Monday, July 11, 2005

Saving Private Ryan as TLGW?

This is an older essay of mine (pre 911).

In his review of Pearl Harbor ) , SFU (Vancouver, BC Canada) professor of American History, Michael Fellman contends that “ever since that silly Second World War film, Saving Private Ryan, the last Good War, (hereafter TLGW) has been filling American screens and spilling over on to ours.” This trend troubles him for more than just aesthetic reasons. As Fellman sees it “TLGW is not just about cleansing the past and putting young butts in theatre seats.” It is helping provide the ideological scaffolding the Bush administration needs to justify billions of dollars in increased defense spending. More generally, TLGW films help sustain one of a few popular myths that “provide cover stories for militarism, racism and poverty.”

That said, what films does Fellman count as TLGW? Fellman names four, U571, Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor and the Patriot. Although the last of these is not about the WWII, but is rather about the American Revolution, Fellman contends that the Patriot is structured in much the same way as the other films thus “establishing the United States in 1776 becomes the same as preserving it in 1941.” Indeed, according to Fellman, not only are the British depicted as being as “utterly dastardly” as the Nazis, but they are shown as doing things that the British never did but that the Nazis did do. Most infamously, they lock members of one town in a Church and burn it.

As mentioned above, one of the things TLGW films function to do is that they smooth over some the more troubling aspects of America’s past. Fellman cites two main examples. First, he notes how in U571 the US is seen as successfully planning and carrying out a mission to capture a German Enigma machine and in the process gaining an immense intelligence victory that ultimately saved not only many US lives but the lives of many of her allies as well. In so doing, he contends that film makers give credit to the US for something the US did not do. The British, he notes, captured the first Enigma machine 7 months before the US even entered the War. Equally important, “this construction evades the award question about what in fact the Americans were doing sitting out the war for so long, while the British, Canadians and the Russians were doing the dying.” Second, having noting that race relations are one of the biggest obstacles facing TLGW film makers, Fellman looks at how race plays out in the Patriot. He notes that whereas in the Patriot, the British are depicted as kidnapping happy and loyal free black folks at gunpoint, in reality, the Santee River Basin in South Carolina, the setting for the movie, had the dubious distinction of having the highest concentration of slave-owners in the American colonies and “thousands of slaves fled to the British, who offered them and their families freedom in exchange for enlistment.” Once more, he notes while the efforts of one black soldier in the Patriot were enough to convince even the most hardened racist in the movie that there should be a place for African Americans in the emerging American democracy, the constitutional fathers soon built black slavery into the national compact and that the descents of that soldier’s South Carolinian compatriots would later fight a war to keep slavery.

This brings me to the matter that I want to pursue. Namely, although I think Fellman is right in believing that since Saving Private Ryan there have been a number of TLGW films, I think that Fellman is mistaken in believing that Saving Private Ryan is itself a prime example of a TLGW film. Sure, it shares with these other movies some characteristics. There is, literally, a bit of flag waving and it is about a good war that the Americans fought. However, on one level Saving Private Ryan is not even about Americans vs. bad Nazis, but is rather about a tiny band of men trying to create some meaning out of all the destruction - and they do that in typically Spielbergian fashion - by coming to believe, in some way, that the saving of one human life is an affirmation of humanity (a la Schindler's list). As Tom Sizemore’s character says near the end of the movie, “some day we may decide that saving private Ryan was the one decent thing that we were able to pull out of the whole god awful shitty mess.”

As Fellman see things one of the key characteristics of TLGW films is that “although actual combat is always morally compromising with soldiers on both sides committing atrocities, in Hollywood, American soldiers are always high-minded, and the American soldiers would never imagine nasty stuff like shooting captured Nazis.” Any doubt that Fellman thinks Saving Private Ryan shares this characteristic is clarified later on in his discussion of Senator John Kerrey of Nebraska: who, Fellman adds “was outed as a lieutenant who led his patrol into killing 14 defenceless women and children in a nasty little ‘action’ in Vietnam.” Fellman contends that even though “any honest combat veteran will tell you that what Kerrey’s patrol did was common in their war, as it was in the Second World War,” John Wayne is preferred, not only by the American people but also by “Spielberg and the other producers of this genre”, to a decorated War hero like Kerrey.

Now what is surprising about all of this is that American soldiers in Saving Private Ryan do not show the “Nazis” any quarter. A soldier is who is about to finish off burning German soldiers is ordered by a superior not to do it and instead “let them burn”, thus prolonging their suffering. Later on, in one of the more interesting sequences of the film, an American soldier accidentally brings done a damaged wall of a house and in the process reveals a number of concealed German soldiers. Shown to be but a few feet away from each other, the stand off between the two equally matched sides is made all the more intense by Spielberg switching from a close up of the Germans to a close of Americans. However, rather than having the Germans or Americans successfully negotiate a peaceful resolution to the stand off, as is usual movie protocol, Spielberg has a second group of Americans massacre the Germans before the eyes of the first group as a lone American translator tries frantically to communicate with the Germans over the shouting and confusion. Most important of all though, Americans do shoot captured Nazis in Saving Private Ryan and furthermore some take a sadistic delight in doing so.

Saving Private Ryan is unlike the other films mentioned by Fellman in other ways too. For instance, whereas the token African America makes an appearance in the Patriot, U571, and Pearl Harbor, there is no such role for anyone in Saving Private Ryan. The only African American actor in the film, Vin Diesel, is made out to be an Italian decent and not African American at all: something that is partially palatable due to Vin Diesel’s relatively light skin colouring.

Another thing that is missing in Saving Private Ryan is that the role of the protagonist is not that of a leading man. Rather, Tom Hanks, Hollywood’s every man, serves at one level as a father figure to Matt Damon’s character and at a another level as a symbolic representative of a whole generation of young soldiers, who sometimes had to make the ultimate sacrifice, as Tom Hanks character does, to “Save” a future generation. Hence, at the end of the movie an aged Ryan says while leaning over Sergeant Miller’s Grave (Hanks) “I hope I have earned what all of you have done for me.” This is in marked contrast to the role carved out for the likes of Mathew McConaughey, Mel Gibson and Ben Affleck. Indeed, in these later films these leading Hollywood men play roles geared to, well, leading Hollywood men. To this end, McConaughey, Gibson and Affleck are imparted with special powers usually imparted to leading men. Thus, Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett by themselves account for a third of all the Japanese plans downed on the eventful day. Mel Gibson with the help of two young boys is able to take out 20 British soldiers, with a bunch of muskets no less. And McConaughey is able to sink half the German navy with but a handful of torpedoes, a crippled sub, and a skeleton crew.

Furthermore, not only does Tom Hank’s character (Miller) not posses these gifts, he is not blessed with an ingrained historical consciousness of the events that are enveloping him. This reveals that there is wide gulf between his character and always historically self consciousness leading TLGW characters.

Indeed, one of the large themes of the movie is communication or lack there of. The most memorable example of this is when the troop meet up with the wrong private Ryan and wrongly inform him that his brothers have been killed in combat. However, the theme is apparent right at the beginning. The landing is not well coordinated and when Miller tries to contact his superiors the radio operator and radio are shot up. As for the mission itself, although the meaningfulness is apparent to those in command, they are unable communicate the reasonableness of the mission to Miller and his troop. In their minds, “the mission is serious misallocation of valuable military resources.” To them, it makes no sense to send the eight of them to save Ryan accept in so far as a “public relations” ploy. Adding to the mix is the presence of Corporal Upham, who despite having the express desire to write about the commutative bond that develops between fighting men, does not have the first idea how converse with the others in the troop.

One result of this lack of communication is Captain Miller is unable to maintain discipline. Unmoved by comments like “we are not here to do the decent thing. We are here to follow fucking orders.”, the men, most notably Reiban, regularly disobey orders. Things finally come to a head with the death of Wade. Disgusted that Miller would allow a German prisoner to go free, Reiban threatens to walk out on the unit and soon after finds himself looking down the barrel of Sgt. Horvath’s gun (Sizemore). Before things could be taken any further Miller intervenes. Revealing what he did back home, Miller begins an extended monologue about how the war has changed him and how by saving Ryan he can reverse the process. “Back home I tell people what I do and they say, well it figures. But over here it is a big mystery. So, I guess I changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me when ever it is I get back to her? If going to Romel and finding him [(Ryan)] so he can go home if that earns me the right to get back to my wife well that is my mission. [All I know is] the more men I kill, the further away from home I feel.”

What Miller’s monologue does is it gives meaning in an existential way not only to mission, but to the deaths of Wade, Caparzo (Diesel). Indeed, if you recall Caparzo died trying to save a little girl that looked just like his niece back home and Wade literally died carrying Caparzo’s message of home. Later Miller will die trying to delivery Ryan home so, as stated above, he could get home. As for Sgt. Horvath, when Miller begins to have renewed doubts after Ryan refuses to abandon his company, Horvath reminds Miller of his own words.

If there is one striking similarity between Saving Private Ryan and these other films it is this: In all four films various characters are able to, in the vast majority of cases through their engagement in the war, transcend various obstacles. Besides the token black figure in U571, the Patriot and Pearl Harbor struggling to overcome racism, there is Ben Affleck’s character struggling, if only briefly, to overcome his dyslexia, and a fellow pilot who struggles with stuttering. In the case of Saving Private Ryan, it is the aforementioned Corporal Upham struggling to overcome his fears, his deficiencies and his na├»ve understanding of the realities of war so as to gain acceptance of his peers.

That said, the manner by which he transcends these things is problematic for TLGW filmmakers. Let me explain. As mentioned above, Captain Miller intervenes on the behalf of German prisoner who his troop where planning to execute. However, it is Upham that first comes to the prisoner’s defense. Common to Vietnam films, characters who take on such a position are almost always cast in a positive light. However, in Saving Private Ryan things are turned right around. The prisoner is, as was mentioned, spared, but not because the group was swayed by the moral force of the Upham’s argument; indeed, his fellows believe that his arguments lend credence to their belief that he lacks a true understanding of what it is to be one of them. (It is no accident that Spielberg had the German translator make this argument. Upham is the only one capable of understanding the German's common humanity. To the others the German's pitiful attempts at speaking English are devoid of intelligence and they are unwilling and or unable to let Upham make sense of his yamerings) Rather, Miller, having changed his mind on the matter, decrees, much to the displeasure of the majority of the troop, that the prisoner be set free. Miller’s decision in turn leads to the show down between Reiban and Sgt. Horvath described above and Upham in particular is singled out for criticism. Reiban and the others see it if he had just gone long with them in the first place and ignored the German’s pleas to spare his life, Miller would not have had the time to change is mind and they would have been able to avenge the death of one of their own.

In the closing battle scene Upham reaches the point of no return. After having helplessly stood by while a German sinks a knife into the heart of one of his compatriots, Upham is left with a choice. Either he must make amends by doing something heroic or fall into psychological oblivion. Mustering all his courage Upham single handily takes a group of Germans prisoner. One of prisoners is the very German prisoner that he had earlier helped spare and who just delivered the fatal blow to captain Miller. Now, here is what is problematic about Upham’s coming of age theme. Immediately, after having taken the group of prisoners, the German tries to manipulate him so as to again gain his freedom. However, having proved his mettle in battle, Upham completes his transformation into one of the guys by immediately shooting the German dead. In so doing, he gives into a temptation that no true TLGW character would give into: namely he kills a villain who is at his mercy. Upham was able to form a bond with the rest of the troop, but in the process he had lost his way home. He let the war dehumanize him. He did the very thing that he counseled Captain Miller not to do, viz., take revenge for the killing of one of the troop.

So, why go to all this trouble to differentiate Saving Private Ryan from TLGW films? Well, as stated at the outset, Fellman feels that “TLGW is not just about cleansing the past and putting young butts in theatre seats.” Specifically, he feels that TLGW films are effacing a generation of antiwar films about the Vietnam War in the public consciousness and in the process helping to clear the way for George Bush Junior’s New World Order. I feel Fellman is greatly overstating his case. If the antiwar movies no longer have a hold on the public imagination these days, it is because the Gulf War and Serbia have fundamentally altered the American public’s view of war. Prior to that, movies such as the Deer Hunter, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July, had an impact on American culture because they were able to give voice to a number of, sometimes unconnected, concerns the American people had about the Vietnam War and about war generally. That said, the same can not be said about TLGW films. Salvaged by critics and not greatly liked by movie goers, Pearl Harbor, U571, and the Patriot made a scant dent on the American consciousness and as a result will quickly disappear from popular memory. This leaves Saving Private Ryan. It was the only one of the movies that Fellman mentioned that captured the imagination of American movie goers and it is not, as I have argued above, a good example of a TLGW film.

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