Saving Private Ryan is a weird, contradiction-riddled film.
It throws gritty, gut-wrenching realism in its battle sequences together with preposterous Hollywood whimsy in its dialogue and in the psychology of its characters. It shows us how awful war is, but then expects us to believe that Private James Francis Ryan of Iowa would rather continue fighting in one than go home to his bereaved mother.
And, more generally, the whole thing makes no sense. I’m not a military man, but I’ve seen Band of Brothers so I’m pretty much up to speed on most matters of military strategy, and I find it extremely unlikely that somebody as important as a company commander (i.e. the equivalent of Winters in BoB) would be risked on a weird commando mission. Nor do I accept that the army would actually have misplaced Private Ryan so completely. There are radios.
Even Tom Hanks is all wrong in the film. The way the rest of the characters talk about him makes it clear that he’s supposed to be some gruff, forbidding, awesome figure. He’s a super soldier, assembled from GI parts. His background is such a closely guarded secret that his men place bets behind his back on what his civilian job might be.
But also he’s Tom Hanks. Lovely, avuncular, wisecracking Tom Hanks. Not the grim Tom Hanks of Road to Perdition, but the nice Tom Hanks of everything else. His soldiers could just ask him what he used to do for a living – at no point in the film does he come across in a way that suggests he would take offence or withhold the answer.
That’s the weird double-ness of Saving Private Ryan. It’s uncompromisingly gritty and truthful in some respects, but utterly unconvincing and flimsy in others. The overall effect is like watching an episode of Sesame Street filmed in the bad bit of Aleppo.
But the most interesting thing about Saving Private Ryan is that it may be the only film set during the Second World War in which the Germans are incontrovertibly the good guys and the Americans (no other allied nationality is depicted) are the baddies.
This may seem like a surprising assertion, but it is completely correct. Just look at the evidence.
There are a number of moments in Saving Private Ryan when you might find yourself getting cross with the Germans. Here are a few of the most obvious ones.
1 – When they subject the Allies to an unrelenting barrage of machine gun, sniper, and mortar fire on Omaha beach.
2 – When a German soldier who was spared execution by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) then goes on to possibly kill Captain Miller during the final battle.
3 – When a German machine gunner kills Private Wade (Giovanni Ribisi).
4 – When a German SS soldier beats Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) in a fight and stabs him in the heart with his own knife.
5 – When a German sniper shoots Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) while he’s holding a little girl and trying to help a family.
6 – When a German machine gunner keeps shooting the runner in the French village even though he’s obviously dead.
And here is why you are wrong to get annoyed with the Germans in each of those cases.
1 – That was their job.
2 – That was his job.
3 – That was his job.
4 – Not only was that his job, but he tried to console Mellish by whispering, “Gib’ auf, du hast keine Chance! Lass’ es uns beenden! Es ist einfacher für dich, viel einfacher. Du wirst sehen, es ist gleich vorbei,” which roughly means, “Give up, let it happen, it will be simpler, you’ll see, it’s nearly over.”
5 – That was his job, and it’s significant that the girl and her family were unharmed.
6 – As Miller himself points out, the shooter must ensure that the messenger is unable to deliver his message. That is his job.
Of course, you can make a sort of overarching argument that ALL of the things done by German soldiers in Saving Private Ryan are evil, since the Germans were fighting for Hitler, but I think this is an unfair generalisation. While many German soldiers, and particularly SS soldiers, must have shared Hitler’s suspicions of the Jews, it would be unreasonable to simply assume that every soldier felt this way. In fact, the only reference to anti-semitism in the entire film is made by an American, Private Mellish (see below.)
I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt – even German soldiers in the Second World War – but if you like you can chalk ‘being a German soldier’ up as a tally on the ‘evil’ side of the ledger. Even so, that’s 6-1 in favour of ‘not evil’.
Now let’s look at the Allies/Americans. If you watched Saving Private Ryan from the starting assumption that the Germans are the baddies and the Allies are the goodies in the Second World War then it’s possible that you didn’t really register the many war crimes and unspeakable acts committed by the Americans in the film, because you were too busy cheering them on. Here are a few you might have missed:
1 – During the battle at Omaha beach, American soldiers storm the German bunkers at the top of the cliff and clear them with flamethrowers. As the flaming German soldiers hurl themselves over the side and down the cliff, one American soldier says to another, “don’t shoot. Let them burn.”
2 – Shortly afterwards, two American soldiers shoot two Axis soldiers as they desperately try to surrender with their hands up. While rifling through the pockets of the dead soldiers, one American soldier asks the other what the enemy soldiers were saying, and his friend makes a callous joke. In fact, the unfortunate soldiers were trying to tell the Americans that they were Czech conscripts.
3 – In the Normandy village, Sergeant Hill (Paul Giamatti) knocks over a beam, which in turn knocks over a brick wall, revealing a small party of German soldiers who had been hiding. A standoff ensues, during which both sides frantically attempt to negotiate a peaceful outcome. Then Captain Hamill (Ted Danson) appears and simply shoots all of the Germans.
4 – After an assault on a German machine gun post during which Wade is killed, several American soldiers attempt to execute the last surviving German soldier extrajudicially, and are only deterred from this course of action by Miller’s revelation that he usually works as a teacher and doesn’t particularly enjoy being at war.
5 – Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) shoots the German soldier whose execution he previously helped to avert after taking him prisoner on the bridge at the end of the film. And then he lets the other prisoners go. WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON UPHAM?
6 – Upham fails to intervene during the fight between Mellish and his killer. The German soldier who wins the fight passes the cowering Upham on the stairs, peers shiftily around the corner, and runs off in the direction of the fighting. In the moment it’s natural to attribute the German’s apparent shiftiness to the fact that he has just murdered somebody, but a sober examination of the facts shows that he was simply doing his duty by killing Mellish. He only looks shifty because he should have killed Upham too, and would face a court martial if his clemency were to be discovered.
7 – Mellish taunts German prisoners of war by brandishing his Star of David and saying, “Jude, Jude.” Now, this is a difficult point. There’s no question whatsoever that the Nazi programme was unspeakably awful, but is it fair to just assume that all of the German prisoners were anti-semites? Many of them were probably unwilling conscripts, perhaps with Jewish friends. It’s even possible that the German soldiers themselves had one Jewish parent or grandparent, and it’s equally plausible to suppose that – like the unfortunate capitulaters on Omaha beach – they weren’t even German.
But these are all details. Just as there’s an overarching argument against the Germans because they are putatively fighting for Hitler and his unbelievably evil military aims, there’s a case to be made that the entire mission in Saving Private Ryan is immoral. After all, it’s a story about six people – Miller, Wade, Caparzo, Mellish, Horvath, and Jackson – dying to rescue one person – Private Ryan.
This travesty doesn’t escape the film-makers, who have the central group of characters complain frequently and at length about their predicament. And, for good measure, the moral mathematics of the situation are explored elsewhere, such as when Miller meets a pilot whose plane crashed, killing several, because it was weighed down with a sheet of metal installed to protect a single high ranking officer.
Basically, as depicted in Saving Private Ryan, the American military high command are arseholes.
Whatever way you look at it, the German soldiers are the heroes of Saving Private Ryan. They behave themselves impeccably throughout, only kill when the situation calls for it, rarely fire the first shot, and even show mercy when an enemy soldier is exhibiting signs of emotional distress.
The Americans, conversely, behave like psychopaths. They beat and shoot prisoners of war, cruelly decline to put men who are burning alive out of their misery, make crude generalisations about the racial beliefs of captured German soldiers, and sacrifice several lives for the sake of one for no other reason than crass sentimentality.
The irony is, the Germans actually were the bad guys of the Second World War. Not only was their overall goal deeply iniquitous, but their conduct in Normandy was far more likely to be cruel and barbaric than that of the Allies, who tended on the whole to behave themselves. Saving Private Ryan isn’t even a balanced account, like Band of Brothers was, depicting good and bad behaviour on both sides.
It’s basically a film about Americans being stupid, cowardly, and cruel to a German army that deserves much better. I’m not sure this is intentional.