Who Is Spielberg to Claim His Is the Real War?

Prodigiously produced and researched, ambitiously acted, and grandiloquently scored by the eternal John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is the ultimate buddy-buddy picture of the 90’s with surprisingly little moral, historical or emotional resonance, which is to say that I found it tediously manipulative despite its Herculean energy. Still, the nearly-three-hour-long boom-boom shaggy-dog story set in the time and place of D-Day in 1944 is the kind of hot-air balloon that wins Oscars for its production values alone. And these, I concede, are considerable.

Superstar Tom Hanks here in the predominant lead role of Captain Miller is O.K., I guess, evolving from stoical secretiveness to sobbing vulnerability. Matt Damon is O.K., too, as the elusive Pvt. James Ryan. Also O.K. are Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi and Jeremy Davies as the members of Captain Miller’s mission sent out to return Private Ryan alive to his mother after his three older brothers have been killed in combat. Harve Presnell’s Gen. George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, is also fine, reading President Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby on the loss of her five sons in the Union Army during the Civil War, as a prod to his subordinates to bring the surviving Ryan son home safely from the War.

This must have seemed to screenwriter Robert Rodat and Mr. Spielberg like a wondrous premise on which to spin a tale of quixotic valor around the massive pain and suffering of the Allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe. Mr. Spielberg wasn’t there, but he has heard stories from his father. Many of the younger admirers of Mr. Hanks and Mr. Damon may have heard war stories from their grandfathers. After all, D-Day happened more than 54 years ago. So why spend $60 million re-creating it on the coast and plains of Ireland? Is there some historical antiwar revisionism afoot as there was after World War I with such odes to Allied-German fraternity as King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), Lewis Milestone and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front (1930) and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937)? Not in this film.

The Germans in Saving Private Ryan are the same kind of swine we saw in World War II movies of the 40’s. Indeed, in a mini-drama within the movie, the lesson is taught that the only good German soldier is a dead German soldier, even if he is a prisoner of war. To hell with the Geneva Convention. The pornography of violence and cruelty is pursued as assiduously in Saving Private Ryan as it is in all war movies, even the most well intentioned. In what other genre can the massively indiscriminate slaughter of human beings by other human beings be justified as edifying historical fact? The two extended battle sequences that sandwich the rest of the movie display such ghoulish delights as arms and legs flying apart from their owners in a river of red blood. All sorts of flame-throwing devices from Molotov cocktails to the more advanced technology pay off in the sight of German soldiers being burnt to a crisp. As I recall, even newsreels of World War II limited flame-throwing sequences to the Pacific sector, where a kind of interracial war was raging.

What Saving Private Ryan possesses that earlier World War II war movies didn’t is a post-Holocaust perspective. At that time, sympathetic actors like Peter Van Eyck and Erich von Stroheim under Billy Wilder’s direction in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) could play intelligent and charismatic Germans, if not the heroically good German in Mr. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), for which gentile absolution Mr. Spielberg has been attacked by the unforgiving David Mamet. But until 1945, few of us had any inkling of the horror of the death camps. Still, no war movie even bothered to suggest that the war against Hitler was connected to his persecution of the Jews. In Saving Private Ryan , a scene is inserted in which a Jewish G.I. mocks German prisoners of war by saying ” Juden, Juden ” as an incantation. Even the Hollywood left wouldn’t have dared test the tolerance of mainstream audiences with a scene like this before 1945 and the release of the death-camp footage.

There is a nice scene with a little French girl who beats up angrily on her father after he tries to send her away to safety with the Americans. In addition, as an amateur military historian, I appreciated the dig at Field Marshal Montgomery’s notorious slowness in advancing on the channel ports, a dig shared by Captain Wilson and a fellow officer. A shot of Edith Piaf records on an old gramophone amid the rubble of a ruined town can be described as privileged. Yet, there is no buildup to a satisfying climax and conclusion, at least not for me. Mr. Spielberg tries to avoid the more obvious ethnic and regional contrasts in his unit, but he still winds up with the usual suspects from Brooklyn and beyond that some of us remember too well from William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun (1945).

What is most lacking in Saving Private Ryan is the creative eccentricity of a personal vision such as is to be found in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1989) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). If Mr. Spielberg can be criticized for magnifying the pitifully small subtraction made by Oscar Schindler from the tragically and monstrously huge number of casualties of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List , he can be faulted here for miniaturizing the spectacular scale of an invasion of the European mainland by a multinational coalition with no prior experience in the task. Everything had to be done for the first time. Everything had to be tested on the spot, and for a time victory itself hung in the balance. I can’t help feeling that it is too late for people of Mr. Spielberg’s, Mr. Rodat’s, Mr. Hanks’ and Mr. Damon’s generations to start playing soldier as though they and they alone could authenticate the past.

When Lloyd Bacon’s The Sullivans came out in 1944, I was in high school, and we all cried at this true story of five brothers who were killed in combat on the same ship. As I recall, the War Department decreed that members of the same family would thereafter be dispersed into different units, but no one suggested that any surviving sibling of any future catastrophe should be sent home. Perhaps that is why Saving Private Ryan did not move me as much as its mournful soundtrack suggested it should.

Preston Sturges at 100

I have been singing the praises of Preston Sturges (1898-1959) for 50 years, ever since I caught up with four double-bill programs of his fabulous 40’s burst of brilliance at the old 55th Street Playhouse. He had seven Paramount comedy hits in a row, and one undeserved mixed-mood flop, a batting average higher than that of any other Hollywood director past or present. Now the invaluable Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street (727-8110), is launching “Preston Sturges 100,” a centennial retrospective to run from July 24 through Aug. 6. The series will open with two of Hollywood’s wittiest and funniest sex comedies in any decade, but nothing short of miracles in the heavily censored 40’s. The Lady Eve (1941) pairs Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in one of the merriest mismatches since Samson and Delilah. Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, Melville Cooper and Eric Blore form a discordant, hilarious chorus to the stormy shenanigans of the two leads. The Palm Beach Story (1942) teams Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea in a romantic quadrille with Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee. With two sets of twins, and endless misunderstandings, Sturges unscrambles this comedy of errors with Shakespearean audacity. This program will run July 24 through July 28.

The Great McGinty (1940), still the funniest American movie about politics, with Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Muriel Angelus and the omnipresent William Demarest, is on July 29 and 30, along with Christmas in July (1940), one of the lesser-known of the Sturges classics, but one of the emotionally richest and sweetest, with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew on the roller coaster of the American success story. Sullivan’s Travels (1941), with Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake and the whole Sturges stock company and then some, is the closest thing on film to the director’s self-portrait, and is one of Hollywood’s biggest laughs on itself, will run July 31 through Aug. 3 along with Hail the Conquering Hero , a complex satire of hero-worship that took more guts to make in 1944 than it took to make Saving Private Ryan in 1998, with Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines and a whole small town full of townsfolk and United States Marines, courtesy of the Sturges stock company.

Later in August will come Mad Wednesday (1946), with Eddie Bracken and the sadly forgotten Frances Ramsden; The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), with Eddie Bracken, Betty Hutton and Diana Lynn; and Unfaithfully Yours (1948), with Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell and Rudy Vallee. I’ll keep you posted.

Who Is Spielberg to Claim His Is the Real War?