The case of Saving Private Ryan

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Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is a traditional war film framed by a modern prologue. The former Private Ryan, with his wife, children, and grandchildren, visit the American cemetery where so many who died on D-Day and in its immediate aftermath are buried. He is there to visit the grave of Captain John Miller who died on the rescue mission that saved his life. The body of the narrative focuses on D-Day and the mission to save Ryan, after the War Department receives word that his three brothers have all been killed in action. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall issues the command: save the one remaining Ryan so that his mother will not have lost all 4 sons fighting for their country. Captain Miller and his men are given the tough assignment, and 6 of the 8 will die in carrying out the mission, including Miller himself. While he is dying, Captain Miller exhorts Ryan to live a worthy life or, put another way, to "make my sacrifice worthwhile." In the epilogue, Ryan in deepest sorrow tells us he has lived up to Miller's invocation.

This brief description can't capture the powerful emotions created by the experience of the film. Saving Private Ryan is a classic war film, and the goal for Miller, the main character, is to try to survive. His conscious self-sacrifice to save Ryan elevates the premise of the narrative to a meditation on the question of what is worth dying for, and the film implies that there are issues and events in life that are worth dying for. Whether this notion is romantic or realistic is not the point we're concerned with here. What is our concern is how Spielberg elevates the narrative beyond a conventional war story. An important if not vital contributor to this shift is the MTV style Spielberg employs in the D-Day landing sequence. This 24-minute sequence is the subject to which we now turn. The place is Omaha Beach, Dog Green Sector.

The sequence proceeds under the following subheadings. Lengths (rounded off) are noted:

1.

In the landing craft

2 minutes

2.

In the water

2 minutes

3.

At the edge of the beach—What do we do

2 minutes

4.

Movement off the beach

3 minutes

5.

Up to the perimeter (barbed wire)

3 minutes

6.

Gather weapons

3 minutes

7.

Advance on the pill box—Take machine

3 minutes

gun emplacement

8.

Take the pill box and the surrounding

3 minutes

environment

9.

The Beach is taken—Stop shooting

3 minutes

Before we turn to the individual sequences, here are a number of general observations that drive the overall sequence. The first observation is that although mastery of a sort is achieved by the characters by the end of the sequence, the emphasis is on the casualties, their extensive number, the pervasiveness of death on the beach, the chaos of trying to survive on the beach, and the horror of how mutilating death can be when it occurs in war. Second, Spielberg has adopted a cinema verite style involving handheld shots, a lot of telephoto images where context is flattened to emphasize crowding, and the creation of the effect that there is nowhere to hide from the steady machine gun and mortar fire. Spielberg also uses close-ups to a far higher proportion than he usually does when presenting an action sequence. Finally, as expected, pace plays a very important part in the experience of the sequence as a whole.

Now we turn to the individual sequences.

1. In the Landing Craft

The emphasis in this sequence is on intensity. We begin in a close-up of Captain Miller's shaking hands as he takes some water from his canteen. Whether it is fear of dying or just fear, the camera pulls back to other expressions of fear. A man vomits; another kisses his crucifix. Miller and his sergeant bark short, clear orders. They are in command and they have the experience few men on the landing craft have. Point of view and close-ups build the intensity. As the landing craft opens its front to allow the men to move onto the beach, those upfront are greeted with instant death. They are cut down by enemy machine-gun fire. A cutaway to the German pill box atop the beach positions the killers' point of view. To save his men Miller orders them over the side, into the water. It's the only way to survive the enemy fire. Pace, movement, and the telephoto cutaway together create the claustrophobia of imminent death in this sequence. The feeling is one of intensity and fear.

2. In the Water

Men are pushed or jump over the side. As they enter the water and sink under the surface, the sounds of combat are lost and everything slows down. Men grapple to shed the equipment that weighs them down. A rifle falls to the sea floor. Bullet tracers reach their mark and kill two soldiers as they struggle with their gear. There is a macabre beauty to their deaths. Another soldier simply drowns. Survivors emerge from the water and head for the beach. The sounds of combat return only to be muted again as underwater shots of the footsteps of soldiers are intercut with the struggle above water. Miller makes his way out of the water. He helps a soldier but to no avail. The soldier catches a bullet in his chest and his struggle not to drown is over. The feeling in this sequence is surprise—surprise that death can't be evaded. There are fewer close-ups and less pace used in this sequence.

3. At the Edge of the Beach

Here the pace and camera position change. The pace quickens and close-ups return. The cutaway to the German pill box position presents the source of the killing in a dominant (foreground) position. The throughline for this sequence is the chaos on the beach. Miller loses his hearing from a shrapnel hit close by. He looks about on the beach. A soldier with a flamethrower blows up. Another soldier loses his arm. The soldier searches out his arm and carries it looking for someone to help him. A landing craft is on fire. The soldiers on it exit ablaze. Miller empties his helmet of blood. His face is splattered with blood. The overall feeling of this sequence is beauty, stillness; there shouldn't be so much blood and death, but there is. But it's a stylized death, almost abstract. The feeling in this sequence is surprise that death can't be evaded and, as a consequence, a feeling of helplessness, of victimization. Close-ups and less pace are used in this sequence.

4. Movement off the Beach

Now the sequences increase in length. Until now there have been modest narrative goals in each of the sequences; in essence they have been more about creating a feeling than about narrative complexity. This sequence begins as a soldier in close-up tries to speak to Miller. Miller's hearing returns and his message is simple—get off this beach or die. Here the camera sits low and the telephoto lens compresses and cramps the men. The cutaway to the German machine gun creates a sense of proximity—they can't miss the Americans on the beach. The wounded scream. The shot of a gut-shot soldier is lengthy, almost endlessly painful. Miller attempts to drag a wounded man up to medical attention on the beach. By the time he reaches his goal, the wounded man is hit by shrapnel and all that is left is a body part. The feeling state is one of overwhelming chaos, violent death, and growing helplessness. So far the landing is an unmitigated disaster.

5. Up to the Perimeter

If the earlier sequences were characterized by victimization, chaos, and death, this next sequence begins specifically to move the audience away from the sense of victimization and helplessness that has prevailed until now. The focus is on Captain Miller and on movement. Handheld movement from Miller's point of view, complete with his breathlessness, creates the feeling level of this sequence. Miller reaches the barbed wire at the hill embankment where he attempts to assess the situation. He establishes radio contact with Command and lets them know that Dog One of Dog Green Sector is not open. His men, those who have survived, are pinned down. He takes a count of those alive and at the embankment. Sergeant Horvath confirms the situation. There is enormous frustration—the radio man is killed. Medics attending to the wounded on the beach are frustrated and angry as the wounded are killed where they lie as the medics try to stabilize them. This sequence is a transitional sequence; it is the first where there is a feeling of power rather than powerlessness, which is emphasized by the handheld movement up to the embankment. On the other hand, the slaughter of Americans continues.

6. Gather Weapons

The call to action in this scene is marked by quick cuts. The call creates a dynamic sense. Bangalore explosives are rushed to the scene. They are maneuvered into position; again, the handheld shot yields a powerful sense of assertion. The explosives are effectively detonated, creating a path to move up toward the pill box. Meanwhile, men continue to die. A young soldier takes a bullet in his helmet. Shocked and grateful to be alive, he removes the helmet to admire where the bullet hit. He is shot in the head and dies. Nevertheless there is a dynamic sense in this sequence, a feeling that there have been survivors in Miller's company and that they are beginning to take action against the German enemy. The prevailing feeling of the sequence is dynamic and forceful. The feeling of victimization lessens.

7. Advance on the Pill Box

The throughline in this sequence is attack. In a strategic assessment of the situation, Miller organizes his men and coordinates the attack. In this sequence his men successfully take the machine gun emplacement to the right of the pill box. The individual members of Miller's company (later patrol members) are also characterized in this sequence. Jackson the sharpshooter is a religious man; he kisses his crucifix prior to moving up. Fish the Jew provides the captain with gum so that he can create a makeshift periscope using a piece of glass gummed to his bayonet. The action in this sequence is highly fragmented. Spielberg uses many close-ups to identify the individual soldiers and to create the elements that will underscore the attack, particularly the view of the pill box through the makeshift periscope. Quick images of the pill box itself suggest its daunting quality from the point of view of these soldiers. Miller is also characterized as experienced and professional in this work. The feeling state in this sequence is mastery. Miller, his sergeant, and those he's working with closely, at least, are professional soldiers. There is a feeling of hope for the first time within the larger 24-minute sequence.

8. Take the Pill Box

The sense of action escalates. The members of Miller's company advance their attack on the pill box. Sharpshooter Jackson eliminates a number of the machine-gunners. He also fires a grenade at the bunker. Closer to the pill box grenades are thrown into it. As soldiers exit they are shot. A torch-thrower advances and burns out the bunker. Burning German soldiers fall from the front of the bunker that had been the platform for firing down on the Americans. As we move through this sequence the number of telephoto shots that compress context begin to give way to more long shots with visual context. We no longer have the sense that the camera is crowding us. That greater sense of freedom begins to imply that the chaos and killing that have marked the sequences so far is coming to an end.

9. The Beach Is Taken

Although sporadic shooting continues, this sequence focuses on the men who have survived. Again in close-up, Captain Miller's hands shake as he opens his canteen and drinks from it. Sergeant Horvath packs earth into a tin container marked France. He puts it into his knapsack where we see similar cans marked Italy and Africa. Private Fish simply cries, finally allowing his fear to emerge. The beach, littered with the dead, now becomes the focus of the sequence. There are so many. A long crane shot moves slowly in on one body whose knapsack reads his name, S. Ryan. This sequence is marked by lingering close-ups. The pace is very deliberate, even slow, to bring us to the end of Spielberg's 24-minute mini-film about the D-Day landing.

To sum up, the 24-minute sequence uses the MTV style to create a feeling: What it was like to be on Omaha Beach as an American combatant. The experience is quite unlike any created by a previous war film. This is due to the power of the MTV style.

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