Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944, is the setting for the harrowing start to the invasion of Normandy, in the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. In the company of Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) and his battalion, the experience the beach landing is a realistic barrage of bodies falling, drowning, blowing up, or being torn apart. Despite the brutal chaos on the battle, Miller always remains in command and Spielberg establishes the Captain’s reputation with quick decision making when the situation is going to hell. Miller rattles off strategic commands like he’s been doing it his entire life and personifies what it takes to survive, and lead men, on the unforgiving battlefront of WWII.
Spielberg establishes Miller’s battalion for their reputation in battle before there’s a chance to decompress and understand who these characters are as people. And from the outset much is learnt about the 2nd Ranger Battalion from their conversations; one of them is writing a novel (Jeremy Davies); another is a religious hick (Barry Pepper) and they all speak of their families or share stories from home. Morsels of life beyond the battlefield grounds these characters, but a mystery lingers: who is Captain John H. Miller?
"Spielberg never shies away from the life or death situations the troops face and the decisions they make – and live with."
Turns out the battalion has a pool running to guess who Miller was before the war, and based on his actions on Omaha Beach, there’s a legendary status built around the leader; a soldier quips that it’s questionable if Miller even has a mother. Miller is proficient as a leader and a fighter, even his steely resolve to stick to military protocol when his battalion questions their mission to rescue Private Ryan (Matt Damon) from deep inside enemy territory is remarkable for its rationalisation of how the army functions. Maybe this guy was born with a helmet on?
But one line delivered by Miller changes Saving Private Ryan: “I'm a school teacher.” In a scene where the battalion questions Miller’s leadership following the death of one of their squad, Miller decides it’s time to settle the lingering question around who he is. It’s a beautiful piece of writing by screenwriter, Robert Rodat, and the entire film pivots in this scene.
Prior to the speech, we see a heartbreaking outpouring of emotion from Miller for the first time over the death of one of his men – a sublime moment in Hanks’ career – to slowly show the toll it takes on someone who is required to be strong for his men; something they often take for granted. Hanks makes the decision to have Miller looking over his shoulders to ensure no one is watching and those little glances are as upsetting as the tears covering his face as he shakes uncontrollably.
During Miller’s speech he says, “Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it's a big, a big mystery. So, I guess I've changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I've changed so much my wife is even going to recognise me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I'll ever be able to tell her about days like today.”
In war films, there’s an acclimatisation to the career military persona. Often the large-scale enlistment of all levels of society in WWII is forgotten. Maybe it’s because the human element of war stories in the initial aftermath of WWII were so jingoistic, especially anything with John Wayne as an untouchable man of action. The troops fighting were ordinary people asked to make extraordinary actions in horrible situations. Spielberg never shies away from the life or death situations the troops face and the decisions they make – and live with. Miller experiences a shaking hand throughout Saving Private Ryan and it’s a manifestation of the war in flesh. During a scene where the troops take refuge in a church for the night while a nearby town is shelled by German artillery fire, Spielberg, and cinematographer, Janus Kaminski, light Miller standing in the shadow of the flashes from the explosions. Miller is ready to break because he’s not the mythic hero his battalion are betting on. Miller finishes his speech by expressing that the mission to retrieve Private Ryan is enough motivation to get him home to his wife. Miller says: “I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.”
Saving Private Ryan derives its power from what the war demanded of a schoolteacher, and the thousands of others who put themselves in danger to stop Hitler. It’s the essence of Spielberg’s film to not brand these guys as mindless grunts. The extraordinary acts of ordinary men is what defines the spirit of battle in this remarkable film.
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