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Gambit Weekly All for One

By Rick Barton

AUGUST 3, 1998: 

FILM: Saving Private Ryan

STARRING: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

My father, who died last year, entered the Army Air Corps on his 18th birthday in February 1943. He was scheduled to fly in the aerial support for Operation Overlord, which began on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. But he was one of the lucky ones. He broke his thumb playing touch football while awaiting assignment and was kept at the rear, thus missing service in some of the bloodiest, most terrifying combat the world has ever known.

Just after my father's death, I traveled to the American memorial atop the bluffs at Omaha Beach and walked awestruck among the 9,000 white crosses and stars of David, reading the names of men who served with my father and gave their lives to their country. Standing on the narrow beach below, gazing up at the 90-foot embankment where Hitler's soldiers manned their concrete-bunkered machine guns, I was astonished by the magnitude of sacrifice. To see this now-tranquil place is to be overwhelmed at the odds American soldiers faced that day -- a hill so high, a beach so naked, an enemy so protected. Some units took casualties in excess of 90 percent. Many were killed without firing a shot, many without even getting out of their landing craft. Yet they kept coming. And if they hadn't, the world would be a very different place.

I was reduced to tears at Omaha Beach over the enormity of what happened there. And I found myself weeping anew in the opening moments of Steven Spielberg's wrenching Saving Private Ryan when an aging veteran of the assault walks with his family among the headstones and falls to his knees atop the grave of a man with whom he fought. The power of this movie and its shattering material is so great that it sticks its fist into your intestines from the opening moments.

Saving Private Ryan cuts from the memorial park to that morning 54 years ago when Eisenhower's citizen soldiers stormed ashore as the Nazis rained death on them from above. The film's next 30 minutes provide a relentlessly realistic re-enactment of the invasion's first wave not from the point of view of the generals directing the attack, as Daryl Zanuck did in The Longest Day , but rather from the point of view of the grunts taking the fire, vomiting in their helmets as they splash toward shore, dying without ever getting a rifle to their shoulders, leaping into the water from the backs of Higgins boats and drowning under the weight of their equipment and weapons, making it to land but finding no place to hide, hunkering down in the sand, trying to inch forward, watching in horror as their buddies are blown to bits by mortar rounds and shredded by machine-gun fire. Spielberg shows us what happened that terrifying day in all its gory detail, and it is horrible to watch: men with their intestines oozing between their fingers, men picking their own severed arms up out of the sand, men trying to hobble forward on the stumps of missing legs, men my father's age, still in their teens, crying for their mothers.

Somehow -- miraculously, it would seem -- we ultimately prevailed. And the final two hours of Saving Private Ryan tell the story of eight survivors of Omaha Beach who are given a peculiar assignment. It has come to the attention of U.S. Gen. George Marshall (Harve Presnell) that an Iowa mother has suffered the deaths of three of her four soldier sons within 72 hours. Her fourth son, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), is a paratrooper who has landed behind enemy lines in the Normandy interior. Marshall determines to get Ryan out of the war immediately, and the chain of command chooses Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) to lead the expedition. Miller selects Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore) to accompany him and six other men. Miller and Horvath have been fighting together throughout the war. Miller is a high school English teacher, quiet and steady, but the war is taking an obvious toll on him. His right hand shakes horribly at times from the stress. Ninety-four men have died under his command since the war began, and though he tells himself that those deaths may have saved the lives of 10 times that many, he feels the weight of each lost soul. Like someone that Ernest Hemingway would have brought to life in the pages of a novel, Miller sometimes has to go off by himself to cry, but he always returns to duty.

The mission to find Ryan takes Miller and his men into three more firefights with the enemy: in a village where paratroopers are trying to root out Nazi snipers, along a roadside where a Nazi machine-gun crew is nested for a hedgerow ambush, and, climactically, in defense of a bridge that needs to be held against an armored counterattack. The men with Miller already have survived long odds at Omaha Beach, but their peril continues. Not all of them make it, and we feel viscerally the loss of each man.

Saving Private Ryan is not a perfect film. There's a salute near the end that feels far too Hollywood and cheapens the incredible emotional surge that precedes it. And I was both somewhat confused and more than a little perturbed by the character construction of Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), a linguist drafted into the squad to help Miller communicate with French citizens. Upham has been working behind the lines and hasn't fired a shot since basic training. Certainly, the circumstances in which Upham finds himself are as terrifying as anything anyone could ever experience, but his utter paralysis under fire isn't quite convincing. In a film of such brutal action nonetheless deeply rooted in character, Upham seems a salient cliche.

Such failings, though, in no way diminish this picture's impact or transforming brilliance. Just as he did in Schindler's List, Spielberg uses the tools of fiction to deliver an invaluable history lesson. Viewed from the end of the 20th century, in an era of sustained prosperity and relative peace, the allied victory in World War II takes on an aura of inevitability. Hitler's Germany was just no match for America's size and industrial might. There can be no question that we enjoyed advantages in this regard, but victory still required the will to fight, a will that Hitler gambled America and the soldier at the front just did not have. He was wrong. But this story, in horrifying image after horrifying image, drives home the terrible price of exerting that will.

It was hardly inevitable that we would triumph on the beaches of Normandy, and if we had not, the war would have taken a frighteningly different course. Moreover, by starting with fighting at Omaha Beach and then taking us on to the horrors of the interior, Spielberg illustrates that the will to fight had to be exercised over and over again. Survival in one place simply brought peril in the next. Victory in one battle only changed the location of the battle that followed. The success of Operation Overlord did not bring the war to an end, and even though we had the upper hand in its aftermath, ultimate victory still was not assured. Men had to keep fighting and dying for another 11 months before V.E. Day.

Saving Private Ryan has many things to teach us, among them that war is not just hell but chaos, that among its countless terrors is its disorder. Generals at the rear may devise grand strategies, but even when successful, they defy neat execution. Clouds kept the Air Corps from providing promised support on D-Day. Winds blew paratroopers miles from their drop zones. Naval bombardment failed to drive the Nazis from their reinforced bunkers. And the grunt still had to go ashore. In the chaos of front-line officers dead and platoons cut in half and more, men had to devise organization on the spot. Elsewhere, sometimes, when officers survived, American soldiers accustomed to freedom of speech, like Pvt. Reiben (Edward Burns) in Miller's squad, didn't always agree with their commander's directive. Thousands of rebellions and potential rebellions had to be faced and overcome.

Only Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One remotely approximates what Spielberg accomplishes here in terms of making a viewer grasp the enormity of the grunt's experience, the quaking fear as he lay in iffy ambush listening to the grinding approach of enemy tanks, the soul-ravaging frustration of hearing a wounded friend cry for help, the gnawing anxiety that what he has seen and endured, what he has chosen to do, been forced to do and held back from doing, have collaborated to change him into something other than himself. Miller says he's afraid that the wife he so longs to return to won't recognize him when he gets home.

All these things certainly make us understand why a tough man like Horvath carries around three canisters of dirt, one of soil from North Africa, another from Italy and a third filled with Normandy sand. For Horvath, these canisters are his most valuable possessions, each beyond the purchase of money, each bought with blood. All these things made me understand something I thought I was above understanding. They don't make me approve or even justify. But they did make me understand why a good man might shoot down an enemy who has thrown away his weapon and raised his arms in surrender. War is hell, and, as historian Stephen Ambrose has written, our civilization owes a debt it can never repay to those who braved the hell at Normandy in 1944.


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