Film: Saving Private Ryan
Director: Steven Spielberg
Distributors: Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures, 1998
Reviewer: Milan Voykovic
Commentary: Shamim Razavi
Review, by Milan Voykovic
Benjamin Franklin wrote that "there never was a good war, or a bad peace."
With his two most profound war films, Schindler's List and Saving Private
Ryan, Steven Spielberg suggests that the Second World War was an
exception. It may not have been a "good war," but it would have been a "bad
peace" if Nazism, Fascism and, Japanese militarism hadn't been defeated.
These banal observations (Franklin's excepted) on good and evil may
seem a strange place to begin a review of Saving Private Ryan, but in many
ways the film is about the righteousness of killing and dying, or as Spielberg
has claimed, the "morality of sacrifice." This is all well and good, but sadly
Spielberg's sentimentality, overweening patriotism and didacticism buries
the film's questions beneath heroic music and gratuitous flag waving (literal
and figurative), particularly in the prologue and epilogue.
What saves this film from being more like the adventure/war movies that
Spielberg watched as a boy (such as William Wellman's Battleground ,
for example), is the way in which he handles the Allied invasion of France
in June 1944. More specifically, the image of war he creates using the
landing of the first wave of American troops on Omaha beach, the area
between Pointe de la Percee and St Honorine in Normandy. This, the film's
first battle sequence, is an exceptional piece of cinema. Here the audience is
not spared any of the horror of war. As the Americans struggle out of their
landing crafts and up the beach to the German positions, they are met by
constant machine gun and artillery fire. Rather than the "good guys" being
killed quickly and cleanly as in many war movies, the troops on Omaha
Beach bleed to death. They are ripped open by machine-gun fire; they are
dismembered by explosions; they drown; they burn. Moreover, Spielberg
demonstrates the chaos and carnage of battle in poignant ways. In one
sequence a soldier with one arm is looking at a pile of dead bodies. He bends
down, picks up his severed arm, and stumbles off after his comrades.
Spielberg also uses sharp handheld camera movements and sound, or rather
the noise of battle, punctuated only by Captain John Miller's (Tom Hanks)
momentary lapses into a silent state of shock, to make this scene truly
From here, the film moves to the discovery by an administrator in
Washington that three of the Ryan family's four sons are dead, and the
determination by the US Army's Chief of Staff General George Marshall that
Mrs Ryan's remaining son will be found and sent home. The eponymous
Ryan (Matt Damon) is, however, a private in the 101st Airborne Division
that was dropped behind enemy lines to secure objectives as a part of the D-Day invasion. Thus it falls upon Captain Miller and what remains of his
company's best men to find Ryan, and it is this odyssey that takes up the
bulk of the film. As they trudge into France the enlisted men complain about
and question the nature of their mission: Are all our lives worth risking for
one life? In terms of philosophising, that is about as far as Spielberg goes.
Naturally Ryan is eventually found, but this in itself does not end the
dramatic tension as Miller's men, Ryan, and assorted paratroopers then
engage in another battle.
The characters of Miller's squad are drawn from the stable of stock war-film stereotypes. These are Tom Hanks as the solid Captain Miller, a brave
man who cannot conceal the stress of battle and leadership all of the time;
the reliable, courageous friend-of-the-Captain Sergeant Horvath (Tom
Sizemore); Private Reiben (Edward Burns), the working-class grumbler who
questions everything; Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), the quirky sniper
from the South who repeats verses from the Bible while he shoots; Wade
(Giovanni Ribisi), the slightly neurotic medical orderly; Private Mellish
(Adam Goldberg), the wise-cracking Jewish boy; Private Caparzo (Vin
Diesel) the big guy with a heart of gold, and Corporal Upham (Jeremy
Davis), the over-sensitive wimp who may not have what it takes. As with
other aspects of this film, what makes this well-worn ensemble work is the
skill of those involved, especially Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore.
Saving Private Ryan demonstrates two things: firstly, that Spielberg is
a true master of the craft of film in terms of cinematography and story-telling, and secondly, that he reveals a striking intellectual simpleness when
he moves away from technique. Indeed, the whole moral centrepiece of the
film, that eight might die in the rescue of one, is something of a contrived
non-issue. For if Miller and his men were not risking their lives trying to
rescue Ryan, then surely they'd be risking their lives doing something else
at the Normandy beachhead. Yes, there is something of a lesson in the way
that Ryan's rescuers come to see a mission that they believed was nothing
more than a potentially fatal public-relations exercise as a noble act, but is
this all that Spielberg's "morality of sacrifice" means? This film seems to
confine itself to asking the age-old question: have we, the "survivors" of that
and subsequent generations, "lived up" to the standard bequeathed to us by
those who sacrificed so much? To underline this point, much of the movie is
accompanied by John Williams's score that can best be described as Generic
Heroic American, the minimalist kind of music that sounds like Copland's
"Fanfare for the Common Man" that seems to find its way into any movie in
which Americans undertake an epic enterprise. If this wasn't enough,
Spielberg guarantees that the audience is not baffled by equivocation by
ensuring that all the Germans are bad and all the Americans are good,
although to be fair the film does show that the Allies were just as capable of
cruelty as anyone else.
Despite its acting, technical effects, and extraordinary battle scenes,
Saving Private Ryan is a conventional Hollywood film with a conventional
Hollywood philosophy. That is, if the characters that the audience is
encouraged to associate with the most are safe at the end of the film, then all
is redeemed. All the other victims fade into the background, as they did in
Spielberg's other war epic, Schindler's List.
Saving Private Ryan is not an anti-war film as such, nor did it try to be.
Spielberg does not question the morality of war because this might question
the morality of the Second World War. One could sympathise with this view,
but really few, with the exception of some right-wing loonies and the odd
revisionist historian, would seriously claim that the war against Hitler et al
was an enterprise that should not have been undertaken. Perhaps by
displaying a greater sense of his audience's ability to see things for
themselves without unambiguous moralising, simplistic patriotism, and
crass sentimentality, Spielberg might have shown that he can handle content
as well as form.
Still, the film does raise some issues that Bahá'ís may wish to ponder: Is
there such a thing as a "just war"? What forms of "sacrifice" can be justified?
When should collective ethics override individual conscience? In the case
illustrated in Saving Private Ryan, the issues were clear. It was a "just war,"
American sacrifice was legitimate, and the individuals' morals were
submerged in the collective ethos. As the film points out, this is what war
does, and in wars there are no passengers or bystanders, as the character of
Corporal Upham shows. Once involved, the individual does not get the
chance, or indeed have the right as far as the authorities are concerned, to
circumscribe the degree to which he or she is committed to "the cause." It
could be argued, however, that this is indeed what Bahá'ís should try to do,
as perhaps sacrifice for Bahá'ís does not mean dying for an ideology, nation,
or group of comrades, but sacrificing the "self" to the will of God.
Does this mean, however, serving a just cause by doing evil things, i.e.
killing? The guidance on the subject says that Bahá'ís cannot voluntarily
enlist in any branch of the armed forces where they would be subject to
orders to take human life. But what if, like Corporal Upham, one is
involuntarily placed in such a branch? As far as armies are concerned,
anyone in uniform, be they a cook, nurse, doctor, or clerk is a soldier
subordinate to military discipline and the lawful orders of senior officers,
including those to kill, and could, in theory be sent to fight in the front line
if the need arose. So we are left with the questions, what is the will of God,
and how do I serve it?
Commentary, by Shamim Razavi
In the foregoing review, Milan Voykovic correctly implies that Spielberg's
take on the war movie genre is fairly mundane in all but one respect: that
opening scene. More than enough has already been written on the technicalities and visceral qualities of the scene, but from a Bahá'í point of view it is
worth noting the emotions it evokes. The opening battle puts across the fear
and stomach churning horror of war like no other silver screen depiction.
From the soldiers praying and trembling as their Mulberry Harbours head
toward the beach, to the sight of dozens mowed down in a single barrage of
gunfire, to the numbed emotions of the protagonists after the tumult has
died down, nothing in Hollywood history has as effectively portrayed as this
scene what it is to fear death, to feel the dread and horror of battle. It is this
emotion that speaks to the heart of the viewer, that cuts through the human
tendency to intellectualise ourselves away from the scene of battle and
atrocities, to place an emotional distance between ourselves and the reality
of suffering in a society inoculated against brutality. Only the hardest of
hearts could fail to be moved by what passes before the eyes in the opening
All of this speaks directly to any Bahá'í, or indeed any humanitarian, as
a reminder of one of the main reasons to strive to improve the world: to end
suffering on this horrific scale, to assuage the violence of a tempest described
by Shoghi Effendi as "sweeping the face of the earth...invading the remotest
and fairest regions of the earth...wasting its cities...dimming its light and
harrowing the soul of its inhabitants."(4) Hollywood has rarely produced
anything quite so harrowing.
Few Bahá'ís can watch Saving Private Ryan and not be reminded of the
sacrifice played out in Iran both in the initial wave of persecutions of the
Bábí community and more recently under the Islamic Republic. Reading
Gobineau and Nabil's ghoulish descriptions of the events of Zanjan and
Nayriz brings an entirely new angle on both the opening battle sequence of
this film and otherwise-twee message of future generations having to "earn"
the sacrifice of those gone before. Is this latter message not reminiscent of
the call of the Bahá'ís of Iran to their brethren in the west to carry forward
the Bahá'í project while their hands are tied?
The opening battle sequence is worthy of the epithet "epic" but it is
perhaps an over-exaggeration to so describe the meandering and plodding
anticlimax which is the rest of the film. Having shown its audience the
reality of war, and hopefully instilled in them an understanding of its
horrors and an aversion to the concept of militarism, the film takes, in the
words of Captain Miller, "a turn for the surreal," exploring a modern
America that, much like the film's screenwriters, has lost the plot. If the
"mission is a man" as the film's advertising posters claimed, then who or
what is the mission of society today? A review of this film would do well to
explore this part of what is effectively a portmanteau plotline.
Voykovic makes passing reference to the imagery of the Bible-quoting
sniper but it may be worth questioning, in what is after all an analysis from
a religious point of view, why Spielberg employs the religious motifs of the
sniper and the night time refuge provided by a countryside church. The
church scene in particular is worthy of further exploration, with the central
characters engaging in a form of cathartic group confession.
Voykovic is accurate in his reference to the "good guys" versus "bad guys"
depiction of the warring sides in this film. It is disappointing to see such a
reductionist and outdated perspective in such a film. Far from humanising
Germans along the lines of Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron, Spielberg does
not even attempt to blur the edges of an outdated cowboys and Indians
mentality. All of which might lead us to question Spielberg's motives in
making this "epic." How much of it is truly about the "morality of sacrifice"
and how much is it produced with the goal of pulling off his new studio's first
big box office hit?
The reviewer was left with the question "what is the will of God and how do I serve it?" It is submitted, however, that a more pertinent issue is the nature of war and whether humankind will ever learn to resolve its conflicts before they bloody the battlefield. It is true that Spielberg does "unambiguously moralise" in the opening battle sequence, but is there any ambiguity, from a Bahá'í point of view, over whether war is horrific? For Omaha beach read Srebrenica, Kigali, Eritrea, Grozny... the list is endless. The key scene in this film does not seek to deal with the minutiae of the political background to conflict, nor should it: it is nothing more than a brilliant exposition of, and polemic against, the suffering and human toll of warfare.
- Bahá'í scripture states that music is holy, "a ladder for…souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high," a means by which people can attain measureless spiritual sovereignty; "They who recite the verses of the All-Merciful in the most melodious of tones will perceive in them that with which the sovereignty of earth and heaven can never be compared." It is a vehicle for spiritual edification, for education, for proclamation. "Whoever hath been transported by the rapture born of adoration for My Name, the Most Compassionate, will recite the verses of God in such wise as to captivate the hearts of those yet wrapped in slumber" (Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1992] 38, 61, 74). In addition to the emotional sway of music, it is a force with great moral and affective power (Aqdas 74, 75). The notion that music is endowed with moral power precedes the Bahá'í Faith: it is found in Plato and Boethius, in medieval music theory (see Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History [New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1998] 9-149), and in Islam (The Islamic theologian al-Ghazzali, in his Ihya 'ulum al-din provides a selection of uses for music, some of which are permitted while others are forbidden. For example, music is forbidden when the "song's contents are not compatible with…religion" and "[i]f one listens to music for its own sake." See A. Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam [Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1995] 44). However, it is a teaching that has been largely forgotten. The belief that music does indeed influence our spiritual and moral condition will no doubt have great influence on the music produced by Bahá'ís in the centuries to come. Hence, the music journalism presented in this review is influenced by the Bahá'í concept of music, as well as some recent musicological ideas. I have accepted the notion that music can signify beyond itself, that it can be deconstructed in a multitude of ways, read as a social (rather than autonomous) text, and exist as a discourse of signs. Because criticism is read as a form of subjective journalism, I have made little effort to hide personal and ego-derived responses. It seems more honest. Criticism is like the polar opposite of theory. It is an art form in itself which is simultaneously distant from theory, while deriving much of its technique from it. My premise is that criticism gains strength from its journalistic ephemerality. In such a discourse mistakes are bound to occur. The critic is writing to a deadline, skimming through a few sources as a substitute for painstaking academic research. Criticism welcomes refutation and for this reason it must be vigorous. It must draw attention to itself and demands that the issues it raises be considered. Criticism is vital to the health and development of an art. As the Bahá'í Faith grows, more and more fields of human endeavour will be subject to re-definition in terms of their relationship to the Faith. The issue is of utmost importance to Bahá'ís who wish to practise criticism. As questioned above, is the function of criticism merely to denigrate what is considered rubbish, and to praise only the rare examples of mastery? Or is criticism to assume a didactic function, a means of edifying those who consume cultural objects as well as those who produce them? It is possible, and perhaps vital, to view criticism as an integral part of music (or any art form), which means that criticism itself should be a "ladder for the soul." If this is to be the case, care and respect are needed. It seems difficult to justify full-scale diatribes against works which irritate, but at the same time critics must be fearless in demonstrating the flaws which hinder most of the work that artists produce. They must become teachers, and through criticism, advance civilisation. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, "…it is necessary that the schools teach it [the art of music] in order that the souls and the hearts of the pupils may become vivified and exhilarated and their lives brightened with enjoyment" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in The Compilation of Complilations 76). It is an issue that Bahá'ís are only beginning to explore.
- In true review style, I have given each album a star rating ranging from ***** (masterpiece) to * (poor).
- Thrace is the region that includes Edirne.
- Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980) 3.