Life and death during wartime

Spielberg perfectly--and horrifyingly--captures the humanity and horror of WWII

The first shot in Steven Spielberg's remarkable World War II epic Saving Private Ryan is an American flag with the sun behind it. It's a delicate, almost diaphanous image--the fabric has the transparent delicacy of a chrysalis. This is the perfect introduction to a movie about the fragility--and fortitude--of compassion during wartime. Spielberg puts us through the hair-trigger terrors of combat in a way no other filmmaker has ever dared, and yet there's a gentleness to his enterprise. He's interested in the humaneness that comes through the horror. His film is a paean to the good that survives.

The flag that we see in the beginning flies above the vast cemetery in Normandy honoring the fallen Allies. After a brief prologue we flash back to the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach, where many of the soldiers off the boats are instantly, agonizingly slaughtered. We can make out a few recurring figures in the ensuing inferno--such as Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who is first revealed in close-up as a pair of trembling hands before the camera moves up to his ardent, tragic face. With waves of men falling around it, Miller's platoon of seven soldiers finally storms the beach to gain the high ground against the Germans. We feel every atrocious inch of their odyssey.

This opening sequence, in which thousands of men are splayed and pulverized, is perhaps the most wrenching battle scene ever filmed. It goes way beyond what we're used to in war movies. Even the greatest battles staged in film until now--in the work of such directors as Griffith, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Ford, Welles, and Peckinpah--had an overarching artfulness. The violence and terror had an aesthetic dimension--a horrid beauty and sometimes a nobility--that kept us from being entirely aghast at the awfulness of what we were watching.

Spielberg is attempting something much more punishingly immediate. For almost half an hour, he puts us on Omaha Beach and refuses us any respite. We don't get any wisecracking Hollywoodisms to reassure us we are only watching a movie. Spielberg doesn't frame the soldiers as martyrs or heroes (though many are). We aren't made to feel that we are inside an artist's vision (though we are). Instead we seem to be looking at the collective nightmare of an entire generation of combatants--a horror show that has once again come startlingly to life.

If you go to the movies at all these days, you realize that filmmakers have become so giddy about the new visual and aural technologies--with their capacity for sensory onslaughts--that they've lost sight of what can really be achieved in bringing us shudderingly close to experience. When you watch Saving Private Ryan, especially in the opening sequence, you suddenly realize the sheer power of all that advanced sound-and-picture movie engineering. One reason there has never been another battle sequence like this one is that no filmmaker of Spielberg's gifts has ever had at his disposal such an arsenal of effects.

But there's another reason to be startled: Spielberg is the first director to connect the Vietnam experience--as an experience of combat--with World War II. This is a radical move. We accept the gut-bucket gruesomeness in Vietnam movies because the nature of that war, and the ways in which it was brought into our homes on television, demands such treatment. To be "tasteful" or sentimental would be an affront. (The rage in those movies is a rage of national self-immolation.) But World War II movies have almost always lacked the explicit horror of Vietnam films because WWII is billed as The Last Good War. Its presentation was, and to a large extent continues to be, sanitized for mass consumption by Washington and Hollywood.

In Saving Private Ryan, the panorama is as excruciating as any Vietnam footage. The soldiers are splattered by bullets; their heads are blown from their shoulders in ripe, red bursts. A man picks up his just-severed arm while another man's guts pour into the sand. The obscene squeal-and-thump of mortar is everywhere in the air.

For perhaps a minute in the middle of this sequence, Spielberg suddenly shuts down the din on the soundtrack as we watch Miller numbly surveying the scene. The silence is even more sickening than the sounds of carnage. With his crack sniper Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), who recites scripture to himself before each kill, Miller finally knocks out a German machine-gun nest. He looks back at the beach in the momentary calm. His sergeant (Tom Sizemore) says to him, "Quite a view," and that's when we see for the first time the corpse-strewn expanse of Omaha Beach. It's the deathly, reposeful image this relentless sequence has been building to all along, and it holds you: Hieronymus Bosch meets G.I. Joe.

Several films about WWII are in production or about to come out, including an adaptation of James Jones' The Thin Red Line. Many people have tried to explain this phenomenon by presuming that audiences are hankering for comprehensible war-movie conflicts with clearly marked heroes and villains. For such a conflict, the Vietnam war obviously won't do. Neither will the intergalactic variety--you can only take so many hyperspace shoot-outs.

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