Graphic war portrayal among Spielberg’s best

Published September 1, 1998

THERE’S A POIGNANT moment near the end of Steven Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan, when Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) confesses to Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) that he cannot remember the faces of his three brothers who, he has just learned, have been killed in the Second World War.

“You have to remember context,” Captain Miller advises the private who he has found during a mission deployed by the U.S. military establishment as an act of mercy for the Ryans’ mother, who has received three death notices on the same day. “What’s context?” asks Ryan and Capt. Miller tells him to remember a location, a time with his brothers. Ryan shuts his eyes and recalls the last evening he was at home in Iowa with his three brothers.

As he tells the story of a happy and reckless evening, you become aware of how the story he’s remembering is so far away both from the town in France and where he is with Capt. Miller. There are flashbacks of Ryan’s home, a farm in Iowa with its rolling fields and big sky, which contrast with the bombed out ruins of a quaint French village about to be the theatre for a bloody battle between the Allies and the Nazis. Yet recalling a time with his brothers releases the memory of their faces and Private James Ryan begins to grieve … Miller’s right: context is everything. It is the key to unlocking memory’s images.

Saving Private Ryan may well be one of Spielberg’s finest films but it is not for the weak-spirited or weak-stomached: it is a graphic, explicit look at the horror of war, opening with a 30-minute soldier’s eye view of the June 6, 1944 landing by American troops on Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five Normandy beach-heads. With hand-held camera and sometimes the point of view from just behind a Nazi gunner’s shoulder, these opening shots at once demythologize and redefine the war movie.

War is hell. War is tide turning blood red. War is dismembered limbs.War is men lying in agony beyond relief or saving. War is life one moment and death the next. After that battle, Capt. Miller is ordered to recruit a small platoon to find and save Private Ryan.

But even the initial 30-minute battle sequence is set within a broader context.The film begins in the present day as a Second World War American veteran and family approach a field of white crosses. The veteran, on seeing one, cries out in tears and falls to his knees. The camera focuses on his face, his eyes, and in a magic moment you are at Omaha Beach and the long opening sequence begins. This is a war movie by a master film maker who, from the distance of 54 years can recall a story told so often before, but never with the epic sweep and grisly realism as this one.

Once you understand that context is everything, all the pieces fit together: the shift of context for Capt. Miller’s platoon from killing the enemy to finding one man, the shift from the beach to the countryside and the field skirmishes that ensue and the final confrontation between Ryan’s comrades with Capt. Miller’s platoon and the enemy – within each context so many things change.

The film asks, when is one life more important than another, without ever responding satisfactorily. Enhanced by memorable performances by Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and others such as Edward Burns and Jeremy Davies (and even a surprise uncredited performance by Ted Danson), this is a film that will be seen and discussed for a long time. The combination of grisly realism and heart-tugging emotion makes for one of the most deeply affecting movies of this year.

It’s a long movie – over three hours – and not easy to watch. But you leave convinced, if you weren’t already, that war is cruel violence wasting human bodies and spirits.

You are also touched by the notions of sacrifice and responsibility which are depicted, and amazed at the generosity of which humans can be capable, even in the most devastating contexts. But the biggest context is war: you see and feel the violence, you hear the gunfire, you feel the heartbreak – war is not glorified here, but shown to be the horror that it is. You are left knowing that in this war-filled century, only the infinite love and mercy of God can save us, and whatever the context in which you live, this still is good news.


  • Peter Elliott

    The Very Rev. Peter Elliott is adjunct faculty at Vancouver School of Theology. From 1994 to 2019 he served as dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.

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