Monday, November 17, 2008

War and Combat films II

Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg) is the film that will be used to discuss the war/combat film conventions. The World War II subgenre has been used in Steven Spielberg’s earlier films such as Empire of the Sun (1987) and 1941 (1979). Thus, Saving Private Ryan’s narrative / plot conventions with examples of shots and sequences from the film shall be discussed along with Spielberg’s other World War II related films. In addition, Steven Spielberg’s association with the genre and the genre based publicity shall be mentioned in this essay. The verisimilitude via the sequences in Saving Private Ryan refreshes the war genre conventions thereby making Spielberg’s films unconventional.

Narrative and Plot Conventions

Saving Private Ryan revisited the war genre in the 1970s. The film spoke about the World War II after two decades of focussing on Vietnam War films. The “shocking realisation” of the movie; its “violence set a new standard” which was sanitized or mythologized in earlier war films (Levy 2003, 181). Unlike war films in the past, Saving Private Ryan does not glorify the war. It does not showcase the soldier’s patriotism and establishes that survival is the only motive while in a combat (Levy 2003, 181). For example, the choreographed movements of the soldiers in every combat sequence show their primary objective to be hidden from the enemies - survival. The volley of bullets being fired further explains the soldier’s will to survive. The entire mission of eight soldiers looking for one does not glorify the war but reveals the orders in the hierarchical system in the army. The film reveals the true fear, death and the hesitancy to take one’s life (Levy 2003, 181). For example, the first 23 minutes in the film on the Omaha beach on D-day exhibits soldiers vomiting after being sea-sick and urinating due to fear. It also shows soldiers who are holding the cross and praying. Unexpected death is shown by a soldier who nearly misses death as the bullet fired hits his helmet. He is later killed by the next bullet fired hitting his head. There are many soldiers who are maimed but still drag their amputated body part in the hope of survival. Furthermore, it shows the burden of the past on the present – the entire film begins as a flashback of Ryan recollecting the mission of eight soldiers coming to get him back home. Ryan cries at the grave yard as he recollects Captain Millers’ last words advising Ryan to make his survival worthwhile. This is the burden Ryan carries till the present.

The narrative speaks against war film conventions of “domesticity and paternal protection” (Kolker 2000, 306). In the film, Ryan is searched to be sent back home rather than the norms where soldiers or men are searched to be sent away from their homes.

The three major points that make this film unconventional are the verisimilitude in combat violence, the unusual story format where the “soldiers question leadership” and the new mission objective (Basinger and Arnold 2003, 254). The soldiers reveal their thoughts to Captain Miller of unnecessary misuse of valuable army force to find one man. An unusual objective to separate from the main stream battalion to locate and bring back a soldier infuriates a few soldiers but they obey the hierarchical orders. It is very much unlike the narrative war conventional where soldiers leave home and the entire film emphasizes on their family who hopes their return (Torgovnick 2005, 32).

Unlike other war films, in Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is the affective centre of the film and not Private Ryan. In other war films, the commanding officer or symbolic father is killed in the beginning itself which emphasizes on the inevitable loss of the war and loss of a fatherly figure (Langford 2005, 128). However, in Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller, the commanding officer, the protagonist lasts till the end of the film.

However, the plot of the film still is quite conventional – this war film still abides by the World War II combat film genre convention – “uniformed American soldiers fighting uniformed enemy soldiers in foreign soil” (Friedman 2006, 180). In Saving Private Ryan, American soldiers were fighting German soldiers in France.

The implementation of technical advancements make the film unconventionally realist. Nevertheless, the plot still abides by the war convention: good versus bad with respect to perspectives of the film. That is, in Saving Private Ryan, the film is entirely an American perspective of the war where the Americans are depicted as being good and the enemies, the Germans are bad.

Film makers’ associated with the war/combat genre

Steven Spielberg utilised the war, specifically the Second World War in quite a few of his films. He featured the Nazis in his film, Raiders of the lost Ark (1981), Hitler’s special appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the Japanese internment camp in the World War II in Empire of the Sun and a comedy based on the aftermath of the attack at Pearl Harbour in 1941 (Albert Auster cited in Eberwein 2005, 206). In addition, his 8mm film – Escape to nowhere (1960) was based on World War II (Albert Auster cited in Eberwein 2005, 206). Hence, one could consider by the number of films made that Spielberg does specialise in war films.

It is overall the advancements of technology that enable to deliver creativity with a more realist experience ultimately making Spielberg’s war films unconventionally realist. For instance, the usage of sound: sound muffles when soldiers dunk themselves in the water, the sound of bullets piercing through the air and through the soldiers’ uniform and of the bullets hitting the metal the “MTV style editing” during the first 23 minutes of the film, the rapid handheld camera movements covering the entire war field, the use of an “unusual aspect ratio 1.85:1” and “grainy monochrome” giving a period style feel (Morris 2007, 274). These technical choices complimented by the visuals of maimed soldiers made it the “most terrifying, realist thing ever done in the cinema” (Albert Auster cited in Eberwein 2005, 207).

Genre based publicity

The Vietnam subgenre of war films diminished after the US army won the one-sided Gulf war. In addition, during the release of Saving Private Ryan, the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the end of the World War II which renewed the interest in the war. Furthermore, the realism in the war sequences portrayed in the film brought back memories within the survived veterans (Langford 2005, 129).

The movie poster has the word – saving written in bold compared to private ryan which emphasizes on the sole purpose of the military mission of the movie to be saving and bringing back home the last of the Ryan brothers alive. In addition, within the dusk-like dark background implying the dark side of war and there is an armed soldier standing showing the survival of the fittest or the survival of the fortunate with respect to the story of the movie. Within the clouds lies a picture of Tom Hanks (Captain Miller, the commanding officer), Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Mike Horvath) who stands on the right of Miller as his right-hand man. To the left of Miller stands Matt Damon (Private Ryan) who seems like being covered or protected by Miller. And, behind Ryan stands Edward Burns (Private Richard Reiben). The differences in military rankings depicted by difference in helmet types of the search squad to find Private Ryan displays that irrespective of the position, the squad followed orders from the superior to save Private Ryan. Sergeant Mike Horvath’s dialogue – “This time the mission is the man” is changed to “the mission is a man” which sums up the plot of the film. The entire mission of the search squad is to locate and bring back Private Ryan to be sent back home making him the mission. The intriguing poster help sell the vital plot points of the film.

In conclusion, Saving Private Ryan due to the application of technical advancements manages to be more realist than prior war films and spoke about the dying sub genre of the Second World War. The soldiers questioning leadership, the absence of a fatherly figure and an unusual mission makes the film unconventional. Steven Spielberg implements his experience on making war films based on the World War II in this movie to make it realistic. The boldness of the word saving in the poster stresses on the purpose of the mission of saving one man.


Arnold, J. and J. Basinger. 2003. The World War Ii Combat Film. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Auster, A. 2005. Saving Private Ryan and American Triumphalism. In The War Film, ed. R. T. Eberwein., 205-214, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Friedman, L. D. 2006. Citizen Spielberg. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Kolker, R. P. 2000. A Cinema of Loneliness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langford, B. 2005. The War/Combat Film: Genre and Nation. In Film genre: Hollywood and beyond, ed. B. Langford., 105-131, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Levy, E. 2003. All about Oscar. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Morris, N. 2007. The Cinema of Steven Spielberg. London: Wallflower Press.

Saving Private Ryan, (1998) Produced by Steven Spielberg, Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn and Directed by Steven Spielberg. Hollywood: DreamWorks Home Entertainment [DVD-Video].

Torgovnick, M. 2005. The War Complex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Copyright © Ajey Padival 2008 (Brisbane, Australia; +61-434360675;

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