The date is June 6, 1944... D-Day at Normandy Beach. Captain John Miller stands helpless and paralyzed by the raging, barbaric spectacle. The sound of exploding thunder of one hundred thousand bullets tearing into metal, sand, and flesh is muffled by the sight of the carnage He desperately tries to register with another human being on the beach but all he sees is wave after wave of cannon fodder. A soldier yells 'Captain' and claws at Miller's wet frame. Captain Miller locks eyes with the man, builds momentum, and rushes forward into the terrible storm of war.
The opening scene of 'Saving Private Ryan' leaves us stunned at one of the most realistic and graphic depictions of war brought to film. We are confused, riveted, and moved by the sights and sounds booming from the big screen. We picture our fathers, grandfathers and friends shipped halfway across the globe to engage in the last noble war. This war was fought for generations of people so that we would never see another conflict of this magnitude. We see Captain John Miller not as actor Tom Hanks, but as a frightened everyman who is placed in an unbelievable circumstance charged with leading his troops.
The movie found its inspiration in the work of Robert Capa, a renowned war photographer who landed with the third wave at Normandy. He once said, 'If your pictures aren't good, it means you weren't close enough.' Capa shot photos under great duress. The camera shook with each explosion that shattered and killed the men around him. Director Steven Spielberg and still photographer David James wanted to capture realistic portrayals of the grim nature of battle. They did not want glossed-over studies of glory like John Wayne epics. To them and us, war is not a beautiful, glorious thing... war rips people into pieces. Robert Capa himself died from stepping on a land mine during the Vietnam War.
The strict codes of movie photography were dismissed during the filming. Spielberg and James concentrated on the eyelines of the actors as they reacted to events around them. Unusual shots such as from the back of Tom Hank's head, became telling images. The principle actors were put through 10 days of boot camp to learn about military life, weapon drills, combat maneuvers, and team building.
The film shows men who are scared, tired, and just wanting a piece of home. They search for Private Ryan who has lost three brothers in the war. As a result, he is slated for discharge to take care of his grieving mother. Each man has to think about the rationale of risking many lives for just one.
The cost of war, both physical and emotional, are depicted in scenes such as on Normandy Beach. A wounded soldier lies dying. Sand and grit are caked in his eyes and ears, yet he concentrates on a crucifix clutched in his hand as the battle continues around him. He knows he is finished. Yet, he still finds the strength to pray and ask for forgiveness. Despite this inhuman circumstance, we find humanity.
The men who did not return from war also strike a chord. A soldiers cemetery in Normandy, France shows simple white markers stretched endlessly... the costly sacrifice for the price of freedom. It has been said that when you walk among the crosses there, they become people. The stones that are marked 'Comrade at Arms, Known Only to God' were the bodies of men who could not be identified because their bodies were incomplete or in mere pieces. It is a chilling reminder that war is ugly and evil. It is important that people reexamine the price that men pay for their country.
Some say that 'Saving Private Ryan' is too graphic and disturbing. Little is left to the imagination when it comes to showing the brutality of combat. However, the movie is a historic representation. One veteran who had never spoken about his experience simply said this after viewing the movie, 'So now you know.'
I highly recommend watching this film in honor of the upcoming Veteran's Day. It will help us to remember the sacrifice and price paid for the freedom that you and I enjoy today.