on the holocaust, the work of Lucy Davidowitz or Daniel Goldhagen. It peddles the naive nonsense that the Germans temporarily fell under the sway of psychotic mass murderers like Ralph Fiennes’ young commandant. Saving Private Ryan, meanwhile, for all its pretensions to authenticity, merely passes off as screen gospel the Spielberg lie that wars are about decent white Americans showing their moral mettle against jabbering foreign badness (and boy, do those Germans jabber). Like Schindler’s list it is luridly gut-churning and crudely heartstring-pulling but offers nothing to the brain. It’s a farrago of the sort of sentimentality and symbolism which in these times above all, must be resisted.

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