Saving Private Ryan and the art of excruciation
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Every critic out there has something to say about the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, and enough has been said about its ability to completely recreate the dread and horror. What I wish to talk about is how this movie ensured a sombre audience. I don’t need to leave a spoiler tag, this is one of the films you should watch immediately if you haven' already. What I want to talk about is how the movie makes you uncomfortable and pained.
My favourite scene in the film is the agonizing scene in which Wade is on the brink of death. We have been trained for these moments to be the glorious death of a soldier, one who chose to give their life for the country, but that is not what Spielberg went with. His dying wish is for more morphine to ease his unbearable pain, and his last shouts are cries for his mother. I know how much the D-Day scene means for many (including real veterans of that battle), but this was the scene that hit harder than any that came before or afterwards. The movie has no intentions of glorifying death at a battleground, it shows it for the tragedy that it is. The scene is 2 minutes and 6 seconds long, but it doesn’t feel any less than an eternity. Cinema has always romanticised death at the battlefield as a way to not seem disrespectful to those who have died such a death, but the greatest artists in history have tackled death in all its brutality and shallowness, always making the audience uncomfortable to be a part of the experience.
The next best scene for me has to be the painfully long scene with Upham being unable to save his fellow soldier. We are given pretty clear context for the scene; Mellish is about to be stabbed by a German soldier, he is holding on and fighting a losing battle, Upham is on the stairs, he has the advantage of surprise as well as firepower, and he just stands on site as Mellish is stabbed. A director cannot get clearer with a scene. By all logic of cinema, this would be Upham's redemption scene, where he climaxes his character arc and becomes brave enough to let go of his fears to save his companions in the journey. However, despite Upham's clear advantage, he still cannot muster enough courage to even walk up to the room. The audience has to painfully watch Upham failing to get bold and getting the narrative arc we are due for having invested in this character, but for this film, theme comes before all, and it aims to portray the horrors of war at its most naked.
The final scene I wish to talk about is Miller's death, The keen-eyed viewers might have spotted the German POW that Captain Miller spared coming back at Ramelle. He is the one who shot Miller. To the audience, this feels like Miller is consistently being punished for being an ethical person. Not only did he lose Wade when he decided to attack the German machine guns positions at the radar station (possibly minimising further casualties), but he was also sniped by the man who is only alive because Miller showed godly self-restraint. A bad action coming back to bite you is karma, a good one is tragedy.
In a lesser film, Wade would have asked for a cigarette as he passed and would have been patriotic as he died. In a more traditional film, Upham would have gotten his redemption. But we're not watching any of those, we're watching the best war-film ever made. People have debated whether the film is anti-war or pro-war, but I believe that is missing what the film is going for. The war on its own is a backdrop of the film, and the movie is thematically based on the real ugliness of the battlefield. It does not refute the need for a war against oppressors, nor does it encourage it.
What did this achieve at the narrative level? Well, since Irwin Wade died thanks to Captain Miller's decision to attack the German guns, him deciding to perform another ambush characterises Miller as someone who is too experienced to still hinder his decision-making. Upham allowing Mellish to be killed (even though he was traumatised by Wade's death) shows his absolute unreadiness for the war he is in the middle of. That's right, you may have picked up on the idea that these excruciating events in the film are not about affecting the plot, but characterising the soldiers. For Spielberg, his characters have always been the most important elements of the film. Even if these events did not affect the plot, they affected how the audience perceived the characters. This might seem inconsequential, but it changes the scope through which the audience views the remainder of the film. Now, seeing Miller so thoroughly disturbed by Wade's death puts his decision to take part in another ambush in a new light.