Saving Private Ryan is one of the most acclaimed war movies ever made. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and several, talented actors, it is a trailblazer in the war film genre.
It is set in June 1944, in the wake of D-Day and the Normandy landings and its first 27 minutes is a gritty, realistic portrayal of the horrors the men landing on the beaches of Omaha went through. The statement “War is hell” is experienced by every person watching the first 27 minutes of the movie.
The plot of the movie seems straightforward and heroic – inspired by the real-life situation of the Niland brothers, it follows US Army Ranger Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad as they search for a paratrooper, James F. Ryan (Matt Damon), the last surviving brother of three servicemen killed in action and who is to be sent back to the US to his mother. What follows are their ordeals and questioning decisions and the value of morality in war.
UM, SACRIFICING EIGHT SOLDIERS TO SAVE ONE SOLDIER – DOESN’T SEEM LOGICAL DOES IT?
Private Richard Reiben (Edward Burns) asks the same question, “Can someone please explain the math of this to me? I mean, where is the sense of risking the lives of eight of us to save one guy.”
Now, even if we think about the mother who has lost three out of her four sons in a battlefield far away from her home and feel pity, in pure strategic terms – sacrificing an elite squad of eight for one man, who might have already been killed in action or taken prisoner, who also have mothers of their own, makes little sense. So many families were destroyed by the Second World War and the wars that preceded or followed it, so if those mothers or children were ignored why should one in particular be considered?
Here Saving Private Ryan, splits its audience – people, based on their own values and beliefs, begin to question the plan to save one man. As the movie progresses decisions are questioned, deaths of comrades force the men to question decisions and their own feelings about their mission. A scene within the movie, where the squad comes across a crashed, overloaded glider, because it carried a jeep for a General resulting in the deaths of twenty-two men who were also on it, results in a feeling being echoed out loud which is repeated throughout the movie – FUBAR (Fucked up beyond any recognition).
War, in short, is FUBAR. It is hard to make sense of things, hard to maintain a moral compass when surrounded by destruction, death and hopelessness. Mercy, is scorned in the movie, as a weakness as we see the German soldier “Steam Boat Willie”, who is saved by Corporal Upham, earlier in the movie, causing the death of Captain Miller in the battle of Ramelle. Mercy and pity, which are essential aspects of a good human being or so we are told, are emotions which are questioned amidst the gore of war. We say, oh that Upham is so naïve – foolish to spare an enemy who would later try and kill you again. But, when Upham shoots Steam Boat Willie dead later in the movie, we rejoice – “Ah, he finally did what good soldiers do”. But no one questions, the destruction of Upham’s faith in the goodness of man and his faith in the benefits of showing mercy. He becomes more cynical and we accept it as normal.
Coming back to the point about one man over the lives of eight men, at the end of the movie, as Captain Miller lies dying – he tells Ryan, “Earn this, earn it.” Basically, he means that don’t let our sacrifices be in vain. But again, it raises more questions – just because men died to save him, Ryan who we see as having been a good husband and father- questions whether he has earned it or not. We applaud normal men as being good humans, deserving of respect even though they have just been good fathers or husbands and lived a decent life. It is sufficient.
However, since men died to save him, should Ryan be held to a higher standard? Should he invent cure for diseases or rescue people, to have to be considered deserving of saving and worth the lives of the men who died to rescue him? Survivor’s guilt is a major component of any conflict and in the movie, it is a major factor. From Captain Miller, to Sergeant Horvath to Corporal Upham to Ryan – everyone is battling guilt of having lived while so many of their comrades perished for a war which is FUBAR.
WAR IS HELL, WE KNOW THAT – WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS?
Aside from the amazing battle sequences and the gritty realism offered in the movie, Saving Private Ryan is a debate about morality when surrounded by war. If war is FUBAR then why are we so worried about morals and wrong and right. But the point here is even in the depths of conflict, humans have a choice to not lose themselves. Holding on to feelings of mercy, empathy and sacrifice, are essential when confronted by major upheavals. Every man for himself, dog eats dog world etc. are said when humans decide to take the easy path even though it may not be right.
Atleast, I’ll survive – yes, but at what cost. The loss of essential values that make you human, when confronted by major challenges, harm the person who emerges as a survivor at the end of the challenge. Captain Miller says the mission – eight men for one man – I don’t know if it is right or wrong. I don’t know about Ryan and don’t care. But if saving him, earns him the right to go back to his wife back home and stand proudly, then this mission is worth it.
So, surviving isn’t enough. Knowing, you maintained your values, despite being embroiled in a struggle for your life, allows a man or woman to stand up with their heads up high for the rest of their lives. This is what Saving Private Ryan is essentially about – we need to keep asking ourselves have we earned it? Earned this life or are we just coasting?