Captain Miller slumps against the wreck of an abandoned motorcycle with a German bullet stuck in his chest. A dust cloud hides something big. Suddenly it is torn apart by the huge shape. A Tiger tank rumbles over the bridge towards Miller.. Miller draws his pistol and aims at the tank. He squeezes of one shot.. Then a second.. A third..Another… bang.. BANG. The tank explodes in a huge ball of fire.
History it ain’t.
To understand Saving Private Ryan is to watch the official trailer. The story is given to us in a 136 seconds nutshell . A mother – the father isn’t mentioned – loses three of her sons to war, two alone during the invasion of Normandy alone, that last great invasion during that last great war(so the movie has it), the fourth son is lost somewhere in Normandy at a place called Neuville. His exact location and fate are unknown. Nevertheless a band of brothers is send out to save this one man as to spare the mother the loss of her last son.
The trailer keys us in on a few more things. For one there is not one shot with a German in it. It isn’t about them at all and their presence is more a matter of necessity that an actual attempt to portray Germans at that time. During the whole movie we will not be meeting any Germans but one, who is portrayed as an ugly, cowardly murdering man spouting foreign lines(his German is atrocious). French civilians also feature, for convenience sake they happen to speak English. The movie is not about them either.
The movie isn’t even about the question whether one man should be saved at the cost of another. Or others.
The movie is about memory. The clue is given at the beginning. We start with an unknown old man at a war memorial cemetery. He isn’t named. We don’t know where he is. At the end of the scene the old man stares into the screen and the movie fades into June 1944. Normandy. This particular part of the beach is called Dog Green. Is this his memory? Or is this Captain Miller’s memory?
What we see is what that old man thinks occurred. It is the distorted memory of one man. It is a story he gobbled together in his mind, from survivors, from movies, from documentaries, from books and from people he met. After fifty odd years this is what he has in his mind. And therefore things happen that did not happen.
The movie reports that no tanks reached the beach but as a matter of fact, Dog Green, the part of Omaha beach where Miller lands, had ample tank support. 40 out of 48 tanks actually made it to that beach.
The water is colored red by blood. Alas it takes a lot of blood to do that. It is unlikely.
It takes them about thirty minutes to clear the beach and pierce the enemy positions. In reality it took them much longer.
Miller and men are send from Omaha to Neuville to find Ryan. Trace the route and one sees it an odd route to take, especially considering Omaha being heavily opposed, while Utah, much closer to the airborne troops, would have been a far better jump off position.
Did Tiger tanks and SS men assault a group of Americans defending a bridge near a place called Ramelle? There is no place called Ramelle in Bretagne and there were no SS and Tiger tanks until weeks later, and those were mostly deployed against the English sector and the connection between the English and American part. To drive a stake into what was believed to be the weakest part.
During that fight we even get an interesting image of Ryan. He isn’t fighting the Germans, he is screaming in terror doing nothing at all. He isn’t even in the battle.
Saving Private Ryan is what Ryan thinks about when he walks over the cemetery towards Miller’s grave. He stands before the grave and asks himself the question.
Am I good man?
At the end we do not get an answer. James asks his wife, but she hesitates and then sort of admits it in an ambivalent way. But we will actually never know, because how could we? We simply do not know anything about Ryan, but that he has family and that he says he tried to live a good life. But what does that tell us?
The question extends further into: was I worth the deaths of this man and all the others? It is another question that never gets answered.
The movie doesn’t actually turn around this, but around the idea that a group of men go out and do something because that is what they have to do. Not for any lofty reason. Miller says it in the trailer: if getting Ryan out is going to get me home, then that is what I will do.
He has to do a job, so doing the job is what he does.
The funny thing is: he had no choice in the matter.
There is a deeper message behind the movie. That warfare is something you do because you do it, not for something like patriotism, or honor, or god, or liberty, but because it is a job that you do. And here lies a great danger. For once a soldier is just a guy paid like any other guy, you can point the finger at anyone as long as you pay him. The soldier is no longer a citizen, he has become a soldier of fortune: a paid killer.
As Vito Scaletta in the Game Maffia II says: in the war I killed who the president pointed at, now -back in the US- I kill whomever pays me points at.
It might be a dark future that gets revealed here.