Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan brings viewers face to face with the brutal reality of war.
In September 1862, before the debris of battle was cleared from the fields around Antietam Creek in western Maryland, photographers Alexander Gardner and James E. Gibson traveled to the scene of the bloodiest day of combat in American history.
They had come at the behest of their employer, the famed Mathew Brady. Their task was to record what they saw. In the midst of the Civil War, their photographic record was exhibited some weeks later in Brady’s New York gallery. Its effect was electric. Scenes of men frozen in death, lying in heaps along dirt roads and gathered in fields for burial shocked civilians throughout the North.
A New York Times reporter wrote: “The dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee. There is a confused mass of names, but they are all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type….We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one. It is like a funeral next door. It attracts your attention, but it does not enlist your sympathy. But it is very different when the hearse stops at your own door and the corpse is carried over your own threshold….Mr. Brady has done something to bring to us the terrible reality and earnestness of the war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along our streets, he has done something very like it.”
Steven Spielberg and the superb cast of Saving Private Ryan have done something similar for modern viewers with a movie that is one of the most accurate screen depictions of modern warfare ever made–as well as a strong Academy Award contender. Certainly, times are different. Americans are not now in the midst of a war. Daily casualty lists are not being read. Telegrams with dreaded news are not being delivered.
But Saving Private Ryan does have a very profound message for us all. While most of us will never feel the sting of battle or experience the loss of a loved one who is serving his country, we must maintain a clear understanding of the price of freedom. This lesson is as true today as it was during World War II or the Civil War.
Twenty minutes of harrowing footage depicting the horrors of Omaha Beach on D-Day provide one of the most compelling history lessons possible. The story of eight men on a mission to save one brings home the point that in a global war of immense proportions the struggle to survive is intensely personal. Neatly arranged rows of marble crosses with names etched in each one serve as reminders of sacrifice, but they do not convey the sense of chaos, the scenes of incredible carnage and the deafening din of battle.
Spielberg brings to the attention of average citizens something that many might never otherwise have considered–not even on Memorial Day or Veterans Day. He brings them face to face with war. War is ugly. War is waste. War is death. Saving Private Ryan is intense. It should be. Saving Private Ryan is gripping. It should be. Saving Private Ryan is graphic. It has to be. Only the real thing could have conveyed the sensation of being under fire more accurately. I left the theater completely exhausted and grateful that it was another generation that was obliged to take up arms and defeat the enemies of freedom. The obligation of those who have come later is–quite simply–to be worthy of their heroism and sacrifice.
There wasn’t much conversation as the audience filed out of the theater. Most, I concluded, were deep in thought. Hopefully, they were contemplating a new appreciation for the veterans whose experiences in World War II were similar to those depicted on screen. Hopefully, their definition of “hero” was expanded somewhat as well. Every member of the armed forces who placed himself or herself in harm’s way for our sake was and is a hero.
Acclaimed author Stephen E. Ambrose, whose most recent book The Victors is excerpted in this issue, served as a historical consultant on Saving Private Ryan. He commented: “The film catches what happened exactly. It is, without question, the most accurate and realistic depiction of war on screen that I have ever seen, not only in terms of the action, but the actors look, act, talk, walk, bitch, argue and love one another exactly as the GIs did in 1944.”
Saving Private Ryan should be required viewing for every American over the age of 14. Our veterans endured the harshest of conditions, forfeiting their youth, sometimes their health and too often their lives for their country. Acknowledging their sacrifice with a deeper understanding of their experience is the least we can do.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor,World War II