Saving Private Ryan

'Saving Private Ryan'

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is widely praised for its unflinching realism and careful attention to detail in the World War II battles that it depicts, but it is remarkable for another reason as well. The film’s human element, its concern with the real characters it contains in place of typical war film caricatures, sets it apart from other World War II films but squarely within Spielberg’s realm. He manages to personalize the unimaginable terrors of war by creating characters that are so completely ordinary that we cannot help but be empathetic to them, even in their extraordinary situation.

The scene preceding that which will be the subject of my analysis is one that perhaps best establishes each of the main characters and their personal identities. Eight soldiers, freshly removed from the horrific battle in which so many of their comrades were killed or injured, are on a mission to find Private James Ryan and send him home. As they walk through the French countryside to find the missing Private Ryan, led by Tom Hanks as Captain John Miller, the men engage in conversation that offers amusing repartee, but also creates a strong sense of just how different they are and how strange it is for each man to find himself in this unique situation.

Immediately following the serenity of this scene, however, the soldiers are once more thrust into the tense discomfort of war. Marching through persistent rain and mud, they come upon a village in ruins. Exactly 51 minutes into the film the men, now flanked by more soldiers whom they have encountered in the town, reach a partially destroyed stone wall. The camera slowly moves towards the men as they wait, against the wall, for orders. Private Adrian Caparzo, played by Vin Diesel, enters the frame and the camera follows him to the wall, where it then detaches from the character and seamlessly begins to trace the movement of Captain Miller, followed closely by Jeremy Davies as Corporal Timothy Upham, as they walk from Caparzo’s position to the end of the wall and stop at a half-open metal gate. As the camera remains positioned over the two soldiers’ left shoulders, they call to whoever may be hiding inside the adjacent ruined building to show themselves, and a family gradually appears on the second floor of the wreckage, framed from a distance within the bars of the gate.

The camera then follows all of the troops as they jog through the gate to the foot of the bombed out home. It stops at a medium distance, however, to allow the audience to see the entire house and the soldiers in position below the frightened family. At this point, the camera cuts to a closer, hand-held camera shot of the father and mother in their apartment as they talk pleadingly with the soldiers, then cuts again to show the soldiers from the elevated viewpoint of the children in the apartment. As the camera pans from left to right, it passes the father at waist level and shows his arms as they lift his young daughter and hold her out to the men below, while he implores them to take her to safety. Captain Miller refuses and says that they cannot take children; the camera continues to alternate between the troops on the ground and the family in their home during this frantic altercation.

Caparzo then steps out from around a corner and takes the girl from her father’s arms. In an effort to stop her screaming, Caparzo hands her his dog tags, but to no avail. This is cut with a close-up of Tom Sizemore as Sergeant Michael Horvath, who screams at Caparzo to listen to the Captain and put down the girl. Miller approaches Caparzo as he steps down from the rubble with the girl in his arms, chastising him for disobeying orders, to which Caparzo says, “The decent thing to do would be to at least take her down the road and over to the next town.” Miller replies, “We’re not here to do the decent thing, we’re here to follow fucking orders!” He grabs the girl from Caparzo and, turning his back on the soldier, starts to carry her back to the house. Caparzo, now in the background as the camera stays with Miller, points in the direction of the town he mentioned, when he is shot by an off-screen sniper and suddenly collapses on a broken piano, then falls to the ground. The loud, off key bang of the piano is a signal of danger to the other soldiers, who immediately duck into hiding beside a blue parked car and a pile of rubble.

Miller is then shot in close-up sitting beside the car, and he is soon joined by Upham and Private Daniel Jackson, played by Barry Pepper. The camera is positioned over Jackson’s right shoulder as he looks past the car and up at a nearby tower, in the top of which he presumes the sniper is located. Meanwhile, the young girl is held between Horvath and Upham, who try to console her as they hide behind the parked car. She cannot be placated, however, and she and her family continue to shout to each other as the camera cuts back and forth between the two.

The scene then cuts again, this time back to Jackson, as he crouches and begins to move around the car to get a better shot at the sniper. The camera follows him around the car in an extended shot, past Upham and Horvath who are talking to the girl, and stops when he reaches his new position on the other side of the vehicle. The camera then switches to Caparzo’s point of view and is positioned just above his head, looking at the various soldiers positioned in hiding around him. The first of three cuts reveals Jackson stationed on one side of the car telling Caparzo to be quiet, with Miller on the other side; the second cut shows Private Stanley Mellish, played by Adam Goldberg, hiding in a pile of rubble; and the third cuts back to a closer shot of Miller as he watches Jackson run from his hiding place to find a better position to shoot the sniper. The next shot is on the ground next to the fallen Caparzo, close to his outstretched hand and anguished face. The lens is spattered with blood and rain, as is the dirt beneath him, and you feel as if you are lying in the mud next to the fallen man. Caparzo, sensing his rapidly approaching death, asks the surrounding troops to make sure his father receives his final letter, which must now be rewritten due to the blood stains covering it.

Throughout the scene, the distant specter of the sniper’s tower looms over the soldiers as they scramble to help their fallen comrade and kill his shooter. Each time a character rises slightly above the rubble to see what is happening around them, the tower appears in a gray misty sky, signaling death, danger and the need to go back into hiding. Miller, Jackson and Wade all experience this moment over the course of the scene, and all stop their action and return to their hiding places lest they be shot as well. It therefore symbolizes the frustration and impotence of the soldiers in their desire to help Caparzo as he lies dying.

This scene is characterized, as are all of the battle scenes in the movie, by quick cuts and fast camera movement, which create a sense of greater urgency and chaos for the audience, in order to better simulate the feeling of actually being caught in the action. Therefore, shots of Caparzo lying in the mud are intercut with shots of Jackson steadily making his way towards the sniper, as well as with shots of the soldiers in hiding behind the car and the rubble, and shots of the young girl and her family shouting to each other from a distance. The scene is very fast paced as a result, especially when this editing is mixed with the noise of persistent rain, panicked shouting, and gunfire.

After several shots of this nature, in which the soldiers try to calm Caparzo and the little girl as Jackson seeks his target, the camera moves to a close-up of Jackson, slowly rising behind a pile of rubble with his rifle raised. A match cut then switches to the audience’s first glimpse of the German sniper, moving his weapon in a similar fashion across the screen while huddled in his tower. The sniper’s scope then becomes the camera as it pans across the scene, passing Caparzo on the ground and moving on to the parked car, where it is clear that someone is hiding. The camera continues, amid cuts to show the sniper’s face and Caparzo lying on the ground, until it spots Jackson in hiding. In the next instant, a gun is fired – the blast heard a split second later – and the sniper is shot through his scope in a grisly display of blood and gore.

With the threat eliminated, the soldiers rise and come out of hiding, but Caparzo is already dead. They gather around his body and remain in the background as the girl returns to her family. The camera then cuts and follows the troops as they search the area, before returning to the body to stand in a circle. When Miller approaches, he is viewed from a low angle, and the camera follows his hands while he removes Caparzo’s dog tags. In the next shot, Wade takes the letter from Caparzo’s hand then covers his body with a blanket. The camera remains on the blanket-covered face for another moment. As the other troops walk away, Private Richard Reiben (played by Edward Burns) remains standing over the body. He declares “Fuck Ryan,” before walking away to join the others, 57 minutes and 30 seconds into the film.

Sound plays a vital role in the scene. There is no musical score accompanying the action, so other sounds must create a tangible mood of death and gloom. The pounding rain, clanking weaponry, and shrill screams throughout, mixed with crunching rubble and occasional outbursts of both the soldiers’ voices and gunfire, combine to draw the audience into the tense atmosphere that surrounds the soldiers. Perhaps the most noticeable use of sound, however, occurs at the moment when Caparzo collapses on the decrepit piano and then falls to the ground, shot. The sudden eruption of noise from the instrument is significantly louder than the gunshot which occurs later in the scene, and affects the characters in the same way as if they had in fact heard a gun fired.

This scene is also notable for the way in which it combines the graphic violence that is characteristic of all the film’s battle scenes, with the sentimental view of family that is characteristic of Spielberg as a director. The major action of the scene – Caparzo is shot, and Jackson must subsequently kill the sniper – is spurred on at first by the family in the ruined apartment. Caparzo takes their child because she reminds him of his niece, and because her family is so desperate to get her to safety. He is then shot after carrying her to the side of the apartment building. After being shot, Caparzo is most concerned with making sure that his letter to his father is rewritten and sent.

Most prominently, the soldiers all treat each other as brothers, and are deeply saddened when one of their own is injured. This is true throughout the movie, but it is most vividly shown for the first time in this scene, and most colorfully expressed in Reiben’s parting words: Fuck Ryan. He does not care about some random soldier, no matter what his mission, if it means that one or more of his own brothers will be hurt along the way.

This essay was written Nov. 2004 for the NYU Cinema Studies course “Comparative Directors: Steven Spielberg/Oliver Stone.”