Based on true World War II experiences, Saving Private Ryan was made in 1998 by the successful director – Steven Spielberg. The film mainly revolves around the character – Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and his squad of American soldiers who embark on a dangerous mission to save one man – Private James Ryan, who lost all three of his brothers in war. Paying particular attention to the brutality and horrors of the D-Day landings, the film certainly appears anti-war. It is also a consequence of Spielberg’s obsession and fascination with World War II.
From an early age, his father’s war-time experiences were reflected in his first attempt at film making. It is interesting to see that over half of his films were set during the 1930s and 40s. This film, moreover, was made to remind the audience the horrors of war and to acknowledge the soldiers’ bravery. In Spielberg’s own words, “It is a tribute to the veterans of war” The film’s characteristics follow the war film genre, though it attempts to break the traditional conventions by being ‘brutally honest’. Using a wide range of visual techniques and creating special sound effects, it brings the audience right into the middle of the action.
The particular use of desaturated colour dulls the picture, achieving the effect of ‘deglamourising violence’. During the opening sequence an overview of the D-Day situation was presented to the audience in a journalistic way. The use of hand held cameras contributed greatly to the realistic and shocking nature of the film. The most powerful and traumatic part of the film to the audience is perhaps the opening battle sequence. In the process of introducing the main characters and the set of the film, it manages to astonish and disturb the audience.
Right from the beginning of the sequence, the director uses signifiers to help the audience understand the situation and also intrigue them; as the sound of a slow patriotic music is played in the background, the viewers can see an American flag with light shining through it. This symbolises America and the army. The faded affect of the flag represents a sense of old, worn-off patriotism, also suggesting that the subject of the film is in the past. This then leads to the first character in the film – an old man. Walking slowly with his family behind him, he knells down in front of a gravestone.
From the high angle shots, the viewer can see that they are in a military cemetery. The brilliant white lines of gravestones and the fresh, almost fluorescent green of the grass add to the solemnity of the situation. Then, from seeing a French flag in the middle of the cemetery, the audience can establish that the cemetery is in France, linking it to the D-day landings. The slow, lingering music manages to move the audience, but it takes their ‘guards off’ so they are totally unprepared for the shocks and horrors of the next scene. As the audience see the acute emotions of the old man, they hear him sobbing.
This creates a sense of empathy and intrigue amongst the viewer, as many questions are raised: “Why is this man crying? Who is he? ” Then, gradually, the camera gives an extreme close up of his face, focusing on his eyes. It has a dramatic impact as the shot is very intrusive and tries to emphasize the clear blue of the man’s eyes. Suddenly, the transition from present to past occurs as the bright colours turn into shades of grey. The camera establishes a few shots showing the Normandy beach where the D-day landings is about to take place.
This Transition worked particularly well; the focus on the old man’s blue eyes, which create a sense of innocence, is changed into a scene filled with horrors and disgust. The director seems to be saying that this ‘nightmare’ is about to be seen from many innocent soldiers point of view. To express the sense of misery and suffering in the scene, Spielberg used desaturated colours which only included shades of grey, khaki green and brown. These colours reduced the impression of contentment and joy to the maximum level and signals death.
As the camera gives a long shot of the Normandy Sea, the audience sees boats carrying soldiers to the beach. They can also hear the loud waves and wind, contrasting with the slow, gentle music at the beginning, the intensity increases. In this contrasting sequence, the camera takes a shot of the soldiers’ faces in the boats. This is especially memorable as it shows these expression-less faces of men, knowing that they are about to die in a few minutes. The shot does not focus on anyone in particular therefore is not personal.
It reminds the audience of the graves they saw on the earlier scene, which probably belonged to some of these soldiers on the boat. The shot also added to the intensity of the scene as the viewers guess the fate of these soldiers. At this point the entire scene feels like it is a news rail of the D-day landings, because of the lack of colour, the realistic sounds of waves hitting the boats, and most importantly the use of hand held cameras. As shots of inside the boats are taken, the camera shakes to the rhythm of the rocking boat.
This puts the audience in the real situation and makes them see it from the soldier point of view, which helps them to understand the experience. The situation has been introduced clearly to the audience; the camera’s perspective takes a slight turn: shots of some of the main characters were taken and the scene becomes more personal. For instance, at one point, the camera focuses on Captain Miller’s shaking hands showing his fear and anxiety. As soon as the landing ramps of the boats are lowered, many soldiers are cut down.
This frantic scene of instant chaos has begun. The cameras seem to move with the soldiers and captured their every move. Spielberg tried to create a sense of confusion that relates to this landing: as the soldiers jump off the boat, they land in deep water far off shore, to show this realistically, the director made sure the camera took underwater shots. When the camera shakes, it comes to the water surface and goes down again, as if it is just one of the soldiers struggling for air but being pulled down by the heavy back pack.
This sequence of shots is reinforced by corresponding sound effects: underwater sounds were muffled and unclear, like the hazy dim water in the shot. This changes when the camera pops out of the water and contrasting loud sounds of explosions, and non-stop machine guns and billets bouncing off helmets blasts out all together in a frenzy of confusion. These shots give a sense of drifting in and out of conscience-ness, a feeling of delusion and reality, which is what most of the soldier felt during fighting. The sound effect in this part of the sequence played a big part in giving it massive impact.
There is no music in the background because the director wanted the sound effect to appear real and music can only distract it. There are sounds of sudden explosion going off everywhere, as the camera ‘runs’ forwards, there are sounds of explosions behind it, stunning and shaking up the audience. This then becomes more real as bits of mud, blood and sea water gets spattered over the camera lens due to the explosions. Steven Spielberg also attempted to give the audience a sense of danger and uncertainty when he added in sounds of bullets zipping past them.
This instantly involved the audience and brought them into apart of the fighting. When the camera focuses on the soldiers struggling underwater, we can only hear the sounds of bullets cutting into the water. During this chaotic scene, there is a high angle shot showing the sight on the beach; it is taken from a high German bunker’s point of view. It showed men on the boats being shot down the minute the ramp opened; the vulnerability of the men becomes clear, and the audience realises they are just being picked out one by one by the German machine gunners; most of them probably didn’t even know what hit them.
After presenting the chaos on the beach, the film now concentrates on the main character – Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). As the Captain exerted himself on the beach after landing far off shore, his first reaction to the whole situation seems to be utter bewilderment. The camera focused on him in a medium close up, showing him looking around not knowing what to do. Everywhere around him, sand, mud and gore are being blasted up by the bombs and bullets; he now experiences what is presented before. As the camera closes up on Captain Miller’s face, we can see the fear and confusion in his eyes.
Gradually, the sound around us gets muted till you can only hear muffled sounds of bangs from the explosions; and the shot of Captain Miller seems to turn into slow motion. Steven Spielberg has used this to show that the Captain is experiencing shell-shock. To mute the sound and slow down the film, it gives to the audience, a glimpse of the feeling of shell-shock; it is also suggesting the violence has traumatized the Captain and he is drifting away from reality. As if seen through the Captain Miller’s eyes, shots of live burning soldiers, broke bodies, young soldier’s screaming and crying, were shown.
These clips have a terrifying effect on the audience and they are now beginning to understand what the characters of the film are going through. Nearing the end of the battle, it’s almost certain the large American army force has successfully captured the German bunkers high on the cliff. This time, close up shots of the surviving soldiers were shown; some are very emotional but some seem to be expression-less. This perhaps, reflected on the audience’s reaction to the sequence: They feel respect for the soldiers who risked their lives and glad they finally succeeded, but also there also a sense of relief that the brutality has ended.
After the chaos, the soldiers are trying to take all the horrors in, they feel numb because all the shock they experienced; the audience can feel the same. As the fighting fully stops, we can see that there is a beautiful sunset, the sky is no longer grey but it is a bright orangey colour. This signals that the violence has ended. Then there is a close up of Captain Miller, it shows him looking into the distance, reflecting on the horrors of the D-Day Landing.
The camera then takes smooth shot of the beach, with bodies of the soldiers and bits of dead fish, even the sea has been turned a bloody red colour; this is when we realise the enormous amount of lives lost fighting this battle. The scene turns particularly solemn has the audience hears the slow, gentle, patriotic music played in the background. This seems to be a reflection on the scene in beginning, showing the graves of these dead soldiers. This soldier’s eye view of the D-Day Landings contained some of the most horrendous violence ever presented in film. It dispels any preconceived ‘romantic’ notions about the ‘Great War’.
Using specially-designed cameras that mimicked news cameras of the period, a toned-down colour palate, and frantic freehand camera-work, Spielberg puts the audience on the beach with the Allies. In this film death is present not for the benefit of the audience and war is shown as it truly is, grim and unglamorous. This opening sequence not only introduced the character and settings of the film, but also allows the audience to experience the soldiers’ constant fear. This film might not be suitable or popular with everyone but it is as honest as possible in presenting the nightmare known as the Second World War.