The Profound Contradiction of Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg's D-Day epic is a brutal, unpatriotic portrait of war—except for the notoriously sappy prologue and epilogue. What was the film really trying to say?
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When it was released 16 years ago, I didn't get it.

I knew Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was supposed to be a masterpiece. The best-known film critics in the country said so. Janet Maslin, for example, hailed it as "the finest war movie of our time." The film and its director both won Golden Globes, Spielberg received an Academy Award for directing, and more than 60 critics named Saving Private Ryan the best picture of the year.

The most serious students of the Second World War shared the enthusiasm for the film. Historian Stephen Ambrose, author of D-Day and Citizen Soldiers, thought it "the finest World War II movie ever made." The Secretary of the Army presented the filmmaker with the military's highest civilian decoration, the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. The New York Times even devoted a respectful editorial to "Spielberg's War."

And I knew that almost everybody else agreed with them. Along with 6.5 million other Americans, I saw Saving Private Ryan its opening weekend back in 1998, joining a mostly elderly crowd of the "Greatest" generation at a suburban multiplex. Moved to tears by the powerful film, the audience gave it an ovation as the final credits rolled. But as my wife and I filed out of the theater, I wondered what they were applauding, exactly, this darkened room full of veterans and their spouses.

Like everyone else in the theater, I spent most of three hours wincing involuntarily in my seat, shocked by the unrelenting mayhem of a daylight amphibious assault across a barren killing field, sickened by the sudden hash that light artillery can make of human bodies, groaning at the grotesque wounds and the grisly mutilations of whimpering casualties, and—in the end—twitching at even the slightest clatter of mechanized warfare.

Like everyone else, I wondered at the courage or desperation or whatever it was that drove American soldiers across a French beach, codenamed Omaha, under the withering spray of German machine-gun rounds from hilltop fortifications and the flesh-shredding explosions of 105mm howitzer shells lobbed by inland artillery.

And like everyone else, I had to agree that it was brilliant filmmaking—except for the beginning and the end. Spielberg actually opens and closes the film twice, employing two pairs of images to bracket the war movie everyone praised. The first and last thing we see pulsing across the entire screen is a faded, translucent American flag. Can we understand the flag as anything but an announcement of the subject of his epic: patriotism? The fluttering flag, denatured of its color and perhaps of its vitality, is the image with which the film begins and ends. But Spielberg wraps not only the war in the flag but also the cloyingly sentimental frame story of an elderly veteran, followed by his wife, son, and grandchildren, on his pilgrimage to the vast cemetery overlooking the Normandy beachhead, now marked by row after row of simple Christian and Jewish headstones.

Nearly every commentator criticized this prologue and epilogue. Janet Maslin conceded that these scenes are among the film's "few false notes." Others derided this opening and closing as "maudlin," "completely unnecessary," and "a burst of schmaltzy ritual." In fact, most writers simply ignored the prologue. Anthony Lane, for example, writing in The New Yorker, described the first half-hour of the film as "the most telling battle scenes ever made" without bothering to note that one must first wade through five minutes of schmaltz to get to Omaha Beach. (Later in his essay, Mr. Lane did make quite clear that he had no patience for Spielberg's "sappy epilogue.")

So this is what I didn't get. The opening and the closing of any work should be the two moments of greatest emphasis (as Spielberg's English-teacher hero, Captain John Miller, would no doubt have taught his high-school students back home in Addley, Pennsylvania). How could such a formidable filmmaker have botched the beginning and the end of his film?

But now, looking back as the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches, I've begun to doubt that the opening and the closing of Saving Private Ryan are missteps. In fact, I've come to think that, even if maudlin, they are the whole point of the war story they introduce and conclude.

What is that story? Surviving the bloodbath of Omaha Beach, a handpicked squad of Rangers are sent to extricate a paratrooper, James Ryan, from the intense fighting behind enemy lines because his three brothers have been killed in combat. Despite the efforts of his subordinates to dissuade him from authorizing the mission, General George C. Marshall determines to save Ryan's mother from a fourth telegram of condolence, quoting as his rationale, at times from memory, a worn letter to a Mrs. Lydia Bixby:

Executive Mansion

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Lincoln, unlike Marshall, does not hint that her grief deserves greater respect than that of any other mother deprived by the war of a son, nor that he would risk, even after Gettysburg, a single other soldier to preserve her from such loss. His eloquent letter expresses sentiment, not sentimentality. Spielberg's Marshall, on the other hand, seems unable to distinguish between sentimentality and morality.

In fact, Lincoln had been misinformed. Mrs. Bixby had protested the enlistment of her sons, and while two were killed in combat, another returned safely home after an exchange of prisoners of war. The final two sons deserted, one even fleeing the country. And, as M. Lincoln Schuster points out in A Treasury of the World's Great Letters, the widely circulated letter was denounced by Lincoln's opponents as "cheap and ostentatious." One paper even questioned Lincoln's right to pen such words while his own two sons, one still a child but the other 21, were "kept at home in luxury, far from the dangers of the field."

These details—absent, of course, from the film—are not merely curious footnotes. The great bulk of dialogue in Saving Private Ryan not directly connected to the prosecution of battles is dedicated to an ongoing debate about the morality of the squad's mission. No one makes a case that their mission is heroic. It is idiocy and, as far as the soldiers are concerned, immoral idiocy. What of the grief of their mothers, they wonder. The true story behind the eloquent words and heroic sentiments with which General Marshall sends these soldiers to their deaths makes clear that Lincoln's letter is empty, as it turns out, of everything except rhetoric. But soldiers don't need a history lesson to recognize the emptiness of rhetoric when they are about to become its victims. The morality of risking eight men to save one is an equation that makes no sense to a soldier.

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John Biguenet is the Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is the author of six plays and seven books, including The Torturer’s Apprentice and Oyster, and a recipient of the O. Henry Award. 

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