Akin to my namesake Holden Caulfield, I can’t stand the movies. What could be more phony than a bunch of highly paid actors pretending to be other people in scripted situations? Yet there is no denying the draw of drama, which goes back to the ancient Greeks and continues to grab our modern imagination. So it’s a somewhat unfortunate fact, in my mind, that we who seek today to establish a culture of life must use the power of movies to shape minds, hearts, and opinions.
I say this to explain why I waited so long to view the Spielberg classic war film Saving Private Ryan. A creature of the written word, I would sooner read a screenplay than sit two hours in a dark theater before a giant screen, even prior to the pandemic. But looking for ways to keep my teen son away from smaller screens on weekends, I thought the DVD would hold his interest, with plenty of unapologetic masculine heroism, blood and gore, and a chance afterward to discuss just-war theory, situational ethics, 20th-century history, and more.
Like the best of Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan is more than an exciting story laced with great production values. It is a morality tale that draws the viewer into something deeper than the much-praised 23-minute scene of the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach, which is a study, in blood and mud, of the strength of human character and the frailty of human flesh. The landing crafts hit the beach, the doors drop down to expose the huddled soldiers, many no older than my son, and FRRRRRRRAK, German machine-gun fire saturates the air as men fall in their tracks before setting foot on French sand. It is a harrowing scene, one which gives image to the term “cannon fodder.” We’ve heard about how the heroics of D-Day turned the course of the war and expect to see the ingenious American strategy that wins the day. But as bloody water laps amidst corpses strewn on the shore, we come to understand that the strategy is the most primitive of all—throwing body after body into enemy fire to allow some to break the line. The long-angle shot of the Normandy American Cemetery that opens and closes the movie shows the cost incurred on what is called in an earlier movie “the longest day.”
The message of Saving Private Ryan is that life is cheap. Or is it?
The same U.S. high command that sent men to certain death under the rubric of acceptable losses appears in the next scene, safe in D.C. headquarters, contemplating the fate of a single private paratrooper who has landed behind German lines. Like those whose dog tags have been pulled from bloody remains, this private has a name: James Francis Ryan. But he has something else: three brothers who recently have been killed in action and a mother back home. And herein lies the strength of this tale. The most powerful army in the world, in the aftermath of its biggest victory, with the outcome of the war still in the balance, turns its attention to a grieving Midwest mom and her one remaining son. General Marshall decides to assign a troop to find Private Ryan and send him home to his mother. If the film were not based somewhat on an actual mission, you would think such an order would never occur in wartime. But the story is far from over and the ironies of war are just beginning.
What price for one life? is just one of the themes the film explores. Others are the line between heroic sacrifice and reckless action; murder and self-defense; rightful obligation and conscientious objection; noble service and blind obedience; national interest and self-interest. These are issues that we in the pro-life movement wrestle with each day, on various levels; they work so well here because they arise in the unusual mission of ordinary soldiers. If we see the movie as just a relic of bygone war, we miss the deeper meaning. We are in a combat zone each day of our lives, spiritually, morally, and sometimes physically. Like so many in Hollywood, Spielberg may lean Left politically, but as a true artist, he has made a movie that challenges the assumptions and pretensions of anyone who endeavors to discern right from wrong in a dangerous environment.
Here are a few key scenes and themes:
- A female secretary, perhaps a mother herself, is the one at HQ who connects the deaths of the three Ryan brothers to the Ryan who landed on D-Day and brings the situation to the general’s attention. This is a nice touch of the empathetic “feminine genius” that inserts some humanity into a brutal struggle.
- General Marshall nobly quotes President Lincoln’s Bixby letter, written to a grieving mother, in coming to his decision to save Private Ryan. Yet the very decision, by the logic of war, will place in grave danger the lives of the men chosen for the rescue mission. The bulk of the film follows these eight men, led by Tom Hanks as Capt. Miller, and how they work out the irony of their mission and come to terms with it, each in his own way.
- Indeed, as they make their way on foot across enemy lines, the men wonder pointedly why they should be ordered to risk their lives to save a single lowly soldier. “I bet we all have mothers at home,” one shouts pointedly, who would love to see them back safe and sound.
- Another irony is found in the small troop’s encounter with a US division, when by apparent beginner’s luck they meet Private Ryan. But this is James Frederick not James Francis. So close to being able to go home, the hapless private insists that he still might be the Ryan they seek, but the captain strides away, getting on with his mission. They are looking not for a name but for a family, a particular man with a genetic connection to a particular mother.
- An especially tragic irony plays out as the crew finds a French family hiding in the rubble of an abandoned village. The father yells for the soldiers to take his little daughter, thinking she will be safer with them, as the girl screams for her mother. One soft-hearted soldier lays down his weapon and grabs the girl, only to be shot by a hidden sniper. The girl runs back to her parents and slaps her father for giving her away. The theme is exposed again: The deep ties of family are more important than simple physical safety.
- The ultimate irony comes as the soldiers spot an abandoned radar station defended by a lone German gunner. Capt. Miller wants to attack while the others point out that they can avoid the station and continue on their mission. Taking on the elevated voice of a commanding officer, the captain snaps back, “Our mission is to win the war.” The crew’s medic is shot dead by the gunner, who surrenders when surrounded by the others, some of whom want to kill the German on the spot. The captain weighs the moral calculus and lets the enemy live, while commanding him to dig the grave for the medic. Is the German still a dangerous combatant or a prisoner of war? Whatever the case, the small band of soldiers cannot take him with them safely, and the corporal, who is there as a French and German translator and has never fired a shot, pleads for the German’s life. The captain blindfolds the gunner and tells him to walk 1,000 paces before taking off the blindfold. The viewer suspects that he will return with Germans fully armed, and indeed, he shows up at the final showdown over a bridge held by Private Ryan and his fellow troopers. The same German shoots the captain in battle, and the corporal, pulling the trigger for the first time, kills the gunner in revenge after he surrendered a second time.
There are more key scenes, but let’s skip to the last one, which picks up from the opening scene at the American Cemetery. We see that the old man walking amid the rows of Crosses and Stars of David is present-day Private Ryan, accompanied by his wife, his children, and grandchildren (a group of eight, not coincidently). He is there to visit the grave of Capt. Miller and thank him for his sacrifice. The final words the captain whispered to Ryan as the former lay dying by the bridge was “Earn this.” The elder Ryan asks his wife if he has lived a life worthy of the sacrifice of so many men, and she, with the empathy and insight of the female HQ secretary, says “yes.”
We are not told anything about Private Ryan’s life from the time of the war to his visit to the captain’s grave. But we are persuaded that in his expression of gratitude and his commitment to family, Private Ryan has earned the high price of his one precious life.