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Villes en ruines dans le récit de guerre américain
City Ruins in American War Narratives

Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) as a Post-Vietnam War Film in Search of Moral Legibility

Mehdi Achouche


Il faut sauver le soldat Ryan a régénéré le film de guerre situé durant la Deuxième guerre mondiale et utilise de nombreux tropes propres à ce sous-genre ; néanmoins le film est aussi fortement influencé par les films mettant en scène la Guerre du Vietnam. Cette double influence crée une ambiguïté structurelle, le film essayant de souligner les horreurs et la complexité de la guerre tout en tâchant de restaurer la légitimité et la décence morale propres à la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. Les ruines urbaines soulignent le caractère presque post-apocalyptique du film et symbolisent la sauvagerie morale créée par la guerre. Néanmoins, le film tente de préserver l’image positive des soldats au cœur du genre en s’appuyant sur les codes du mélodrame et sur la figure centrale du leader sage.

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1World War 2 has been known as “the Last Good War” or even the “only ‘good war,’” the USA’s “finest hour” and “the most popular war in American history,” a just war waged to free the world from the evils of tyranny, oppression and militarism (Wynn 463, Basinger xii). The conflict looms large in the national mythology and has been preserved from the kind of criticism and even denunciation typical of “the disillusioned, post-Vietnam perspective that informed war films of the New Hollywood” (Friedman qtd in Burnetts 6). Saving Private Ryan’s success (Steven Spielberg, 1998) was so considerable (it was the third highest grossing film in the US for 1998 and was nominated for eleven Academy Awards) that it revived the WW2 combat film that had been dormant for about twenty years (Basinger xi-xiii). Yet the film’s novel representation of that war also seemed to threaten the privileged positions of WW2 in the American imagination. In fact, the most striking characteristic about criticism of the film is the extent to which reviews have been conflicted and even contradictory when it comes to assessing its depiction of the war. As Christopher Caldwell points out, many reviewers were happy to see a film that seemed to revive the “classic” WW2 film, “in the sense of [being] heroic, patriotic, and refreshingly free of irony—after a long period in which Vietnam-era cynicism held sway.” Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote with relief: “With Saving Private Ryan, war is good again” (qtd in Caldwell). Other reviewers, however, identified it as an anti-war film. Gene Siskel called it an “action-filled anti-war film” (which, to him, was a positive thing), along with John Podoretz in the Weekly Standard (for whom it was not such a good thing) (qtd in Caldwell). The debate rages on online today, with a user writing, on an ongoing Wikipedia discussion of editors trying to set up a list of anti-war films: “To me Saving Private Ryan is a very powerful anti-war movie, because the story is about one man losing all three of his brothers in World War Two. Doesn’t that sound like anti-war?”, which several other editors strongly push back against (“Talk”). Spielberg himself has weighed in, declaring, rather unhelpfully, “I think it’s an anti-war film only in that, if you want to go to war after seeing this picture, then it’s not an anti-war film” (qtd in Caldwell).

2What makes Saving Private Ryan such an interesting film is precisely its ambiguity. Spielberg’s film was one of the rare major WW2 combat films to be released since the late 1970s, at a time when it seemed that the Vietnam War film, in its “desperation,” “ambivalence” and “madness,” “could be the last evolutionary stage for a [sub]genre that had, finally, outlived its time” (Basinger xi). As noted by Robert Burgoyne about war films, “after Vietnam, war was seen as corrupt, without redemptive value, as an experience of collective loss” (58). WW2 veteran and historian Howard Zinn noted the connection between Vietnam and Spielberg’s film when he wrote that “Vietnam caused large numbers of Americans to question the enterprise of war itself. Now, Saving Private Ryan, aided by superb cinematographic technology, draws on our deep feeling for the GIs in order to rescue not just Private Ryan but the good name of war” (Zinn). As Jeanine Basinger shows, Saving Private Ryan spectacularly revived the subgenre, and the film’s most striking characteristic is the extent to which it is influenced by both the post-Vietnam, or postclassical, perspective, its “process of demythologization” of traditional narratives of US heroism and victories, and by the older, more reassuring and patriotic tropes of the WW2 combat film (Williams 37). In fact, Nigel Morris is right when he argues: “as the film aspires to canonical status within its genre, it dialogizes movie warfare to challenge assumptions [about what a WW2 combat film is supposed to be like]” (Morris 295). The hybrid nature of Saving Private Ryan would therefore appear to be one of its central characteristics, as the film offers audiences a narrative that both acknowledges the Vietnam War film’s legacy while trying to outgrow it and present a more traditional story of military brotherhood and sacrifice.

3One of the film’s main innovations is the presence and exploration of war ruins, most notably ruins of deserted, bombed-out villages. These vestiges allow Saving Private Ryan to illustrate in starkly visual terms the cost of war, but they also participate in the creation of a morality tale about the moral wilderness the soldiers at the center of the narrative are, literally and metaphorically, going through. If the graphic violence of the landing at Omaha Beach has often been highlighted by critics, the psychological and moral violence of warfare examined by the rest of the film is even more important in the way it revisits (rather than simply modernizes) both Vietnam and WW2. Basinger writes that “there was something about the Vietnam combat film that seemed to be, well, apocalyptic” (xi). Coming years after the apex of that subgenre, Saving Private Ryan actually evokes the post-apocalyptic narrative, to the extent that such a narrative “explores the moral dimension implicit in words like ‘inhuman’ and the degree to which this ethical valuation can survive in an altered environment” (Joyce 3). Saving Private Ryan recalls the post-apocalyptic narrative in the way it depicts the fall of civilization and “strips life to a struggle for essentials in order to lay bare how the accretion of moral terms we ascribe to the word ‘humane’ are merely products of our particular civilization” (3). This is where the film is most clearly influenced by the Vietnam War films, which replaced clarity and purpose with confusion and doubt, letting a moral fog settle where moral clarity had once existed. Saving Private Ryan can be read as the attempt to clear that fog and restore moral legibility, while still acknowledging the legacy of the Vietnam War film.

4This article explores, first, the way Saving Private Ryan depicts the landing at Omaha Beach, moving beyond the physical violence often noted by critics to the psychological and moral one that is also conveyed. The landing can be seen as an apocalyptic sequence in which the psychological and moral toll of warfare is highlighted by the film from the very outset, leading to the dehumanization of soldiers and raising the moral stakes of the narrative that is about to unfold. Comparing that sequence with its equivalent in two of the film’s hypotexts reveals how much the film owes to Vietnam War narratives. Once the apocalypse has taken place, the film moves on to the metaphorical exploration of war ruins and urban warfare, a moral journey through a postapocalyptic moral wilderness, where US soldiers are shown as morally compromised. However, the film is ultimately able to move beyond such discourse and to restore moral legibility to the war by relying on melodramatic codes and on the legitimacy of military and moral authority.

Warfare as a Moral Apocalypse

5The most celebrated sequence in Saving Private Ryan is the landing at Omaha Beach, described by reviewers as “intensely realistic” (Rubin) and a “staggering, phenomenally agile battle sequenc[e]” (Maslin), making the film “a vivid, realistic and bloody portrait of armed conflict” (McCarthy): “This opening sequence is a nightmare. Audiences were shocked into silence while watching. No one talked, and no one munched popcorn or rattled candy wrappers” (Basinger 255). The sequence famously caused hundreds of movie patrons to faint or abruptly leave screenings, while the Pentagon had to precipitously open a nationwide hotline for veterans who were upset by the intense verisimilitude of the sequence (Valantin 118).However, the physical violence witnessed during that sequence, which Maslin compared to “Hieronymus Bosch with a Steadycam […] as the film explodes into panoramic yet intimate visions of bloodshed” and which depicts war as “hell,” doubles as an introduction to the psychological and moral violence experienced—and dispensed—by the men at the center of the narrative. The film uses the landing to establish the moral stakes of the story, offering a seemingly apocalyptic sequence to subsequently immerse its characters in a post-apocalyptic world where morality, decency or humanity no longer apply.

  • 1 These films included Battle of the Bulge (Ken Annakin, 1965), Tora, Tora, Tora (Richard Fleischer, (...)
  • 2 Spielberg had long discussions during the making of the film with Samuel Fuller, a WW2 veteran whos (...)

6The sheer violence of the landing sequence is important because “older combat films, especially those from the World War 2 era, presented an extremely sanitized and bloodless depiction of battle” (Burgoyne 51). Conversely, Vietnam War films have often featured “shocking images of emotional devastation, murder-suicide, and madness” and “extreme emotional and physical trauma to the American male” (Owen 255-256). Spielberg himself, whose early amateur shorts included combat films inspired by classical WW2 features, has observed how old-fashioned depictions of WW2 were impossible after Vietnam, when “a new kind of dying was moving our way, uncut and uncensored,” through TV reports of the Vietnam War (Spielberg 1998). Spielberg declared about Saving Private Ryan: “I think Vietnam pushed people from my generation to tell the truth about war without glorifying it. As a result, I’ve taken a much harder approach to telling this particular story” (Spielberg qtd in Friedman). The “harder approach” is connected to this “new way of dying” and takes the form of a graphic representation of violence that has little to do with The Longest Day (Ken Annakin et al., 1962), which, for thirty-five years, loomed as “the ultimate D-Day film” (Waxman). That film actually started a cycle of international epic blockbusters and what Jean-Michel Valantin calls “the military-film complex,” where the Pentagon would bring its logistical support to films which offered a noble and patriotic depiction of WW2 and American soldiers—a cycle which would run out in the late 1970s with the release of the first major Vietnam War films (26).1 The Longest Day has often been criticized in the intervening years for its absurdly tame representation of violence, especially when the cycle ran out and audiences became familiar with bleaker depictions of warfare (Toplin 26, Dubois 96-97). As Owen notes, “Spielberg acknowledges post-Vietnam war cinema as an implied audience for any contemporary war film” (262).2

7At the same time, a direct inspiration for Spielberg, as Jeanine Basinger notes, is another WW2 combat film: Cornell Wilde’s little-known Beach Red (1967). The film was described by a contemporary reviewer as conveying “the terror and carnage of a terrible spectacle, which Mr. Wilde brings alive with semidocumentary vigor” (Thomson); yet another described the opening sequence of a landing on an unnamed Pacific island as “a simple beach assault, the nerve-wracked American forces maimed in waves like locust heading into a helicopter blade, the living freely vomiting or jabbering or glancing over a single foot floating in the brine, or wondering where in hell their arms went” (Atkinson 74). These descriptions could very well apply to Saving Private’s own 23-minute-long beach assault. Both films depart from The Longest Day by emphasizing the psychological toll such carnage provokes, with soldiers paralyzed and crying while hiding from enemy fire on the beach. The fact that Beach Red has been described as an “anti-Vietnam parable[s]” (Fyne 130) is hardly surprising, given its generically Asian setting, its release in 1967 and above all the absence of any moral justification for the onscreen carnage, whereas the traditional WW2 combat film “was always grounded in the need to help an audience understand and accept war” (Basinger 260).

8Saving Private Ryan follows Beach Red in depicting the emotional or psychological impact of warfare, including the presence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but unlike the 1967 film, it focuses on figures of authority. The Longest Day insists on the wisdom and clear-headedness of its commanding officers, real historical characters who are often played by A-list movie stars. At Omaha, Brigadier General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) is depicted as a calm, charismatic, cigar-munching officer, who brilliantly, decisively and coolly leads the assault against German fortifications. When a private expresses his fear of facing enemy fire to retrieve his rifle, Cota gently reminds him that he “may need it before the day is over,” after which the soldier, who has found new motivation, dutifully leaves cover to retrieve his weapon (01:53:10). The scene is played for laughs but underscores the fatherly, benevolent attitude of the US officer who really is in charge (he repeatedly addresses soldiers as “son”). This can be compared with an equivalent moment in Saving Private Ryan, when Captain Miller, a fictional character played by another major movie star (Tom Hanks), is shell-shocked and numbly looks around in a daze (00:08:30–00:09:45). The scene resorts to internal focalization, both auricular (we, like Miller, can only hear the muffled sound of gunfire) and visual: after a close-up on his dazed face, a reverse shot shows the butchery taking place under his eyes, and notably a young soldier hiding behind an iron hedgehog, crying, terrified and unarmed. Foot soldiers are not only terrified (later, another character will call out to his mother before dying), but their commanding officers are equally disoriented and paralyzed, if only for a brief time. Yet, even in this scene, Saving Private Ryan plays on ambiguity: is Miller shell-shocked because of the explosions around him, or is it (also?) a result of the horrors he is witnessing and the possible manifestation of PTSD? Such characterization is all the more remarkable as the initial screenplay for Saving Private Ryan actually introduced Miller as the reincarnation of Mitchum’s character: “Relaxed, battle-hardened, powerful, ignoring the hell around them. He smiles, puts a cigar in his mouth, strikes a match on the front of DeLancey’s helmet and lights the cigar” (Rodat 2). This can be compared with the equivalent shot introducing the character in the actual film: a close-up on his shaking hand, the sign of Miller’s PTSD (00:04:15); the camera then pulls out to reveal the misery onboard the Higgins craft: men soaking wet, vomiting (out of seasickness or fear?), looking grim, shaking, praying. This is also a far cry from The Longest Day, which portrays soldiers cheering and charging forward on the beaches at Cotta’s command, but is similar to the portrayal of scared, vomiting soldiers in Beach Red.

9The physical and psychological weakness of the soldiers leads to a moral one. As the battle moves from the beach itself to the ridge above it, US soldiers gain the upper hand. The tables are turned, and it is they who start slaughtering enemy soldiers, even committing war crimes. The horrors they have just gone through are now startlingly replicated by American soldiers, something few WW2 combat films had depicted. The closest The Longest Day came to such a depiction is during the final moments of the battle on Omaha Beach, when a US soldier attacking the German bunkers on the bluff is seen shooting enemy soldiers who were surrendering (but were still holding weapons). The US Defense Department actually objected to that scene, which producer Darryl F. Zanuck had to fight for, yet that soldier is clearly reacting on reflex when he hears the German soldiers, while the next shot shows him wondering aloud what the Germans meant when saying “bitte, bitte” (“please, please”)—the killing was, implausibly enough, due to a language misunderstanding (Lev 265-266). Saving Private Ryan features a similar scene, when, at the same late moment of the battle, on that same ridge, two US soldiers shoot to death two unarmed soldiers who were clearly surrendering (their hands were up in the air). When one of the Americans wonders what they were saying, the other sarcastically answers, “Look, I washed for supper,” and then laughs outrageously (00:24:30-00:24:55]. They were clearly well aware of the soldiers’ intentions, but that did not make a difference. While the landing’s beginning foregrounded the victimization of US soldiers, this late stage depicts the animosity and cruelty they now feel toward the enemy. When some of these enemy soldiers jump out of a bunker while on fire, a US soldier shouts to the others not to shoot them and to “let ‘em burn!” (00:23:18). By attempting to replicate the US soldiers’ experience of the carnage, the film allows viewers to understand why these soldiers might feel so resentful of the enemy that new atrocities might be committed (it does also show prisoners peacefully surrendering to US forces). The killing of the two surrendering soldiers is followed by a close-up on a silent Miller, the editing implying he has just witnessed the scene; he then literally turns his back on this and moves on, but this foreshadows his later confrontation with his men and the moral stakes of the narrative.

10The physical violence depicted in Saving Private Ryan thus conveys the psychological and moral toll of the war. The film shows much more interest and empathy for the foot soldiers, their literal point of view and travails, rejecting the epic scale and the crane shots typical of The Longest Day for point of view shots that convey the individual perspective on warfare. The second and third acts of Saving Private Ryan similarly turn their attention to the moral ambiguity of warfare, depicting a post-apocalyptic world taking place in ruins that symbolize the fall of the moral certainties that underlie classic WW2 films.

A Journey into the Moral Wilderness

  • 3 Depicting a platoon of soldiers meandering through the landscape while bantering and questioning th (...)
  • 4 A film like Hamburger Hill (John Irvin, 1987) depicts a real-life mission that is infamous for its (...)

11It is only once D-Day is over that Saving Private Ryan’s main storyline actually starts and that the film leaves actual history to focus on a fictional story. Miller is ordered to find and rescue a private named Ryan, leading his squad to journey across war-torn Normandy and to try and locate an elusive soldier who acts as a McGuffin—that is, an excuse for the film to follow soldiers on a seemingly meaningless, meandering mission through the ruins of civilization and moral order. Miller and his men have been sent on a dangerous errand to locate and exfiltrate Private Ryan to send him back to his mother, and the soldiers in Miller’s squad will spend much of their time discussing the morality of risking so many lives to save only one. This structure allows the film to raise issues about the war that had rarely been tackled in traditional WW2 combat films.3 On the other hand, this is far more typical of Vietnam War narratives, which will typically revolve around “a series of unconnected episodes rather than a linear progression” and will depict “the confusion and chaos of a war that lacks a clear sense of moral purpose” (Chapman).4 Burgoyne writes about this section of the narrative that “the post-Vietnam mood of cynicism and skepticism regarding any sense of national community defines much of the action” (66). The dilemma laid out in the title of the film creates moral illegibility about the mission, one which risks spreading to the war itself.

12The wandering soldiers will repeatedly take audiences through the ruins of several cities or villages, showing the sheer devastation civilian structures have gone through. The civilian dimension was virtually absent from The Longest Day, as it was from many other traditional WW2 combat films, as Debra Ramsay notes:

13Because the soldier is the primary protagonist of the American narrative of World War II, the effect of the conflict on civilians is at best understated, and at worst overlooked entirely. Given that civilian casualties in World War II far outweighed military casualties on all sides, the gradual erasure of civilians from the spaces of war is perhaps one of the most critical absences in the visual construction of World War II […]. (2015107-108)

14The Longest Day only showed a few ruined buildings in Ouistreham (which were occupied by soldiers), as well as a house near the beach whose destruction was actually cheered by its owner (the scene, featuring French comedian Bourvil, was played for laughs to show how enthusiastic the French population was [01:45:00]). The atmosphere is radically different in Saving Private Ryan, which adopts a post-apocalyptic aesthetic: the ruins of buildings and cars are frequently shown in both the background and foreground of the shots; the camera often films the characters through broken glass or barbed wire; long shots repeatedly film the soldiers against a backdrop of urban devastation; gutted houses are shown several times, displaying interiors absurdly exposed to the winds; distraught civilians are glimpsed in a handful of scenes, but most are eerily missing. Their deserted homes act as a metonym for the brutality of the war, as audiences are left to imagine the carnage and human toll that accompanied such devastation.

Fig. 1 and 2.

Fig. 1 and 2.

The camera shoots through broken glass or barbed wire in the foreground and emphasizes the sheer magnitude of civilian ruins in the background.

15However, the narrative and emotional emphasis is still clearly on Miller and his men. In the ghost town of Ramelle, Miller and his men relax before the final battle is to start, trying to pretend they are in a normal town and not the ruins of one (01:58:54-02:06:30). Miller play-acts with an empty espresso machine in an abandoned café, showing how, for them, “normality has become a fantasy” (Morris 287). In so doing, the film defamiliarizes the mundane, showing how, for these men, the ordinary has become extraordinary and how far they are removed from civilization. These vestiges of normalcy add to the pathos of the scene and stress how empty and absurd the signifiers of home and civilization are in the midst of total warfare.

Fig. 3 and 4

Fig. 3 and 4

The characters try to pretend they are in a normal town instead of the ruins of one, adding to the sense of defamiliarization and estrangement from civilization.

16Post-apocalyptic texts regularly use an “utterly destabilizing disaster” to “reveal arguments about the potential for human savagery,” and city ruins become a battlefield in which human savagery can fully express itself (Curtis 6). The final battle in the ruins of Ramelle is, therefore, an important one, bookending the narrative and echoing the initial landing at Omaha. The sequence offers similar scenes, while inverting the premise: this time, US soldiers are defending a position against invading German troops. Individual shots take great care to show German soldiers being mowed down by US troops in front of a school, or US snipers in a church steeple, with a bullet-ridden angel in the foreground of the shot to highlight the sheer contrast between the battle and its immediate environment. The crying wounded are seen being executed by German soldiers, echoing the earlier execution of German soldiers by US troops. Hand-to-hand combat takes place in partially destroyed living rooms, especially “the long, intimate, almost obscene scene where Private Mellish of the rescue team is struggling with a German SS officer who finally slowly presses a bayonet into his chest” (Kingsepp 4). The scene is made even more disturbing by the nearby presence of Upham, whose incapacity to help his comrade illustrates, this time, fear and cowardice, while the German soldier who just killed his companion spares his life and walks away. The city proves a perfect environment to illustrate the “fog of war”: the chaos and isolation of individuals or groups of soldiers in an environment which blurs the neat lines of traditional battlefields, but also the moral fog of war where the very concept of morality seems to be out of place.

Fig. 5 and 6

Fig. 5 and 6

A ruined school in front of which soldiers are being mowed down (fig. 5) and the bullet-ridden statue of an angel in front of a ruined church (fig. 6) are symbols that emphasize the human savagery that is taking place in the ruins of civilization.

17These scenes can be contrasted with the two long shots of Mrs. Ryan’s Midwest farmhouse, depicting a quintessentially pastoral paradise (00:30:45 and 00:31:40). Typically for Spielberg, the lost home is these soldiers’ central obsession, with the ruins acting as a topos for the sense of a lost domesticity and moral stability (while dying, several of the soldiers cry out for their mothers). This is not specific to Spielberg but common in the traditional WW2 combat film: “The war film’s generic formula confers on home and family an ideological as well as an emotional significance” (Landon 23). The post-apocalyptic analogy suggests that the protagonists should be seen as wandering through the moral wasteland familiar since WW1, where civilization and moral values have collapsed and only violence and brute force matter—and are in fact indispensable to survive. Home stands for human decency, while ruins signify the moral wasteland and the savagery these men are literally going through, where every single act of compassion can get you killed. This is proved by the fate of Caparzo, who is shot by a German sniper when, going against orders, he tries to help a French family symbolically stuck in their ruined home and dies thinking of his father (00:50:40). The scene is made even more striking by the fact that the sniper has purposefully only wounded and incapacitated him to draw his comrades out of cover and shoot them as well, and had perhaps used the stranded family as bait. Captain Miller himself will be the victim of his own compassion, as he is eventually killed by the prisoner whose life he had previously spared. Yet the film is also careful to highlight the moral equivalence between US and German soldiers. Early on, Caparzo shouts his outrage at German soldiers repeatedly shooting a corpse to make sure he was dead, only to be told by Captain Miller that “[w]e’d do the same thing” (00:48:00). Private Jackson is able to locate the sniper who shot Caparzo because “that’s where I’d be,” again implying equivalence between the two sides (00:52:20).

  • 5 This is why Saving Private Ryan, while many parallels can be made with Lincoln as discussed below ( (...)

18The morality play at work is thus not only about locating and saving Private Ryan but also, on a metaphorical level, about finding a way out of the moral wilderness back to home and civilization.5 As Sergeant Horvath tells Captain Miller in Ramelle, the city’s ruins looming in the background, “[s]ome day we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole god-awful shitty mess. […] Like you said, Captain, we do that, we all earn the right to go home” (01:52:40). This is where Saving Private Ryan again intersects with Vietnam War films, which typically will focus on characters who are physically but above all psychologically and morally incapable of “going home” (including veterans who have difficulties readjusting to civilian life, as in Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, 1978). At the same time, the film does leave open the possibility for these soldiers to redeem themselves by rescuing Ryan, sacrificing themselves (both Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath will eventually die) for the sake of another soldier. The tragedy at the heart of the film is that these men will not be able to actually go home, but by saving Private Ryan they will be able to prove their moral worth. This is how the narrative frames the core issue of any war film, sacrifice: the men do not sacrifice themselves for their country or any abstract cause, but for a brother-in-arm and, through him, an act of moral decency. This allows the film to offer a positive (if tragic) depiction of this group of soldiers without indulging in an overtly patriotic discourse. At the same time, the narrative is careful to balance this ending with a contrasting scene. At the end of the battle, the same Upham, the bookish soldier with a distaste for violence, who had earlier convinced Captain Miller to spare a German soldier, reaches the end of his own emotional and moral journey. Having witnessed the death of Captain Miller at the hand of that same German soldier, and perhaps resenting his own cowardice, he executes that soldier, even though he was unarmed and surrendering. Echoing the US soldiers at Omaha Beach, Upham gives in to his anger, and perhaps shame, implicitly acknowledging his earlier compassion as a failing.

19Finally, the moral ambivalence exhibited by the film extends to symbols of authority and reverence that are traditionally both central and undisputed in WW2 combat films, but that were later called into question by films influenced by Vietnam (Basinger, 182-191). The narrative opens and closes on the same shot of a faded, bleached out US flag, “more ‘Old’ than ‘Glory,’” as Morris writes (295). The theme of patriotism is immediately raised therefore, along with that of sacrifice for country, as the next opening shots reveal the scene to be located in a military cemetery in Normandy, but in the characteristically ambiguous manner that is the hallmark of the film. Before introducing the soldiers who are about to land at Omaha in the second scene, the film characterizes them as long dead warriors and introduces itself as the story of how they died, a decidedly bleak beginning. The narrative will repeatedly take audiences through scenes of carnage, filming decomposing bodies abandoned in the Normandy countryside or showing the ruined wreckage of a downed plane and the body of the general still inside. The use of desaturated colors throughout the film adds to the grimness of these scenes, which have an impact on the squad as the men increasingly question the rationality and the merits of their mission. When it is revealed by the surviving pilot that the plane crashed and killed twenty-two men because extra armored plates were installed on the fuselage to protect that general, the narrative is close to questioning the validity of military authority (01:16:00-01:16:30).

Restoring Moral Legibility

20However, the narrative’s real aim is to morally redeem these soldiers and ultimately provide audiences with a positive, if downbeat, conclusion about their moral standing and their sacrifice. Redeeming military authority is decisive to achieve this moral redemption.

  • 6 One of the most recurring tropes of the Vietnam War film is the journey of a squad or platoon throu (...)

21The men’s questioning of the mission comes to a head when a rebellion breaks out in their ranks after Miller stops his men from executing a German prisoner and lets him go, leading to an armed stand-off (01:37:25-01:43:20). The execution of the prisoner, clearly meant as retribution for the death of Wade, would make sense given the earlier scenes of atrocities committed at Omaha Beach. An actual shoot-out among the members of the squad would also be imaginable in the confines of a Vietnam War film.6 Yet Saving Private Ryan is not prepared to go any further and will, in fact, quickly retreat from such tension, with Miller convincing the mutinying soldier, Private Reiben, to fall back into rank. He does so through the kind of emotional speech that is commonplace in Spielberg’s historical dramas; to defuse the tension, Miller finally opens up to his men and tells them about his past (01:40:00-01:42:00). The revelation is that he is just another citizen-soldier, who used to be a simple schoolteacher in a modest high school before the war. More importantly still, Miller cares about human life: “I just know that every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” The moment is heightened by the nondiegetic music, with a specifically named track, “High School Teacher,” accompanying the speech. The subdued track starts slowly but goes crescendo, with chords joining the melody to slowly swing to a more positive, if still low-key, theme. This is a good example of what Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, in her study of Lincoln, calls “the melodramatic logic of suffering” and “the trope of grief as heavy burden” as applied to that historical character (248-249). Miller’s speech is visualized through a series of medium close-ups on the men in the squad, who will all (Reiben included) fall back into rank thanks to their leader’s humble, compassionate words. This is “a prototypically melodramatic moment, where the plot stops so that characters and viewers can be moved to tears together” (Monnet 249). In the middle of the moral wilderness, Miller, who, in the opening battle, was seen literally dragging men to safety, provides the narrative with a moral anchor, reestablishing unity in the squad but also justifying his act of mercy. He has started reestablishing moral legibility to the mission—and perhaps to the war itself. In this, the film departs from both the traditional WW2 film and the Vietnam War film, as noted by Burgoyne:

unlike the traditional war film, Miller here describes his motivation for fighting as a re-enobling of the self, a reaffirmation of the self. Rather than the external motivation of a higher cause, in which duty and sacrifice are motivated by adherence to an external code, Miller defines duty and sacrifice in terms of personal reparation. And unlike the Vietnam film, such as Born on the Fourth of July or Full Metal Jacket, the loss of self is not blamed on the dehumanizing experiences of military life or the built-in opposition between the military command and the soldiers on the ground. (65)

22The melodramatic logic thus allows the film to move beyond the two traditions. According to that same melodramatic logic, and like Abraham Lincoln, Miller will eventually die, sacrificing himself during one of the most recognizable narrative tropes of the WW2 film and the Western: the “last stand”—in this case holding a bridge long enough for reinforcements to arrive (Basinger 182). The questionable mission then transforms into a proper, reasonable, conventional (in filmic terms) military operation and gives the narrative a traditional ending. Miller dies to help the military effort and defeat the enemy, reconciling the film’s narrative with the tradition of WW2 combat films.

  • 7 A memorable scene in Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970) shows how unacceptable PTSD was to senior (...)

23Through Miller the film reconnects with the image of the good leader, “a noble father figure,” another core element of WW2 films (Basinger 185). Miller is a brave, highly competent officer, one who cares for his soldiers and human life, is enlightened enough to spare the life of a prisoner of war and will eventually sacrifice his own life—he is the one who saves Private Ryan. As Fatima Chinita writes, “the narrative is aligned with his goals, values and morals,” rather than Reiben’s or Upham’s, and the fact that he is killed by the very German soldier he had saved from his men’s wrath adds poignancy for his plight—Miller dies because he was merciful (179). A further melodramatic strategy to both humanize and create empathy for Miller, and one that is another striking innovation when compared to The Longest Day, is having him suffer from PTSD. As seen above, the first shot introducing him is a close-up on his shaking hand, which we will see similarly shake repeatedly throughout the film and which betrays the psychological toll the war has had on him. Detailing the symptoms of PTSD to humanize a character is a radical departure from traditional WW2 films, and more typical of Vietnam War films or films released after the 1960s.7 Saving Private Ryan emphasizes Miller’s PTSD for melodramatic purposes, since that shaking hand is linked to the number of men Miller has killed or seen killed under his command and is therefore the very embodiment of “grief as a heavy burden.” That burden is strikingly visualized when Miller, at the end of his shellshock daze on Omaha Beach and about to resume his role as commander (a soldier is asking him what to do), puts his upturned helmet back on his head and is then drenched with the blood of his men.

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Captain Miller is literally drenched in the blood of his men while suffering from a PTSD episode, emphasizing the burden and grief weighing on him. Such melodramatic characterization is at the heart of the film’s representation of figures of authority.

  • 8 Lincoln features a similar scene, with three characters, including a Black junior officer, reciting (...)

24The characterization of authority extends to the other officers in the film. Another captain, Fred Hamill (Ted Danson), is seen physically supporting one of his men when the latter learns of the supposed death of his siblings and literally cries on his shoulders. In this scene, the point is not to question military authority (on the contrary), but to show that men and soldiers, and even officers, can cry, too. This extends to the actual historical characters glimpsed in the film. When, early in the narrative, a typist first notices the letters announcing to the same mother that three out of four Ryan brothers have died, she goes into a junior officer’s office, who immediately takes them to a captain’s office, who then takes them to a colonel’s office, who will then take the case to general George C. Marshall—the film’s only historical character. The letter has gone up the hierarchy, and this is not over. Hearing of the situation, Marshall silently retrieves the so-called Bixby letter, written by Abraham Lincoln to another grieving mother during the Civil War. Marshall proceeds to solemnly read that letter before finally taking his eyes off the paper and reciting the end (he is intimately familiar with it) and making the decision to send a squad to look for Ryan.8 Marshall is taking his orders from the ultimate commander-in-chief, a man who showed his humanity through that very letter. At the same time, WW2 is compared to the Civil War when Marshall mentions key passages in the letter, “the republic they died to save” and “so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom,” with the character visibly shaken each time he utters these lines (00:33:20-00:35:30). The shot of Marshall is similar to that used when Miller reminisces about his civilian life later on; part of the body of another soldier can be seen in the foreground, while the camera slowly tracks in on Marshall to end on a middle close-up when he concludes his oration by giving the name of the author of that letter—Abraham Lincoln—giving the scene its emotional pay-off. In both scenes, the camerawork emphasizes the silent reaction of the other men to that speech, with one of them, who had previously voiced his skepticism about such a mission, slightly nodding in assent. Clearly, the mission to save Private Ryan is not a public relations stunt, contrary to what some commentators have written and what Captain Miller himself declares early in the narrative; Marshall and Miller both visibly care, the way Lincoln did (Morris 296).

25The fact that the disputed authenticity of the Bixby letter is never referenced shows that the film chooses to believe in its genuineness, allowing it to rest on Lincoln’s authority to reestablish moral legibility (Burlingame). Quoting Lincoln is another way for the film to depict Miller as a leader who can unite his squad, but also to rely on the victim-hero’s plight and death to serve the narrative in its quest for a “hidden moral legibility” in a (post-apocalyptic) world devoid of it (Monnet 242). That moral legibility has been restored by the narrative’s end, as Miller heroically dies defending both Ryan and the bridge, while Marshall’s voice can be heard in voiceover, dictating a letter to Mrs. Ryan and quoting again the Bixby Letter as though to justify Miller’s death (02:36:30-02:38:00). While showing “the dark side of the face of war” and its sheer psychological and moral toll on soldiers, the film’s narrative is therefore built on the victimization of these soldiers, the reaffirmation of their humanity and the eventual eulogy to their suffering and sacrifice (Spielberg qtd in Ebert). At the same time, WW2 is equated to the Civil War, a just war full of the moral certainty which Vietnam and its moral wasteland so dramatically lacked. While the film acknowledges the physical, psychological and moral violence that accompanies war, it still relies on WW2 as a good war and on positive figures of authority to reestablish moral legibility, moving decisively beyond the legacy of Vietnam War films.


26Although it does depict the horrors of war that US soldiers both experience and perpetrate, Saving Private Ryan relies on a post-apocalyptic setting to offer a morality play that focuses on saving its characters’ unity and decency and on reestablishing a sense of moral legibility to warfare. Resorting to melodramatic codes allows the film to focus on the victimization of these soldiers and their commanding officer, and to use their sacrifice, and more generally their suffering, to lead them out of the moral wilderness. By concentrating on the foot soldiers of the war, the film offers a tale that is immersive not simply because of its celebrated visual aesthetics but also because audiences are brought to share these soldiers’ intimacy, their physical, psychological, and moral travails. They also share their longing for “home,” when all these soldiers experience are partially demolished, dangerous ruins—and delusions—of homes. The citizen-soldier celebrated by so many WW2 films is thus at the narrative and emotional center of the film, allowing it to both depict warfare in a strikingly bleak manner while portraying soldiers as the first victims of war. At the same time, the film offers an ambiguous but ultimately optimistic vision of moral decency, using the fictional Miller and the semi-mythical Lincoln to reaffirm moral values and their integrity and to link these to American history and identity. Saving Private Ryan thus offers a regeneration of the WW2 combat film, one that is certainly informed by the Vietnam War film but that still relies on the comforting legitimacy of WW2. It thus moves beyond Vietnam and the post-apocalypse to offer a path forward for the depiction of US wars on screen.

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Beach Red. Dir. Cornel Wilde. Written by Clint Johnston, Donald A. Peters, and Cornel Wilde. With Cornel Wilde, Rip Torn, Burr DeBenning, and Patrick Wolfe. Theodora Productions / United Artists, 1967.

Longest Day (The). Dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, and Bernhard Wicki. Written by Cornelis Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall, and Jack Seddon. With John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery. Darry F. Zanuck Productions / 20th Century Fox, 1962.

Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Written by Robert Rodat. With Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, and Tom Sizemore. DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Pictures, 1998.

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1 These films included Battle of the Bulge (Ken Annakin, 1965), Tora, Tora, Tora (Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toshio Masuda, 1970) and Midway (Jack Smight, 1976). Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which was released in 1979 but had been in pre-production since the mid-1970s, was the first big-budget war film not to get cooperation from the Pentagon (Valantin 34). Spielberg was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the Pentagon’s highest civilian honor, following the release of Saving Private Ryan (Ellison).

2 Spielberg had long discussions during the making of the film with Samuel Fuller, a WW2 veteran whose own war films are famous for their grim and brutal depictions of war (Valantin 118).

3 Depicting a platoon of soldiers meandering through the landscape while bantering and questioning the war is traditional for the WW2 combat film, as seen in A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945), a film that shares many similarities with Saving Private Ryan. As Basinger explains, it was always important for the combat film to have characters openly question the war in order to convince audiences of its necessity (260). But Spielberg’s film goes further by focusing its narrative on a seemingly absurd mission and its visuals on the motif of ruins.

4 A film like Hamburger Hill (John Irvin, 1987) depicts a real-life mission that is infamous for its meaninglessness—the bloody battle for a hill that would be evacuated soon after US troops had finally taken it, at the cost of many lives. The most famous Vietnam War film to depict a meandering mission to convey the confusion, chaos and folly of warfare is probably Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979).

5 This is why Saving Private Ryan, while many parallels can be made with Lincoln as discussed below (and with John Ford’s westerns), is so similar to A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and War of the Worlds (2005), which adopt a similar narrative structure and thematic interests.

6 One of the most recurring tropes of the Vietnam War film is the journey of a squad or platoon through the jungle/moral wilderness and the depiction of the increasing tensions among the soldiers, including with their commanding officers, until murder or some other form of extreme violence ensues (e.g., Platoon, Oliver Stone, 1986). The Vietnam war films which have met with the most resonance over the years are precisely those that depict the most acutely the implosion of the platoon and the deadly rebellion against each other or against the figure of military authority.

7 A memorable scene in Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970) shows how unacceptable PTSD was to senior officers during WW2. John Huston’s documentary on PTSD among returning veterans, Let There Be Light (1946), was censored by the US government until the 1980s. Vietnam War films often showed PTSD when focusing on the figure of the veteran, a theme which has remained popular in war films to the present day (e.g., Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, 2014).

8 Lincoln features a similar scene, with three characters, including a Black junior officer, reciting the Gettysburg Address by heart.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 and 2.
Légende The camera shoots through broken glass or barbed wire in the foreground and emphasizes the sheer magnitude of civilian ruins in the background.
Fichier image/png, 735k
Titre Fig. 3 and 4
Légende The characters try to pretend they are in a normal town instead of the ruins of one, adding to the sense of defamiliarization and estrangement from civilization.
Fichier image/png, 829k
Titre Fig. 5 and 6
Légende A ruined school in front of which soldiers are being mowed down (fig. 5) and the bullet-ridden statue of an angel in front of a ruined church (fig. 6) are symbols that emphasize the human savagery that is taking place in the ruins of civilization.
Fichier image/png, 645k
Titre Fig. 7
Légende Captain Miller is literally drenched in the blood of his men while suffering from a PTSD episode, emphasizing the burden and grief weighing on him. Such melodramatic characterization is at the heart of the film’s representation of figures of authority.
Fichier image/jpeg, 42k
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Mehdi Achouche, « Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) as a Post-Vietnam War Film in Search of Moral Legibility »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Mehdi Achouche

Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

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