I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.
Saving Private Ryan
List Appearances: 7/10
Average Rank: 41
Highest Rank: 13, on Ranker
Total Final Score: 6426
Spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.
In July 1998, Saving Private Ryan was released to theatres. On the lead-up to the release, I remember several veterans coming into the movie theatre I worked in, taking photos beside the movie poster. In a screening scheduled for VFW members, I recalled a trembling man exiting the cinema towards the end of the film. “The tank,” he told me, “the tank sounded exactly as it did back then.”
At that moment, I was certain I was witnessing movie history.
Saving Private Ryan went on to win five Oscars that year, including Director, Cinematography, Sound, Film Editing, and Sound Effects Editing. It was most famously nominated in two other major categories, for which it lost both. In the Best Actor category, Roberto Benigni won for Life is Beautiful (another movie on the top 100 movies list), and in Picture, in what is considered one of the biggest “travesties” in Oscar history, Shakespeare in Love took the final prize (quotations here because, let’s be honest, folks, while movies are fun, there are far more important injustices in the world to get upset over). Shakespeare is a fine enough film, but history has been less kind to it because it dared take that top spot, thanks in large part to an intense Oscar campaign. Indeed, it does not appear on top 100 lists, much like How Green was my Valley has lived on in memories only because it beat Citizen Kane.
I sat down a few days ago to rewatch Saving Private Ryan for this challenge. I own the film, and when it came out in 1998, I was happy to name it among my top ten favorite movies. Its themes of bravery and hope and loss were all universal. Aside from Hanks, there are no truly standout performances, though there are notable parts. The movie is not meant to be about individuals but moreso about the consequences of the decisions made by individuals. What truly makes this movie great, though, is the sound, the cinematography, the direction. This is a Spielberg production through and through.
Twenty minutes pass before we learn of Private Ryan. Before that, we witness what seems like a lifetime of aggression and death. The opening scene – the storm on Omaha Beach – is iconic for good reason. It does not glorify war, instead it opts to shows the audience the true devastation of it. Close-ups of nameless faces fill the screen. The sound of bullets and bombs is uproarious and chaotic as the music swells into a crescendo. A man cries for his mother as he holds the intestines spilling out from his abdomen. Medics feverishly work to heal a man only to have it all wasted as a bullet enters the patient’s skull. The futility is shown in these moments, but it isn’t heavy-handed or preachy. There is something raw and distinctly real about it all.
The journey to the end is teeming with some of the best visuals in any film, taking the viewer to the muted, grey streets of a ruined city to the lush greens of the countryside. It’s the little moments that work the best here, though. My favorite scene is when a little French girl beats her father’s chest after he tried to give her up to the American soldiers. We don’t have to know the words she screams at him, because we can feel and see her terror. In a single 30sec snip, we can see the effect of this war on these people and almost put ourselves in their shoes. The film is bookended by large battle scenes, but in the middle, there are smaller fights filled with more emotion and apparent stakes. At every encounter, another member of the team is lost, leaving a lingering impression: “is it worth it?”
The overarching theme of the whole movie, “Is one man worth risking the lives of all these men,” can be pushed a little hard at times. The members of the company do not think it is, but as an audience member, we are meant to disagree. That line is blurred through the movie several times over. Our introduction into the group is a corporal, Upham (Jeremy Davies), since he is the newest member of the group. His insistence to follow the rules is at odds with the rest of the group, but we trust him to do the right thing when the time comes. Then when he doesn’t, and allows his mates to die, we feel betrayed. The German soldier walks past him, seeing that he is not a threat. We taste bitterness at his weakness. At the end, his triumph to overcome his weakness never quite makes up for his actions, or lack thereof. This is especially true when the man we have been rooting for all movie meets his end on that battlefield.
Captain Miller is the compass of the movie. In the very first seconds before the storm on Omaha Beach begins, the camera shows the shaking hands of Miller as he opens his canteen. Here is a man that leads and because he does, he is constantly pushing his fear down below the surface. It bubbles out into his hands, but in no other way. He’s both calm and calculated in his strategies, and he commands with authority without the need for guttural yelling. His crew trust and respect him but are equally not afraid to challenge him either. He is all the things that make a great leader, and unlike other war movies, he is not a symbol of toxic masculinity that Hollywood would have you believe is the norm. So when he falls in the battle at Ramelle, the emotional core falls with him, and the audience feels the weight of that loss. It’s fitting that while these last moments are mostly triumphant, the battle over, there is only a quiet, melancholy swell of the symphony as Miller takes his last breath.
In the end, James Ryan and the question of what his life was like upon his return is left largely unanswered. His tears and the camera pan of his family standing at a distance make it appear that he has led a good life and perhaps he did earn this. But I’m always left wondering, how did he learn to live his life knowing so many died for him?
Be sure to catch my next piece on one of the most recent movies on the list, Whiplash. Post will be up later this weekend.