I have seen a fair amount of films that discuss massacres with ingenuity, but not a single one has looked at the unfathomable pain, horrors and guilt soldiers have faced the same way Steven Spielberg’s revolutionary 1998 film blasted the whole thing in my face. In my opinion, Saving Private Ryan is a movie everyone should see at least once in their lifetime if they think all the other forms of militainment we now have lent us an accurate feel of the realities of war.
Militainment is the idea of creating entertainment centred around militaries, and by default, wars. Roger Stahl, author of numerous documentary films and books about this idea, discuss examples of real-life dire consequences caused by this idea.
For instance, the 2003 Iraq war had news coverage not meant to inform Westerners of why it had begun or what happened to those discharged to participate. The goal was to keep viewers enthralled and on the edge of their seats. Not only that, the coverage aimed to celebrate the involvement of countries participating, while disregarding what that country’s soldiers were actually doing to those in the cross-fire.
Some news outlets even spent segments on tanks and aircraft used for the war, put through a ritual of devotion. They were regarded as objects of beauty and worship.
There is also such a thing as “The Clean War”, a war in which the media presents it without humanitarian details on display. Killings and horrid conditions aren’t discussed. Cleaner words for “Bombings and Civilians Killed” are used, such as “Air Strikes and Collateral Damage”. Also, thanks to Arabs being the most vilified people in Hollywood, it is easier to dismiss thousands, sometimes even millions, of killings. In 2003, the Pentagon itself said it does not do body counts. It now does, but it used to not.
Saving Private Ryan’s legendary opening on the Omaha Beach features dozens of men (which feel like hundreds) facing dismemberment, unstoppable bleeding, and wounds from gunshots that seem to break the sound barrier. And it is anything but a clean war as we immediately lose count of the bodies. Throughout the movie, we are treated to soldiers who confront realizations as they see their intestines lying around, as they stare at their fresh wounds that are spilling blood like a faucet, as the tip of a foot-long knife slowly enters by the tip into their chests. We’re also treated to characters facing serious survivor’s guilt, having to dig the graves of their friends knowing that could’ve been them and maybe if they’d done something differently, the death wouldn’t have happened.
The main plot of the film is when John H. Miller (Tom Hanks)’s ragtag team of seven embark throughout enemy territory to save the one life of soldier James Ryan (Matt Damon) despite them risking all their lives too, only because of a propaganda idea from Chief Marshall (Harve Presnell). He thinks, as he’s safe in his office back home considering statistics, that a rescue of the last surviving fourth son of a grieving mother will look great in the newspapers, bringing hope and inspiration. This brings an example of why certain actions in real life are orchestrated.
My main interpretation of Saving Private Ryan is that it completely denounces violence. By showcasing all these character deaths, slow and fast, and looking at the faces of horror and guilt of the survivors, it reminds viewers of how fragile human bodies really are, how easy it is to die and feel massive pain, and how in a war, it’s possible every victim of a “collateral damage air strike”, every man, woman and child, was in this pain at one point or another.
Roger Stahl says militainment is destructive to democracy, abandoning important and humanitarian issues for those shielded from war casualties. Many examples that comply with this idea are around. In most violent video-games, the protagonists don’t show much fear when in danger, sometimes calm enough to crack one-liners as they are being surrounded. This movie, however, is as close as entertainment can get to putting viewers right in the eyes of those on the enemy line, and that’s why I feel Saving Private Ryan is a war hero of a feature. It asks every viewer if and why they think violence can be shrugged off.