Analysis of the Film ‘Saving Private Ryan’

In this essay, a detailed analysis of the ideas and methods that Steven Spielberg implemented in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ will be provided. Basically, the film is centered on D-Day of the Second World War. Additionally, the battle sequences are illustrated deeply to depict how shocking previous world wars were. Spielberg also used different film making tactics and cinematic techniques to illustrate the terrifying nature of the Second World War. Each of these techniques and tactics add to the effects of presenting every aspect in the movie, especially the opening battle scene, in a realistic manner. Principally, the three core methods that Spielberg operated and employed in the film include Mise En Scene, camera angles, and lighting. Similarly, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ presents realistic depictions of the lives and the horrifying deaths of the allied forces armies during the Second World War. Therefore, the film is presented in the form of a documentary. The film, its direction and reception in the market was astounding. It received great recognition and some criticism. Additionally, it went on to win 5 Oscars in 1999. In general, all of these awards were a direct result of Spielberg ambition to create a film that was unconventional, realistic and more mundane than previous war movies. To achieve this, the opening scene cost upwards of $12 million. This scene is set in Omaha Beach, the main entry point into German- occupied France. The movie revolves around this assault, in which Captain John H. Miller and his team were searching for Private James Francis Ryan, an American paratrooper.

Translating War: Saving Private Ryan and the Combat Film Genre

Steven Spielberg caused shock waves in the movie industry when he directed ‘Saving Private Ryan’. The movie won the acclaim of historians, scholars, World War II veterans, critics and the general movie-going public. The bottom line to any analysis of this ground-breaking movie is this: ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is a different Second World War combat film primarily because it refuted the dishonesty depicted in previous movies in the war film genre.

However, the truth is not as simple as that. Actually, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ represents a unique case in the ever-present struggle among film historians, who are constantly bombarded by the constant need to deal with modern critics. These critics tend to judge artistry by the standards of the time. Therefore, there is never any glory for combat movies that do not show blood and guts.

Of course, there is no question that the cast (which included Tom Hanks) did an excellent job or that Spielberg directed one of the most honest combat movies of all time. However, there have been issues with the film history that ought to be evaluated. Still, most of the WWII veterans who watched the film agree that ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is, perhaps, the best and most realistic representation of combat that they have ever seen. Additionally, Spielberg achieved great integrity through the movie and the images therein. To do this, he consulted with Stephen E. Ambrose (noted historian and author of ‘Citizen Soldiers’) and Dale Dye (a retired Marine Corps captain, who doubled as Spielberg’s chief military adviser). With so much research put into the film, it is easy to understand why the movie turned out so well.

However, the issue in question is not the accuracy of combat or the quality of the film. Rather, the issue is centred on the accuracy of the movie in depicting WWII history, the combat genre and the place that ‘Saving Private Ryan’ has taken in history (Koppes and Black). Taking a deep overview based on the actual screenings of the movie, where does it fit? Modern critics have defined this film as anti-generic and ground breaking, vis. “… the inherent desire to bury the cornball, recruiting the poster legend of John Way” and to, basically, “get it right this time”[1].

The main differences cited here include the movie’s realistic combat violence, its unusual storyline and format (in which soldiers question the point of their mission and the leadership), and its new, and very different, purpose.

Realistic Combat Violence

This is, by far, the most significant issue in the movie. The violence depicted in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, especially in the opening sequence is overwhelming. Spielberg’s mastery of color, performance, narrative flow, visual storytelling, camera movement, editing, and sound combine to assault the viewer. It effectively plunges the audience into the combat experience. The audience is anchored on Captain John Miller (portrayed by Tom Hanks), and provides 3 recurring motifs for Miller’s/ Hanks’ response to war: performance (a shaking hand), cinematic (the elimination of sound), and narrative (resistance in explaining his pre-war background). These motifs are simultaneously external and eternal. The audience, then, understands that these are reflections of the stress that often accompanies combat experience. In particular, the elimination of sound is effective (Hasian). It is logical in the narrative (since Miller’s hearing could have been damaged by battle noise), and psychological (by physicalizing the emotional trauma that he must be undergoing).

With the unfolding of the war action, the audience sees dismembered legs and arms, wounds spurting blood, dead fish, vomit, more blood and torsos disintegrating as they are dragged away from the battle field. Soldiers are shot and killed, wounded, and drown in that chaotic atmosphere of bewilderment and fear as medics are compelled to make ruthless decisions with regards to the wounded. In effect, the opening sequence is the worst nightmare anyone could imagine (Schumach). Consequently, it shocks modern audiences into silence.

An Unusual Story Format

‘Saving Private Ryan’ was written by Robert Rodat. The storyline, however, fails to break ranks with the firmly established war movie genre. Apart from the fact that the mission of the group is to save a single, very ordinary soldier (either for concerns over his mother or for public relations), the film follows the traditional story format, which contained 3 basic element: an objective, a group, and a hero.

The group in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is comprised of a mixture of geographical and ethnic types, including a cynic from Brooklyn, a Midwesterner, a Jew, an Italian, and a newcomer in need of initiation and/ or who will provide an explanation or commentary on the action as it occurs. As the group advances, action unfolds through contrasting episodes, which alternate in uneven patterns: combat and noncombat, bad weather and good weather, tragedy and comedy, dialogue and silence, repose and action, and safety and danger. Additionally, military iconography is employed and explained (Bodnar).

Conflict also breaks out within the ranks of the groups, in which the members question the mission’s objective, the leadership, and the war itself. During the advance, some members die after the group encounters the enemy. In the closing scene, the last stand reveals the movie’s overall purpose. The hero, whose objectives were mainly forced down his throat, has to make some difficult and unpopular decisions. At times, he survives; at others, he dies.

‘Saving Private Ryan’ perfectly fits into this established format. In the final “Alamo” Armageddon scene, the hero clearly articulates the film’s key purpose: “Earning It”. The question is, did Private Ryan really live a life that was worthy of all the sacrifices that were made to rescue him? Actually, this point can be translated into various higher meanings for the modern viewership. Do people earn the sacrifices that are constantly made for their way of life and freedom by combat soldiers?

New and Different Purpose

Obviously, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ changed the purpose of combat films. Even though Spielberg left the basic story format in its original format (thereby clearly defining the genre), he altered its purpose and usage. The movie undergoes an evolutionary process, which reflects the time when the movie was released. Initially, the purpose was explanatory and patriotic, to get audiences to support the war effort and cast away their fears and doubts. However, after the war, there was a period of respite without the production of combat films. The purpose of most war movies is, typically, to put wars into an ‘after the fact’ perspective.


Spielberg’s true accomplishment was that he used familiar genre elements to forge a new purpose, while combining each of these elements into a brilliantly-visualized movie that forces audiences to seriously consider the ramifications and horrors of war. In the meantime, however, there is a need to accurately place the role of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in its genre’s history. It is not that audiences have never heard doubts expressed, or seen violence and viewed soldiers questioning the objectives of missions and leadership. The movie effectively takes carnage and brings it down to the human level (Hasian). The director forces audiences to think about violence and evaluate the future of their nations and of humanity. In its final admonition, the film asks each viewer to “Earn It!”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s