Sunday, December 6, 1998
By Ervell E. Menezes
OF late Steven Spielberg seems to only take up big projects. After The Lost World: Jurassic Park came Amistad and now its Saving Private Ryan all mega-productions and his fourth war movie after 1941, Empire of the Sun and Schindlers List. But why the invasion of Normandy, youd ask. It has been covered umpteen times by Hollywood and there are at least two full-length movies, on it, D-Day the Sixth of June and The Longest Day.
"That 25 minutes is my attempt to portray the landing as honestly as I knew how," Spielberg is supposed to have said speaking about the beginning of the film. But he also has a good story and these days he seems to specialise in remarkable stories. Didnt Schindlers List raise a million eyebrows? Later there were doubts about it all, but thats another story. So far Spielberg has collected 12 law suits, he admits.
The story is about a squad sent behind enemy lines on a dangerous mission of finding and retrieving Pvt James Ryan (Matt Damon), the youngest of four brothers killed during the same war. The military authorities want to send him home to his bereaved parents. But is it a true story?
"The way were telling the story cannot be called true but it is based on a true event," says Spielberg who goes on to explain how after five siblings named Sullivan perished in the sea on the same ship in 1943 the War Department then passed a law that siblings could not serve in the same unit. The next year, three of four brothers from another family were killed within 72 hours, one fighting the Japanese and two brothers separately fighting the Axis powers in Europe.
Says Spielberg "So they sent a squad to find the fourth brother, a private, and send him home. Thats the kernel of truth around which this morality play has been fictionalised". Yes, thats the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan. But you know Hollywood has to add some element of courage and decency, the expected American jingoism, about patriotism and all that and Spielberg seems to freak out on the war scenes.
This deeply moving story is sandwiched between long spells of action, specially the landing of the troops on Omaha Beach. Its all blood and gore. You see a soldier with his guts pouring out of his body. One soldier pulls another only to break him in two, and hes pulling only the upper half. Theres close-range shooting and some real horror shots. Spielberg has to provide something new, but it neednt have been that gory.
Capt John Miller (Tom Hanks) is chosen to lead this squad of eight men behind enemy lines and try and achieve the impossible. With him are Pvt Reiben (Edward Burns), Sgt Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies) and others. "Why is one man worth risking eight," some of them ask. "Why is the life of this Private worth more than their own?" But it isnt them to question why. Its a war film in the best tradition of war films like Battle Cry and To Hell and Back and Spielberg has a reputation for authenticity and realism.
They say he created a French village on a huge expanse of open space 20 miles north of London. Belonging to British Aerospace the former plane-making facility with its own landing strip was converted into a war-torn village. It had a church ravaged by bomb damage. Its streets are littered with burned-out-tanks, its telegraph poles lean at crazy angles and its shops stand largely destroyed. Rubble is strewn everywhere. Entire walls of residential buildings have been blown away, exposing wallpaper, furniture, pictures on walls. It is a chilling sight, all created by an ingenious production team. And heres where the climax of the film is shot.
I remember. The Longest Day (1962) and the enormous cast it included. There was John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner and others. It was an extra-long film based on a novel by Cornelius Ryan (no relative of Private Ryan) and there were some deadly war scenes. But that was 1962 and action-wise it would seem like Sunday school stuff, what with todays special effects et al. "Saving Private Ryan does not even boast of a third of that cast, but it is almost as long" nearly three hours long. In this film the only two big stars are Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. But as Ive said before Spielberg likes to leave his stamp, and though some of the close combat scenes are very cleverly shot he could have underplayed the blood and gore.
Films like these do not draw family audiences. It is for hand-core war film fans. When asked how the public would respond to "Saving Private Ryan" he counters "Im optimistic... put it this way. Im as pleased as Ive ever allowed myself to be." Which is side-stepping the question, Mr Spielberg.
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