July 29, 1998 [Saving Private Ryan]

Twenty minutes into Saving Private Ryan I leaned over and whispered into Jean's ear, "Looks like Sam Fuller got his way." She didn't know what I was talking about, but I had to say it to somebody.  I'd watched something--a documentary/appreciation on Fuller, I think; Quentin Tarantino kept popping up, giddy as usual about yet another old-time maverick.  And Fuller's not the worst hero a filmmaker could have: a hard-bitten little curmudgeon chewing on a cigar, looking like the Golden Age newspaperman he was--I can see him barreling along in the background of The Front Page, certain his scoop is THE scoop, running to the phone and growling around the wet end of his stogie.  And Fuller had been there, right where Tom Hanks' shaky Captain shouted above the vibrating thumps and screams on Normandy Beach, one of those classic moments of cannon-fodder soldiering, each man just a collection of pieces suitable for strewing along the reddening shore.  Fuller says he had cleaned up that mess, trying to put together a whole body, a head here, an arm there, half a torso everywhere.  Once more, dulce et decorum est my ass.

But back to happy Sam.  During an interview he asserts that all war movies are bullshit, that the only way you could achieve realism is to have a Marine sharpshooter firing live rounds into the audience.  And that's what it felt like, that's why I couldn't resist whispering his name in all that din.

Fuller shows up briefly in Spielberg's epically crowded 1941, playing himself as Commander, caught up in a multi-million-dollar Saturday Night Live sketch in which the war's Snafus harm nothing but feelings and the occasional drunken soldier's snoot.  Now, though, his ghost gripes through the whole movie--which also gripes, Spielberg giving his soldiers the opportunity to stand in the middle of the Blasted Heath and curse in exasperated rebellion and resignation, caring about nothing but the next moment in which they are alive.  And while the plot asks them to draw themselves up and fight for something Big, the irony is that it's as small as they are, just another private who has to go home and earn something he'd had all along: his life.  It reminds me of Orwell's "A Hanging."  I'm compelled to copy out the moment:
I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working--bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming--all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned--reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone--one mind less, one world less.
There; I don't know if he's worth it, but Spielberg joins Orwell in the toil of "solemn foolery," and asks us to see and hear and feel and understand the same world for a couple of hours--and I hope that understanding lasts beyond this moment as I write, that (as the one who is not gone) I can save Pvt. Ryan--laughing as he tells a story about his dead brother--"You're a young man, Danny!"--which of course he'll always be.


  1. Nice piece. I'd never read the Orwell fragment - thanks for that, too.

    I saw this in a big New York theater in '98 (when I was 14), with surround sound and a giant screen (certainly bigger than the ones I was used to back in NH). The arsenal of the big-budget blockbuster put to work for humanist purposes. That, to me, is Spielberg at his best.

    Though the film's reputation hasn't aged well, the screening remains one of my most memorable viewing experiences.

  2. I went with a man who was in WWII. No mere critic could ever dissuade him from his tears.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts